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Enterprise, Étretat, France, Normandy, Paris

Étretat & The Little Renault That Could

Étretat's beachfront promenade

Étretat’s beachfront promenade

I wake as my alarm goes off at 8:00, and I know if I want to make the ambitious day trip to Étretat, I need to get up and commit to it now. Part of me tells myself to listen to the voice in my head that is telling me, “This is too far for a day.” The other voice is saying, “Stop being a wuss. Get in the shower and go!”

I get up and get ready. Apparently I’m up for a challenge. The good thing is that the Enterprise Car Rental is not too many stops away on the metro. The bad thing is that it’s South Paris, and I need to head north… and I’m not sure how I feel about driving through the city center.

I get ready, and head out much later than I anticipated. I make my way to Mairie de Montrouge, and because I’m directionally challenged, walk about 10 minutes in the wrong direction once I reach the subway exit. It’s just a simple reminder that I should also hire a GPS unit while I’m hiring my car.

In the Enterprise office, Phillipe greets me and we speak in broken French and English. He asks me to wait a few minutes, and I gather from the conversation between him and a co-worker that the car I am meant to have for the day is in Montmartre. He asks me to wait for 10 minutes. During this 10 minutes, I have a conversation with myself that goes a bit like this… “Do you really want to do this? Isn’t an afternoon in Paris sipping wine in a cafe and writing more appealing? Do you really want to drive a hire car through Paris? a manual hire car?” I’m talking myself out of the adventure when I see a silver Renault Twingo pull up outside. I ask Philippe, “Is that mine?” “Oui,” he says.

We go over the last items on the paperwork, and he asks me for the fourth time if I need insurance. This ins’t making me feel any better, and I mention to him again that I have purchased insurance through Allianz on Kayak. He laughs, and in the same casual tone he used to tell me Arsenal is his “favorite team,” He tells me, “Ohhh, ok, you can pay us 850 Euros for any problems and then take it up with Allianz.”

He then sits in the car with me, helps me program the GPS and tells me Hornfleur is beautiful. He asks me if I will have the car back at 6, and I tell him that’s my intention… followed up by asking what time they close. “6:30 p.m., he tells me.”

Philippe has said that I can avoid Paris by taking the ring road to the A-13, so I make my way. Twenty minutes later, I am on the ring road in the thick of morning traffic, but I break free and find my way to A-13. By the time I pass the exit for Versailles, I’m cruising at 130 kmh and scanning the radio for anything other than Suzanne Vega’s tune, “Luka,” which seems to be playing on every station.

Before I know it, I’m passing Giverny, and after a quick stop for a coffee and la toilette, I’m approaching Deauville. I drive the length of Deauville and decide I need to bite the bullet and go the extra 50kms or so to Étretat. After a few circles around the round about and the GPS wanting to send me down a dead end farm road, I leave Deauville and make my way over to the Normandy Bridge, passing through cash tolls, credit card tolls, and tolls I have to reverse out of and re-enter so I can pay cash… I keep telling myself things are going smoothly. At the next toll, I’m really glad I got cash out at the ATM at the toilette break.

I must mention that the landscape leaving Deauville is the reason I did this trip. I am in the country. Rolling hills, farm houses, horse pastures, and deep green colors surround me even though it’s the middle of January. Besides driving through an industrial area near the bridge, I am soon back on narrow country lanes… so narrow, it’s a wonder two cars can pass each other from opposite directions.

I’m watching the clock, my speed and the number of kilometers to go until my final destination. When I have less than 10 km to go, and I see no sign of the ocean, let alone a signpost for Étretat, I begin to wonder if I’m indeed going in the right direction. Then with less than 6km to go, I see the sign for Étretat, and moments later, I am pulling into a picturesque seaside village.

The Cliffs of Étretat

The Cliffs of Étretat

I park on a side street near the beach and note the time. I don’t have long to visit, seeing as I need to get back to Paris as close to 6pm as possible, but I give myself until 3:30 to explore. As soon as I walk up the steps to the promenade that lines the beach, I can see the famous arch of the Étretat cliffs. The day couldn’t be any more beautiful: bright blue skies, mild temperatures and sunshine. The hills above the cliffs glow green, and the ocean is a vivid, cerulean blue. I listen as waves crash on the pebble beach in front of me. As they break and flow back out to sea, it sounds as if someone is shattering glass.

I look to my right, and high upon a hill behind me is a small church overlooking the sea. I begin the short hike up, and I’m afforded panoramic views of Étretat – the cliffs in the distance, a small sandy enclave to my right, the rooftops of the village homes, and ocean for miles. I soak this in for a moment, and silently curse myself for not spending more time in such a beautiful part of France, but I am just thankful for the time I have.

