Over the Mountains and Through Moutarde, to Avignon We Go

Behold, the moutarde (well, mustard) of northern France

I’ve recently returned from just about the longest trip I’ve ever taken, encompassing five weeks and three countries  in Europe! An unhealthy dose of lingering illness aside, I’m finally ready to start telling the tale(s).

Let’s start with an epic, not-at-all-advised, mildly exhausting and yet ultimately wonderful 14-hour drive from Paris to Avignon, shall we?

My friend Christine and I were flush with excitement — flush, I tell you — to drive southwardly from an April-chilly Paris, tackle the mountainous Massif Central, and wend our ancient Roman way to the Provençal city of Avignon.

And so we did.

But while the TGV train from Paris to Avignon takes a mere 2.5 hours, we managed to make our journey…longer.



Because when you see a sign for "Fountainebleau," you stop to visit the chateau

I’d pre-booked a rental car online, and both taking a cab from our flat near Champs-Elysses and picking the car up from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) at about 10am on a Monday morning proved absolutely no problem.

Neither did France’s roadways themselves, as they’re so smooth and well-maintained that you could all but roller skate ’em down and across the country. 

Somewhere in the middle of the Massif Central, as dusk descends

While still at CDG, Christine purchased a roadmap of the entire country at a bookstore. She’s a non-driver but an excellent navigator (let’s call her “Galileo”), and consistently kept us from getting lost throughout our journey.

It’s also worth noting that France is riddled with driving circles, meaning that if you do make a wrong turn, you can always fix it. Our motto for driving in France: “When in doubt, roundabout.”

(By the way, if you need some tips on driving in France, check out this site.)

Where we went both wrong and right is by taking secondary roads the entire way. Nary a major highway did we travel, not a country backroad did we seem to miss.

Things like this just happen in France -- seriously

Oh, and we got out of the car approximately every 10 minutes to photograph something spectacular. Like whole fields of mustard. Or sprawling chateaux. Or ancient stone-stacked towns that rise out of pretty much nowhere. Or, well, the endlessly unfolding dragon spines of the Pyrenees and Cévennes mountains.

Our common refrain, in reaction to the overwhelming beauty of France: “What is happening?!?”

The nigh-on-perfect medieval city of Moret Sur Loing

I did all the driving, as well as the frequent roadside stopping. Christine plied me with life-giving Provençal nougat. Her boyfriend called to inquire after us and mused that, just possibly, we had lost our minds. We cry-laughed over France’s shockingly awful pop music. And most importantly, we caught each other up on the last 40-odd years of our lives.

What we didn’t do? Anticipate that the mountains would be so huge. Or that there would be a freakishly heavy thunderstorm. Or that well past dark, I’d still be wending my way through ghost towns and around countless hairpin turns, trying to keep poor depth-perception-challenged Christine distracted from freaking out as we passed pitch-black gorges and perilous valleys. Or that the thing that would (albeit temporarily) break my spirit of joie de vivre would be trying to park our VW Golf in a mountain-village space better suited to a bicycle so that I could run pell-mell through the cold rain into an all-but-deserted bar to pee…again.

Just another castle town rising majestically from the Massif Central

Here’s the thing: we made it to safely to Avignon, at 1 am. We even found our lodgings, the elegant Hotel d’Europe, just by taking a random turn into the walled-in center of the city. And once we felt like the world had stopped moving, we slept a very long time in gajillion-threadcount sheets.

Upon reflection,  a 360-some-odd-mile journey like this one is probably best undertaken over a period of 2-3 days. You could stop in Vichy, a reportedly-idyllic town tucked into the Massif Central, just about halfway between Paris and Avignon.

Or, like us, you could have a day/night that will go down in infamy, and that you’ll still be discussing in side-by-side rocking chairs on the proverbial porch of your old age.

Foothills of the Cevennes Mountains at golden hour

Christine has already provided a timeline breakdown of this hapless adventure undertaken by two professional travel writers, while I’m simply here to show you the pictures and to stand by my longtime assertion:

Travel is better with two.



  1. LOVE.

  2. Yes, France is the beautiful country. More beautiful is only Italy.

  3. Wow, this sounds like an amazing adventure. I took the TGV from Paris to Avignon 7 years ago and I thought that was breathtakingly beautiful. I cannot imagine the sights you must have seen. If I could have stopped the train every 10 minutes to take pictures I sure would have!

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