More European Driving Adventures

By now anyone who’s read my ‘Finding Italy’ post must be wondering why I’ve  continued to try to drive in Europe.  My ‘adventures’ remind  me of National Lampoon’s European Vacation.

In 2015 my sister asked if we could go to Provence and see some of the towns I visited on my first bike trip.  As I wrote in my Provence, Provence, wherefore art thou Provence? post, our trip quickly morphed into 4 days in Provence, 4 days on the Cote d’Azur, 4 days in Lucca and 5 days in Firenze.

Not being one to give up easily on driving, I suggested we train it to Avignon, rent a car there, then drop it off in Nice after visiting the Cote d’Azur.  For reasons I can’t fathom now I, then, suggested we train it from Nice to Genoa, rent a car there, then drop it off in Firenze.  It would have been far easier and cheaper to train to Lucca, rent and return the car there, then train it to Firenze.

We flew into Paris and took the TGV directly from the airport to Avignon–or that was the plan. The first 30 hours of traveling were OK if wearing but things started going downhill as the train got to Lyon.  After we had been stopped for nearly 30 minutes I went to the lower level of our car.  Initially all I could find out was that there was trouble on the tracks.  Luckily a nice lady found the conductor who got, Sue, me and two guys from Dallas on another train.

After getting into Avignon an hour late, we found Hertz and then the fun began.  We found our way across the river to Villeneuve and came within a block of the hotel but then, I got us hopelessly lost going the wrong direction. [The hotel had sent me a ‘map’ via e-mail but if you missed the unmarked turn to the hotel, it was all over.]  We finally stopped at a restaurant but when I got out of the car to ask a guy for directions, I forgot to set the brake and the car rolled into a wall creasing the bumper.

The guy very kindly called the hotel and got directions but by the time we found it, I was so tired, stressed and frustrated, I blew up at the concierge because, contrary to the information online, there was no parking, our room was up 4 flights of stone stairs and was tiny with no real bathroom.

Despite our room being less than charming the hotel itself was lovely and in a great location.

Hotel Atelier

[I’ve learned the hard way that hotels do not always look the way they appear online.]

Villeneuve les Avignons

 The plan for the first full day was to drive through L’Isle sur la Sorgue to the Senanque Abbaye, then Gordes and the area near Bonnieux where I wanted to visit a vineyard.  I immediately got us lost, heading north out of Villeneuve instead of south.  A pharmacist in a little town got us headed back into Avignon, then it was another half hour of insane traffic trying to find the road to Gordes. [I remember riding on quiet country roads with little or no traffic but those apparently don’t exist anymore.  Driving is enough to give the unwary heart palpitations much less being on one of these roads biking.] We didn’t have time to go to the vineyard but after visiting the Senanque Abbey and Gordes, we did stop in Roussillon which I thought was absolutely gorgeous.

View of the Luberon

The next two days we drove to L’Isle sur la Sorgue for the Sunday market, then to the Abbaye Saint Michel de Frigolet, the Pont du Gard, and Les Baux with several points in between.

Abbaye Saint Michel de Frigolet

I didn’t have any misadventures those days but made up for it trying to get out of Avignon and drive to St. Raphael on the coast.

After the rather strange directions the hotel had given us for our day trips, I should have known better, but I asked the concierge for the best way to pick up the A7 then misread his map and went north for a half hour then had to circle back to Avignon where I ended up going the long way through Avignon south to the autoroute, almost getting hit in a traffic circle by a crazed, angry French woman.

Once on the A7, we had no problems getting to Aix and then to the A8 and the Frejus exit.  We found some parking near the centro, stopped in the tourist office, then wandered to a little square where they were willing to let us share an antipasto plate plus have a glass of wine, even though they were getting ready to close.

Getting out of the parking turned out to be a challenge ‘cause there were 10 bazillion parents in the lot picking up kids from a school across the street plus I didn’t realize we had to pay first and had to back out from the exit, pay and then try again.