Étretat from above

Étretat from above

It’s not long though, and my watch is reading 3:38. I need to make a move. I get back to my silver Renault, plug in the address of Enterprise and see that I have 220 km to go. Unfortunately, the GPS doesn’t provide me with an estimated arrival time, but as I translate kilometers to miles in my head, I realize I have 2 1/2 hours to do approximately 130 miles… I begin the journey back, traveling in the direction that I came, but turning south towards Caen and Rouen and picking up the A13 again.

The hilltops of Étretat

The hilltops of Étretat

I’m cruising at the top speed of 130 km, plus 10 or 15 at times, only slowing for toll after toll after toll. I refuse to picture the scenario of me arriving at Enterprise to closed doors. I would have nowhere to return the car, which would make it very difficult to make my 7am train back to London the following morning. I reach the last toll at 5pm, and with less than 50 Km to go, I ask the toll driver “Une heure pour Paris?” He confirms about one hour. This will put me there at 6, if there’s no traffic, but it is rush hour after all. I don’t feel like I can look at that last half-an-hour as cushion.

Étretat's secluded beaches

Étretat’s secluded beaches

I drive so fast that the GPS begins shaking on the dash. I bet this Renault didn’t know what it was capable of until today! Then, I see the gas gauge which is quickly approaching 1/4 of a tank. Now I can’t ignore the scenarios unveiling in my head. Is a speeding ticket cheaper than an extra day’s rental and changing my Eurostar ticket? How much will Enterprise charge me if I can actually get the car back, but on empty? The GPS reads 30 km to go… that’s 18 miles. That’s nothing! I can do this.

I enter Paris, and pick up the ring road again, the peripherique, and I have less than 5 miles to go. It’s just ater 6pm. If it weren’t for that broken down semi-truck in front of me, I could probably do this journey in just a few minutes, but 9 minutes pass of stop and go driving, and I can feel my adrenaline spiking, the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. My lovely GPS alerts me to “light traffic on my route,” but once I clear the semi off on the right side of the road, I am cruising again. I can see the Enterprise office starred on the GPS screen… less than 5km to go now. It’s just after 6:20. I’m now back in the Mairie de Montrouge neighborhood and have joined the aggressive, rush hour drivers. I literally have two blocks to go… and it’s 6:26. After two traffic light stops that seem to last an eternity, I pull onto Rue Gabriel Peri, duck down a side street and pull up in front of the Enterprise. It’s 6:28pm, and the car’s gas gauge is almost on empty.

At this point, I don’t care. I am here. The car will be returned, and I am ok with the reality that Enterprise will charge me more than my 3-night hotel stay in Paris to fill it up.

A lady comes out to greet me, and we begin speaking. She speaks no English, and I sound like a mother of a toddler, as I tell myself to “Find my words.”

“Madame, je n’avais pas le temps pour trouver une station essence. (I didn’t have time to find a gas station)” I explain to her. “J’avais peur que vous fermez, et demain matin, j’ai un train pour Londres. (I was afraid you are closed and I have a train in the morning for London).

To which she responds, “Well, I have a train tonight too.”

“Oui, je comprends Madame,” (I understand). “Je suis desole.” (I’m sorry.)

Then, I resign to the fact that she’s not going to wait for me to go and fill the car up, but then she responds by asking me if I know where a gas station is.

“Oui, BP.”

She tells me to go, that she will wait.

I get back behind the wheel, plug in ‘gas station’ to the GPS, and make my way around the block to BP. 40 Euros later, I’m wondering what Enterprise would’ve charged me. I pay and make my way back to the shop and thank the lady profusely, as I try to stuff a 10 Euro note in her hand. She won’t accept it, and I ramble on in French how sorry I am, and that it was so far, and driving in Paris…

It’s close to 6:45 and I have to be at a dinner at 7 near Odeon. Luckily, I’m on the right metro line, no 4, so I change my shoes, retrieve a metro ticket out of my purse and make my way to St. Germain des Pres. As I sit through the ten or so stops, I flick through the pictures from the day. Étretat was simply stunning, and the journey was just another adventure. I survived driving in Paris, and by some miracle, (and I truly believe it was), I managed to get that little Renault back with 2 minutes to spare. I don’t spend much time thinking “what if?” It’s my last night in Paris. As I enter Les Editeurs to meet friends, they hand me a glass of red wine. “It’s nice to see you,” they say. They have no idea how happy I am to see them!