Part joy ride, part soul quest, the road trip is part of the American character. Even before the price of gas went through the roof, many Europeans didn't care for driving vacations. ¶ I don't know why. They have a grand continent to explore. The advent of the European Union, with its open borders and single currency, has made driving around Europe easier. ¶ Americans began exploring Europe by automobile after World War II. In 1948, chef Julia Child and her husband, Paul, shipped their Buick station wagon across the Atlantic and ate their way through France.

I thought of them last month when I embarked on a two-week driving tour from Rome to Brussels on superhighways and then back to Italy on winding French country roads -- 2,696 miles in all, about the distance between Los Angeles and New York.

The price of oil being what it is, it wasn't the thriftiest way to see Europe. But I had my reasons -- stored belongings to pick up in Brussels, friends to see in France and a 20-year-old niece to drive to an archaeological dig in Italy.

But more than that, I love the adventure of the open road, the freedom of car touring. Some of my fondest memories involve driving trips my family took when I was a girl.

Sentiment can be expensive, so despite $130-a-barrel crude, I rented a snazzy black Alfa Romeo station wagon at Termini train station in Rome. The price for two weeks, with unlimited mileage and insurance, was $1,240.

I set out on a wing and a prayer, as my father would have said. He was, with Jack Kerouac, one of the great American road-trippers, a man who loaded the car the night before hitting the highway and then was too excited to sleep. My family left home on summer vacations at 2 a.m., Mom bleary-eyed, kids bundled in the back.

I quickly discovered how hard it was to follow road signs in Rome. It's better, I think, to go with the flow, like a leaf in a stream, carried by the current to the river. Following this latter method, I got onto the A1 Autostrada that leads from the Italian capital to Florence, passing through wine regions such as Orvieto, where I wished I could stop, and keeping the Apennine mountains over my right shoulder.

Before leaving, I consulted the Italian Touring Club, which is like AAA, and downloaded a detailed travel plan from www.viamichelin.com. It told me how much money I would need at each toll booth and where to slow down for a speed camera. I thought I was fairly well prepared.

But Italy is more mountainous than I realized, and Milan isn't quite where I thought it was.

DRIVING LESSONS

Besides enhancing one's grasp of geography, driving tours teach other lessons. For instance, as Lazio yielded to Tuscany and Emilia Romagna, I could see the differences between scruffy southern Italy and the more prosperous north, with its big, beautiful farms, warehouses, factories and American-style shopping malls.

The highways were every bit as modern and efficient as those in the U.S. There were emergency call boxes and rest stops selling Esso, Agip, Api, Q8 and Total gas for about $8.50 a gallon.

Hot, multi-course meals, with wine, were on order at Autogrill, On the Run and My Chef, their names suggesting that English has become the common language of the European road.

The route got complicated as I rounded Milan, leading me to realize that it's better to look for destination signs than to try to follow incessantly changing route numbers. It rained off and on. Highway entrance ramps were hair-raisingly short, and I was occasionally tailgated by a Mario Andretti.

On the whole, though, I found European drivers disciplined, always tucking back to the right after passing and rarely hogging the fast lanes.

The key to driving in Europe, I decided, is not to get frazzled, even though I did at a toll both north of Milan, where I went into the wrong lane and tried to back out, never my forte. I hit the guard rail and put a dent above the back left tire but took a little comfort from the fact that my rental included a collision damage waiver.

In the Middle Ages, crossing the Alps was like sending a satellite to Mars. Nowadays, passing between Italy and Switzerland is about as challenging as going from Missouri to Illinois. At a defunct guard gate north of Lake Como, I had to buy a $45 pass, good for a year of driving in Switzerland, which is a European anomaly. It didn't join the EU, uses the Swiss franc instead of the euro and is trilingual, as I noted when the signs changed from Italian to German on the far side of a tunnel and later from German to French.

I never even saw the Alps because, by then, it was pouring and the A2 Autostrada mostly goes under, not over, them. Still a good hour and a half short of Mulhouse in eastern France, my intended first night's destination, I started looking for a place to stop, preferably a château hotel that looked like something out of "The Sound of Music." I went on and on but saw nothing, no motels, not even a McDonald's.

Switzerland, apparently, is a road-culture wasteland.