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Road Trip: Working a Stick Shift Through the South of France and Spain

September 17, 2015
thelma and louise
thelma and louise

A summer drive along the seaside (Photo: Corbis Images)

The plan: Some “Thelma and Louise” time in Europe — with my mom and dad (minus the Grand Canyon finale). Now you may ask, what prompts someone to take a road trip overseas with her parents? Well, as my father has so aptly said to me throughout my life, “Everyone’s gotta be somewhere” … so the simple answer is “Why not!” Besides, as anyone close to me will tell you, my parents are a ton of fun.

The route: West from St. Tropez on France’s Côte d’Azur to Biarritz and a quick border hop to northern Spain’s premier beach town, San Sebastián. Then a backtrack east before heading south to the Pyrenees and through the micro-country of Andorra, and onward to our final destination, that Catalan beauty, Barcelona.

The ride: Mercedes station wagon, with a stick shift, naturellement.

Related: Rent This, Not That: 7 Great Cars for a Weekend Road Trip

The 994-mile route — piece of cake (Illustration: Google Maps)  

Uzès, France

Our first stop was Uzès, a town rich with Gallo-Roman history, a three-hour drive west from St. Tropez (and for you geography aficionados, a two-hour drive directly south of Lyon). Here, it’s all about the UNESCO-designated Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct bridge that stands as one of France’s top attractions. Part of the 31-mile-long Nîmes aqueduct, Pont du Gard was built to carry water from Uzès to Nîmes. It’s awe-inspiring to stand under the bridge and grasp the size of it (164 feet tall, with the longest of its three levels spanning just over 900 feet). It’s also fun to join the kids jumping off nearby cliffs into the River Gard below.

Related: St. Tropez’s Top 10 Songs for Summer 2014

roadtrip france
roadtrip france

The ancient and impressive Pont du Gard in Uzès (Photo: Winston Mcleod/Flickr)

Of course in every town there is a more untraditional “must see” as well. In Uzès, it is the Haribo Sweet Museum (Musée du Bonbon) — a candy lover’s haven (and completely my heaven). At the museum, visitors have the opportunity to learn about the history of the gummy bear and see firsthand its production in specialized machines. (Did you know that HAns RIgel Sr., from BOnn, Germany, created the first gummy bear in 1922? Well, now you do.) There is also a factory store where you can purchase a plethora of Haribo selections available only in select places across the globe, as different countries have unique products.

Kids and grown-ups love it so — especially Bettie — the happy world of Haribo (Photo: Bettie Levy) 

Carcassonne, France

Carcassonne, due to its topography, had specific strategic importance to the Romans many centuries ago. Today the major highlight of the area is Cité de Carcassonne, a breathtaking medieval fortress perched atop a hill (and another UNESCO site).


Cité de Carcassonne (Photo: Getty Images)

At this point (after our sugar high from Haribo), we needed to find “real” food. Per Dad’s request, we searched all over town for a pizza place. Note to self: Carcassonne is not known for its pizza. I do hear, however, that for our next trip, there are some wonderful restaurants in town, like casual-fancy Auberge de Dame Carcas for grilled local game and regional specialties like cassoulet (a white bean, sausage, and duck stew).

The breathtaking medieval fortress of Carcassonne is definitely worth a stop — just don’t eat the pizza. (Photo: Bettie Levy)

Le Tour de France Monument

Count this sight into one of those unplanned stops that make road trips so exciting. We had to pull off the road to get gas and ended up stumbling upon this monument; it’s literally located at a rest stop. Pay your respects to the sport of cycling, and then race off to your next destination. 

Related: Have Bike — Will Travel. Top Trips for Cyclists From a Tour de France Vet

tour de france monument
tour de france monument

Le Tour de France Momument is a great photo op at a highway rest stop (Photo: Tracey Adams/Flickr)

Biarritz, France

After a full day of driving, we spent the night in Biarritz, a city on the Bay of Biscay in the northeast Atlantic. Did you ever see the movie “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”? If so, the French Riviera town where Michael Caine lives looks exactly like Biarritz. The town encapsulates 100-percent old-school glamour, both the people and the architecture. Most visitors here are simply coming to see the beauty of the city, although it’s also known for great surfing.

