On our most recent visit to Paris, we decided to rent a car for a visit to Giverny and the D-Day beaches in Normandy. But when making our plans, I had read a lot of warnings about driving in Paris, even having people question my sanity on message boards for stating my confidence in driving in Paris. So how did my experience of driving in Paris go? Well, it had its ups and downs with a few lessons learned.
Our visit to France had its beginning and ending in Paris, with a few days spent in Normandy visiting Monet’s home in Giverny and the D-Day battlefields of Normandy. We could’ve taken a train to get to Giverny as many day-trippers do. But to get to Normandy and be able to experience the landing beaches and other World War II sites, we really would need a car unless we planned to book a guided tour. I wanted to do this tour myself, so a car would be a necessity.
Our plan was to arrive in Paris early on a Monday morning on the Eurostar train from London. Paris Gare du Nord is the station where the Eurostar makes its Paris stop. The station is near the center of Paris, but its close enough to the ring road around the city that hiring a car at the station seemed to make a lot of sense.
And when we picked up the car around lunchtime on a Monday, getting to the ring road was easy. I’m a very confident driver, but this was my first time behind the wheel outside of the United States. I found the streets easy to navigate, the red lights not too confusing and the direct path to the ring road was easy.
Speaking of the ring road, when I was doing my trip research, I visited the travel forums on the Rick Steves website. I posted a simple question, asking about driving from the train station out of Paris. I was shocked at the posters who seemed to feel they had the worst horror stories of driving in Paris. They were shocked that I would want to drive in Paris, even though I would be driving nowhere near the notorious roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe. To me, driving on the ring road would be just like any other big-city interstate in the United States.
And you know what? I was 100 percent correct. If you don’t panic every time a motorcycle comes flying up the lane dividing line, you’ll be fine. And of course that does happen often, but if you just don’t panic when it does happen there is nothing to worry about.
Our drive out into Normandy was peaceful and no different than driving on an American interstate.
Where I discovered the horror, though, was on our way back into Paris. Before driving back to the train station to return the car on Wednesday evening, we visited Versailles. According to the mileage, we should’ve only been about a 30-minute drive from the train station to return the car. Only I kept us at Versailles too late, meaning we were stuck in rush-hour traffic at about 6 p.m.
OK, fine, I deal with rush-hour traffic daily at home. It was stop-and-go traffic on the ring road, nothing unusual for an after-work period. But where the trouble began is when we exited the road, and had just a couple of miles to go on city streets.
That’s where the deadlock began. And the waiting began. And continued. And dragged on. And just about blew my mind.
I still can’t completely explain why the streets of northern Paris were so packed around 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, but there was a holiday the next day. And I’ve heard since our visit that a lot of Parisians were probably in a hurry to get out of the city to enjoy the long weekend.
Whether it was the holiday or rush-hour traffic, I had found myself in a perfect storm. It took us nearly three hours to drive about 20 miles from Versailles to the Gare du Nord train station.
This is where the faint of heart might need to either not hire a car, or possibly take a few anxiety meds. The traffic was horrendous. The motorcycles trying to squeeze through spots that didn’t exist was interesting.
I could only laugh at cars disregarding red lights, making the situation even worse. And even pedestrians joining the fray … just wow.
The whole ordeal actually caused me pain. We had a Volkswagen that would shut down the second the car would start idling. I had a shin splint in my right leg from the constant up-and-down motion of my foot going between the gas and brake pedals.
Looking back now I can only laugh. But when we arrived at our apartment at nearly 9 p.m. when I was expecting it to be closer to 7 p.m. with a hungry 5-year-old, well, it was stressful. Thankfully the cab was able to quickly get us to our apartment, where there was a pizza restaurant nearby. That glass of wine couldn’t have tasted better after my stressful driving situation.
So would I rent a car again in Paris? You bet. Driving in France was just as easy as at home. I did look over French street signs online before we left home, and had even printed a copy of the more common ones. So I would advise anyone driving in a foreign country to be prepared with the common street signs.
Another word of advice is to be prepared for the unknown with your rental car. Our car had everything programmed in Greek, so it took me the longest time to figure out the car’s gauges. In fact, I couldn’t figure out how to start the car. That’s a long story, but let’s just say when you drive a 10-year-old car at home like I do, newer technology in automobiles might be a bit more foreign to you than is normal.