Smell the horses
The immediate environs of Paris, an outlined area called the Île de France, is full of scenic meadows and medieval towns. Versailles and its famous chateau is near and so is scenic Rambouillet. A little further up northwest is Deauville, horse country where polo patron Bobby Aguirre used to live part of the year to play at Guards Polo across the English Channel.
Our Normandy landing
Our regular out of town destinations take us to a small hamlet in Sommervieux, Normandy, to our family friend's 600 year old Nordic era farmhouse. Taking France's oldest autoroute, the 225km privately run A-13 or autoroute de Normandie exits the Périphérique at Porte d' Auteuil, tracking west by north west of Paris, where, along the way, there are a lot of historic Gothic cathedrals in Rouen, Evreux, Caen and Bayeux plus the St. Therese pilgrimage site in Liseux. Sommervieux is just a little bit inland from the Normandy “Gold” beach of the 1944 D-Day Allied invasion landings, the giant Allied floating harbor at Arromanche sur Bains and the German coastal batteries on Longue sur Mer.
The autoroute takes us out of Paris through the Banlieue, notorious for its riot prone North African immigrants. The rolling countryside glides by through a suspension bridge over the river Seine, past a nuclear plant and several toll barriers called peage. Again, only divinity knows why, whenever one is on the autoroute, it appears that everyone else is driving a car bigger than yours. The A-13 has some long steep stretches with vehicules lent or crawler lanes for those slow heavily laden trucks. Winds from the Channel keep the orange and white wind sacs stretched most of the day.
Enforcement of the 130km/h speed limit by the private tollway concessionaire is by gantry mounted speed cameras, hidden behind big signs. These fixed radar-camera apparati are unforgiving. But they're not the only worry. Anyone who is vigilant for speed traps on our own SLEx and TPLEx will find the Gendarme's stealth tactics familiar; hiding behind flyover columns with their hand held radar pistols. But there's more: the Gendarmerie peloton motorisés, wearing their proper uniform, have taken to cruising in unmarked Renault Meganes using mobile radar. You are tagged the moment you overtake them at a speed 10% above the posted speed limit be it 90, 110 or 130. Their colleagues, lying in wait, will pounce on you at the peage exit, just like here. Also be aware that there is a 70km/h speed limit as one approaches the peage. It remains to be seen if France will follow autostrade practice in Italy, where speeds up to 150km/h are allowed if the stretch is comprehensively covered by a series of SPECs video cameras.
Costly fuel, costly toll
As a rule, refueling from the known brand forecourts of the service areas within the tollway is more expensive than exiting the autoroute to load at a supermarket forecourt. In some forecourts, you will be required to submit your credit card or deposit cash at the cashier's till before your chosen self-serve pump is activated. In France, McDonald's outlets, which are supremely popular with the locals, serve wine, and since it is consumed with food, one need not fail a breathalyzer test.
The long arm of the Gendarme
Upon clearing the last peage of the A13 west beyond the Caen ring road, the highway becomes N13 [National route], a toll free dual carriageway. The Gendarmerie's enforcement of speed limits by speed camera pistols here is more visible on the road side with their blue Peugeot 305 “breaks” or even older 504 “familiale” station wagons. Very rarely, would one see ancient Saviem radar vans with a rubber cable strewn across the road.
Calvados country and les ros bifs
The Gendarmerie are particularly active along the hedgerow lined D [department] roads, especially when there is an influx of British registered cars coming to commemorate the annual WWII veterans' memorial of D-Day in June. Normandy has a high proportion of British residents, perhaps as many as those buried in the numerous war memorials, keeping both Calvados apple orchards and golf courses very much alive.
The dreaded reentry
Out here, it is not unusual to find Michelin star rated restaurants even in some seemingly deserted village out in the boondocks. Being close to the English Channel, seafood is quite common. Now comes the hard part. By the end of the holiday or Sunday weekend, usually at night, all roads into Paris turn into virtual parking lots, just like Sunday evenings on our expressways.
It'll be a lot easier going there these coming years as KLM-Air France and Emirates, great ways to get there, now take off from NAIA 3. Or if one flies from Hong Kong or Singapore, Cathay and SIA suit Asian traveling tastes. After a long absence, PAL can now fly to Europe, thanks to the recent San Miguel led reinvigoration.
Making a statement
It is said that Paris has more Michelin-starred Japanese resident chefs or Rolls Royces than Lexus. Now you know which car brand to reserve if one wants to make a splash on one's next booking to spend Christmas in Paris. Just like Brad and Angelina in Provence.