Travel

Driving through Europe puts you on the road to freedom

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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.

Then I started seeing things. Was I hallucinating the sign for a Holiday Inn Express? No. It was real. Since 1996, Holiday Inn Express has colonized previously barren highway exits in Europe, together with chains such as Ibis, Etap, Formule1 and Campanile. Some rue the advent of American-style road motels to Europe, but I was overjoyed to see one.

I got a comfortable room on the second floor of the Holiday Inn, a few steps away from a Marché grocery store and buffet restaurant, both of which accepted euros. The restaurant had the fresh, shiny look of a Whole Foods market, pasta and Asian stir-fry stations, a big salad bar and a Mövenpick ice cream case.

I slept sweetly in a snow-white Swiss duvet, had a free buffet breakfast in the lobby the next morning and took a walk along a rutted road behind the motel. It led away from the superhighway into a Swiss country idyll, with buttercups, lowing cattle, farmers in boots and the Alps on the horizon.

European melting pot

That morning, I headed north toward Luxembourg through a corner of France, with the pretty Vosges mountains swelling on my left, and later west toward Brussels. On the way, I crossed the Rhine River, traversing the rich region of Alsace, famous for Riesling wine and a French version of sausage and sauerkraut known as choucroute. Long contested by France and Germany, Alsace is now one of the six sides of the vaunted French hexagon.

Long before globalization, European national distinctions started melting together like crayons on a hot car seat. Luxembourg seems a French-German mélange, and things get really complicated in Belgium, a union of French-speaking Walloons from the south and Flemish-speaking people from northern Flanders. The language used for road signs depends on whether you're driving through a Walloon or Flemish region.

Fortunately, my sister, Martha, guided me into Brussels, the Belgian capital, in English on my cellphone.

There followed a happy family reunion, much carrying of boxes and many excellent meals in Brussels, which, for my money, has the best seafood in Europe. Martha, my niece Sarah and I went walking in a forest on the south side of the city, and we saw the movie "Bienvenue Chez les Ch'tis" (English title: "Welcome to the Sticks"), a new comedy about regional snobbery in France. Bel- gians, who have long suffered the turned-up noses of the French, love the movie.

Then it was on to Paris with Martha and Sarah and so many boxes the person stuck in the back seat had to make do with half a seat. I could see behind only by using the side-view mirrors.

The A1 Autoroute leads directly to Paris and features electric signs assuring drivers that their security is the priority of the French highway department. When we saw our first one, Martha and I cried in unison, "Vive la France," and Sarah put jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli on the CD player.

Entering the French capital from the north, we got a good view of Sacré-Coeur, made it around the perilous Étoile traffic circle and arrived in time for lunch at our friend Suzelle's apartment near the Place Victor Hugo.

We spent less than 24 hours in the city but squeezed in appointments at Blonde, my favorite 7th arrondissement hair salon, and dinner at chef Guy Savoy's La Butte Chaillot.

Our Sunday morning departure from Paris marked a new phase of the trip, taking little French country roads instead of big highways, which is delightful but time consuming. I got hopelessly lost on infrequently signed lanes among villages east of Angers south of Paris.

We were late reaching my friend Gigi's house in the Loire Valley. But she was hospitality itself, gave us dinner, dreamy beds and directions to the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud,Eleanor of Aquitaine's final resting place, which we explored the next day.

After seeing Eleanor's tomb, we headed deep into the French countryside south of Poitiers and Angoulême on the way to another house of another great woman, Polly Platt, an American who has lived in France for more than 30 years and has written three books on French-American relations.

When we finally arrived, she gave me the right-and-left cheek kisses, known to the French as bisoux, and a glass of red wine.

After dinner, I asked Polly if I was mistaken that the French don't take driving vacations.

"Oh, no, they would never do that," she said, as if I'd suggested walking naked down the Champs Élysées.

Monte Carlo roars

Martha needed to get back to Brussels so the next morning we drove to the airport in Toulouse, where she caught a flight home.

Sarah and I continued on toward the Côte d'Azur, but our ultimate destination was Monte Carlo during the Grand Prix. I let her drive sometimes, though I hectored her constantly.

We found a place to stay near Montpelier using the European method: We stopped by a tourist office in the beach town of Frontignan la Peyrade, where the attendant made reservations for us at a nearby bed and breakfast.

The next morning, we took the Alfa Romeo to a car wash to make a good impression in Monte Carlo. When we got to the fabled principality, perched on the Riviera, we found traffic jams, closed streets and inflated prices. A double at the Hôtel Port Palace, where I had reserved a room, cost nearly $400 a night, but it was on the race circuit, which follows the port, rounds the treacherous Rascasse turn near the Prince's Palace and then doubles back past the casino.

Soon after we arrived, Sarah and I dressed up and went to the Hôtel de Paris for a drink. But they wouldn't let us in because we were wearing sandals.

Nearby, the swank Hôtel Metropole made us feel more welcome. I will long remember my niece nonchalantly sipping a $35 mojito.

Oh, well, I thought, you only go around once in life.

Not so. The next morning, F1 practice runs started at 8:30, with cars coming around again and again. We could see them from our window. It was fun at first, but then it became like a concert of jackhammers and hornets.

After that, there was a punctured tire just across the French-Italian border in Ventimiglia, pelting rain in Genoa, a day of rest in the Ligurian coast town of Moneglia and a somewhat inelegant reentry into eternal Rome, city of the soul.

We dragged the boxes up the stairs to my apartment and rushed back to return the car. I was sad to see it go but happy to have driven it up and down Europe.

They have highways here. Someone's got to do it.

susan.spano@latimes.com

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