As usual I thought I knew how to get to our hotel (Hotel du Soleil) which was located in a residential area about a mile from the harbor and headed back toward St. Raphael following the directions I’d printed out but then got in to a warren of streets that I couldn’t figure out.  Luckily we ended up in the marina and the B&B owners had sent me directions from there so we found our way to du Soleil fairly easily.

Hotel du Soleil

Out of the next three days I only had to drive once, until we left for Nice.  On our second full day, we decided to go to Grasse to see the Fragonard museum.  We drove along the corniche/coastal highway to Cannes.  It was spectacularly beautiful but crazy busy with cars and bikes.

It was fairly tricky getting into Grasse and finding parking (where once again I almost banged up the bumper) but we enjoyed the Fragonard museums and walking around the town.

Fountain near the Fragonard museum
Grasse centro

Instead of coming back along the corniche or through the esterel [as recommended by our B&B owner], I got a wild hair to drive west through a mountainous area then south into the main wine making area near the coast.  We stopped in a pretty little village of Les Arcs and after dealing with a rude woman in the tourist office found an enoteca the hotel manager recommended and had a great tasting with meats, cheeses, etc.

Les Arcs sur Argens

While I wish we’d had a chance to see the corniche again, the coast between Les Arcs and Frejus was lovely and we had several nice photo ops. (Read more in The Riviera for the Uncool)

Along the coast

I got us turned around a bit in Frejus but we finally made it back to the marina and the B&B.

The B&B owners told us it would be difficult getting into Nice and finding the train station where we were to drop off our car and they were right.  When we first got into Nice, we got gas and asked for directions.  Apparently there was a language break down because the train station was nowhere near where the gas station attendant sent us.  I’m still not sure how we found it but then we went around and around the station, looking for the Hertz office.  I finally drove into a garage for Budget rentals and the attendant told us the Hertz  office was in the station but the drop off was at the top of the parking garage next to the station.  There were no signs but we finally found the drop off point and left the car.  Then went back to the station and paid.  I think 8 days cost us between $150 and $200.

That night we stayed at a hotel near the Genoa train station.  I had reserved a car from the Hertz rental office near the hotel, finding in the morning that this office was not open on Sunday.  Then followed a long panicked call to Hertz European customer service office.  The agent found a car for us at the airport, supposedly at the same rate.  By then it was pouring rain, so we had to cab it to the airport, drag our stuff inside, do the paperwork and then go back out to the car.

The drive through the mountain tunnels from Genoa to Lucca in the deluge, was one of the more frightening drives I’ve ever done.  It must have taken us around 4 hours to get to Lucca by which time I was exhausted.

We were staying at what has become one of our favorite hotels, Villa Cheli and the hotel had given me directions which involved exiting the autostrada and going south on the SS12 towards Pisa.  Somehow I exited and then got us right back on to the autostrada.  The second time I exited we did get on the right road and were thrilled to see Villa Cheli

Villa Cheli
Villa Cheli

which we decided is a little slice of heaven, returning in 2016 and 2019.

On our first full day, I drove us in to Lucca and immediately  got us lost trying to find parking. I somehow got us caught up in the traffic for some type of market and it’s a miracle we got back to the centro storico and found a lot near one of the gates. (Eventually I learned  that the easiest place to park is across from Porta San Donato which is on the west edge of the walls. )   We were able to spend 2 ½ hours walking the city–San Frediano, Piazza Anfiteatro and, my favorite, the botanical gardens.

Lucca botanical gardens

I, then, tried to drive us to Bagni di Lucca so we could see the Devil’s Bridge but once again, got us lost so we gave up and went back to the hotel and drank wine on the patio, our favorite past time.

The next day I was determined to get to Bagni di Lucca, then on to Montecarlo and a visit to a winery.  This time I got us there and it was worth all the hassles as you can see in the gallery below.  Even if you’re staying in a hotel in Lucca, I recommend renting a car for this drive alone.  It is absolutely beautiful plus we found a lovely winery, Buonamico, just west of Montecarlo.