One-hundred-percent old-school glamour in the beachside town of Biarritz (Photo: Bettie Levy)

Following suit, we slumbered that night at the magnificent Hôtel du Palais. This lavish property was actually a palace, originally built as the private residence of Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie, and has been welcoming guests since 1893. The beach is right out front, and as you can imagine, drinks, dinner, the views, and guests hobnobbing by a stunning pool are rightly glamorous. (If you stay more than one night, though, you may not be able to afford to get home the next day.)

Related: #SummerTravel: The 10 Best Places in Europe to Visit Now


Brightly striped cabanas on the beach in Biarritz (Photo: Getty Images)

hotel du palais
hotel du palais

The grounds of the Hotel du Palais (Photo: Hotel du Palais)

San Sebastián, Spain

San Sebastián (or Donostia, its Basque name) also lies on the Bay of Biscay, just 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Biarritz. Definitely take the creaky, historic funicular up to the top of Monte Igueldo for marvelous views. The city also boasts wonderful beaches — and as a summer lover, I, for one, can never get enough surf and sand.

The Bay of Biscay, home to both Biarritz and San Sebastián (Photo: Jordi Garcia Castillón/Flickr)


Retracing our route back east, it’s a five-or-so-hour drive to Andorra, a micro-state (similar to Vatican City) that shares borders with France and Spain; basically, it’s a very small country. As a matter of fact, it is the sixth-smallest nation in Europe, ranking between Malta and Luxembourg at a “sprawling” 187 square miles. And like those countries, it was exciting because of its rarely traveled-to exclusivity. Beyond that passport cred, Andorra has remarkable landscapes due to its location in the heart of the Pyrenees Mountains. A must visit.

Particularly make sure to check out the local artisans, who sell a ton of merchandise relating to cows. Until the middle of the 20th century, the Andorran economy was centered around the breeding of cows and horses; that is why you will also find cows on the Andorran flag.

Related: 10 Weird and Surprising Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Summer Road Trips


Driving through Andorra in the Pyrenees (Photo: Getty Images)

A photo op in Andorra, Europe’s sixth-smallest nation (Photo: Bettie Levy)

Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona is the second-largest city in Spain and filled with a year’s worth of museums, parks, and monuments to explore. If you have only one day, an essential site to visit is Gaudi’s La Sagrada Família, the international symbol of Barcelona that wows with its over-the-top organic architecture (see: a forest of “tree” columns in the nave) and still-in-progress construction (estimated completion date: 2026, for now). Get the audio guide; it’s well worth it.


La Sagrada Família in Barcelona (Photo: Corbis Images)

We stayed at the Le Méridien (we love our Starwood points), right in the heart of the city on Las Ramblas, Barça’s famous pedestrian street. From our hotel we were in striking distance of every bus line (and I highly recommend a city bus tour). Via bus we were able to see everything from the Olympic Stadium to the marina. Oh, and we finally found that pizza at La Poma, right next to the hotel — and it was delicious.

Related: Barcelona Travel Guide

So after approximately 1,600 kilometers (994 miles) in a car with my parents over five days, endless discussions of “I don’t want to listen to that on the radio,” various eye-rolls when whoever was driving made a wrong turn, and limitless bags of Haribo candy, you might ask, would I do it again? You bet. We’re already planning for next summer. 

Thelma and Louise, the original road trippers (Photo: Everett Collection)

Bettie Levy is president of BCL Entertainment, a talent booking and branding company for the music industry, based in Manhattan. Her passions include music (yes, those are cassette tapes in her 1996 Ford Explorer), traveling (all seven continents and 48 of the 50 states checked off), and writing (she still sends handwritten thank-you notes and birthday cards).

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