Normandy is spectacular. Rolling fields, fairy-tale villages, and all the Camembert cheese you can eat (not to mention Champagne for 8-euros a bottle). Adam and I spent a week roadtripping the Norman countryside, soaking it all in, and eating our faces off. It was a dream…most of the time.
Here’s how not to destroy a rental car in France.
How to road trip Normandy
We flew into Beauvais–Tillé airport, an hour north of Paris, after 2 pasta-filled weeks in Italy.
Beauvais is a small — and I mean tiny — airport. There are only a few gates, with a dark, dingy arrivals area. Outside buses leave for Paris exactly 20 minutes after your flight lands, if you miss it, tough shit.
It’s also inconvenient for renting a car. Unlike most airport rental services open 24-hours-a-day, Beauvais follows a strict 9-5 schedule, even closing an hour for lunch. Car rentals are available outside the main terminal in small temporary buildings.
Our flight arrived a few hours late and we were nervous the agency would be closed, leaving us stranded hours away from our rental apartment. Luckily, it was open; we got our little Renault and started our roadie.
*For future reference, I don’t recommend renting a car at Beauvais. It was a pain in the ass, and it’s farther than you think from Paris. We cheaped out and flew Ryanair, so spend the extra 10 euros and fly into de Gaulle or Orly, you’ll thank me later. Unless you’re flying with Air Moldova, the hassle isn’t worth the savings.*
The two-hour drive to our home base in Auberville was like driving through paradise. After the arid temperatures and golden fields of Emilia Romagna, the lush rolling hills of Normandy were a welcome sight. It was after 7pm when we left Beauvais and I was certain we would be driving in the dark for a portion of the trip. Instead, the sky remained golden and vibrant the whole journey, the slowly setting sun reflecting reddish light onto the blurry pained windows of old farmhouses along the way.
That night, we drank Champagne, ate cheese and strawberries, and sat on the balcony of our little flat in awe of the setting sun. It finally dipped below the horizon well after 11pm.
A few days later, Adam and I hit the road for another day of exploring.
Our destination: Mont-Saint-Michel, the dramatic island commune sitting on a giant sandbar on the border of Normandy and Brittany.
We stopped for gas after a pleasant visit to the medieval town of Bayeux. Adam was coming down off his high after seeing the Bayeux tapestry, an 230ft long tapestry portraying the Norman conquests.
Having the best day ever, I was snapping pics left, right, and centre, even while Adam filled the tank with gas, or gazole as it stated on the pump.
“Gabby,” Adam said suddenly, “The cap says diesel.”
“So?” I said carelessly, staring at him in the rearview mirror.
“I’ve been pumping gasoline,” he said flatly.
“What do we do, what do we do?” I said frantically.
“Don’t start the car,” he said quickly returning the nozzle to the pump.
“Is that bad??” I screamed from the front seat.
“IT’S BAD,”Adam said in a matter-of-fact voice that panicked me.
It was 5pm on a Sunday and we were in the middle of nowhere at a crappy gas station.
Adam ran inside to speak to the cashier, hoping a mechanic was on shift, while I manically leafed through the owner’s manual praying we wouldn’t have to buy our very first car while on vacation.
They came out together, Adam with a look of panic I haven’t seen. She looked at the gas tank, then the pump, then back at us. She pointed to the sign ‘gazole’ and then to the tank and said:
“Same,” and walked away.
From outside I could see her talking animatedly to a customer, gesturing, and throwing her head back as she laughed. Being pretty fluent in French I was mortified by the whole interaction, gas is essence in French, Gabby. DUH.
So folks, when you’re at the pumps in France: GAZOLE DOES NOT MEAN GAS. GAZOLE MEANS DIESEL. MOST CARS IN FRANCE ARE DIESEL. DO NOT PANIC.
We finally made it to Mont-Saint-Michel. It was glorious.
On the drive back, Adam and I could finally laugh about the mishap, but his eyes flashed to the dashboard more than once.
After a week exploring the countryside by car, we drove back to Beauvais to return the rental. It was cloudy and grey, with fog still hugging the winding roads, and I started to get sad about leaving our dear Renault and the GPS with a bright Australian accent whom we affectionately named Freddy.
There is no better way to explore Normandy than in a car with good GPS. Freddy took us on some great backroads with views I still dream about.
Getting to the airport, we had one hell of a time figuring out where to drop off the car. In the end, we dumped Renault and Freddy with an attendant in a jumper who we hoped actually worked for the company.
We never heard from the car company about a stolen vehicle, so we assumed we were were safe after our misadventures in France. A few weeks after later, a ticket arrived for $20 euro…we have no idea where we got it.