I also drove us to Pisa and as usual had a terrible time finding parking.  We were following the hotel’s directions into Pisa and then to a parking area when my sister suddenly called out, ‘there’s parking.’  I headed in the direction she pointed but the one way streets took us further and further away and we ended up fairly far east of the centro.  So I eventually parked in a grocery store lot, and we walked to the bridge near the San Antonio district  just south of the Arno and spotted a parking garage there.  Then we went back to the car, drove it to the parking garage and walked through the San Antonio district, across the Arno and up via Santa Maria to Piazza dei Miracoli.   Despite the parking struggle and crazy tourists, it was worth the effort.


Unfortunately the trip ended on a bad note.  As I said above, I should have known to return the car in Lucca, then train it to Firenze but instead we drove to Firenze and turned the car in to the Hertz office at the airport where a less than $200 rental morphed into more than $700!!!  I filed a protest with my credit card, Capital One, and they refused to reduce the charges.  So I canceled that credit card and will never use Hertz again.

Unless you think I have a completely flat learning curve, I did learn not to do that again.  When we returned to this area in 2016, we took the train from Rome to Pisa, rented the car at the Pisa airport, then returned it there after doing all our favorite drives through the Garfagnana. We, then, took the bus back to Firenze which cost less than $10.

Also in 2016 we spent the first week of our trip with my niece who wanted to visit the wine country in Chianti.  We started in Firenze so rented a car from Budget near the centro.  Other than a couple of arguments with my niece about how to get on the SS222, it was fairly uneventful driving and definitely worth it.  We were able to visit Colle d’Val d’Elsa, Tenuta Torciano and Tenuta Casanova, all of them absolutely gorgeous. (See more in The Towns of Chianti and Vineyards, wineries and enotecas)

Our only  difficult moment on that trip was our return to Firenze when we came in east of the centro rather than on via Senese and couldn’t find a gas station.  We were almost running out of time before we would have to pay for another day so we just went directly to the Budget rental office and paid the gas penalty.  Then, of course, the skies opened up and the deluge began.  There were no taxis so we had to schlep our bags all the way to the hotel which was near the Accademia.  Talk about drowned rats.

In 2018 we rented a car for three days, starting in Montecatini Terme, then driving to Hotel Belvedere di San Leonino and returning the car in Perugia.  I was super stressed about the drive from Montecatini Terme to Belvedere but we followed the directions of the clerk in the Europcar office who showed us how to go from town to town until we got to Poggibonsi, just north of our destination.  It took a little longer than expected but we had no major mishaps.

I was also nervous about driving to Perugia, never having been there before but getting there was a piece of cake.  As I wrote in my Perugia, Lake Trasimeno, Assisi and Cortona post: Everything I worried about came true.  We didn’t have any serious problems getting into Perugia.  I got off at the first exit and followed the signs to (one of) the train stations.  Just before the station Sue spotted a gas station.  I went in and the super nice clerk checked on his phone and said it was straight ahead a few km.  So we got gas and coffee then headed out.

Sue spotted it on the left but I was on the right and couldn’t get over.  I thought I could go around the block but every loop took us further away.  We went around and around, getting more and more freaked, stopping 2-3 times trying to get directions.

Somehow I got us on the street into a hospital.  I asked a little guy dropping off trash and he gave decent directions.  We finally spotted the office and I basically abandoned the car which pissed off the clerk but we didn’t get charged more (or so she said).  There was an auditor from Rome in the office who said she had to abandon her car when she got into Perugia so I didn’t feel quite so bad.

I’ve visited many Italian cities with hilltop centros, but as you can see in the picture to the left, Perugia’s centro is particularly steep and then the rest of the city spreads out through the valley below making it exceptionally difficult to navigate.

Sooo, lessons learned?  Again, never rent from Hertz, never rent at the Firenze airport, if at all possible train to your pick up city and drop off your car at the same office.  As for me I’ll always be stressed, always get us lost trying to find parking near the centro of any city but it will always be worth it.  While the train system is excellent, you need a car to see the beautiful countryside, to visit vineyards (see Vineyards, wineries and enotecas) to stay at hotels like Villa Cheli and Belvedere di San Leonino  (see Where to stay) and see all the lovely towns and out of the way places that Italy and southern France have to offer.



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