By on September 9, 2013

This picks up where Part One leaves off — JB

So, where were we? Oh, yes — driving in Europe. As previously mentioned, I hadn’t been to Europe in quite some time, and had never driven there. The first thing I learned is that there didn’t appear to be a very good way to get anywhere. Unless you were going from one huge city to another, the route invariably included some one-lane, barely paved roads and some bridges that virtually no car sold in America would fit on (more on this later).There wasn’t any good way to bypass the towns along the route-you simply had to drive through them and get stuck in whatever traffic you encountered.

There also appeared to be no such thing as a “grid” in these small to medium sized European cities. The roads twisted and wound in a way that made absolutely no sense to me. When we arrived in Hamme for soundcheck, we had to stop three times and ask people walking on the street for directions to the gig. We had entered the part of Belgium where Dutch was more prominent than French, which was somewhat of a problem because none of us spoke Dutch. Luckily, after several left turns that would have made one travel in a circle in America, we arrived at the town square.

Another thing that must be understood at this point: Europeans LOVE the Blues. Whereas it is merely a blip on the radar for most Americans, Europeans have a great appreciation for both the music and the musicians who perform it. A small town Blues festival in America might turn out a hundred or so people, most of whom will have an age north of fifty. In Europe, it turns out EVERYBODY. Since we were the headlining act of the event, the festival organizers and fans treated us like we were the Beatles. One of the bandmembers jokingly wondered about the availability of one of the young ladies dancing in the crowd. Within moments, a member of the backstage crew returned with this news: “She is off limits, but her older sister is available, yes? You want me to bring her?”

One of the best parts of being a Blues musician is the mutual understanding of the Blues language that we all have. I had never played a single note with any of the French Blues Explosion guys-no rehearsal, nothing. When we hit the stage and played for several hours together, you would have thought we’d been bandmates for years. Just call out the key and the groove and we were on our way, rolling down the tracks, swinging as hard as possible. The crowd was incredibly responsive and appreciative. It was a great first night and I was ready to get to sleep after a long day of travel.

The next day involved a twelve-hour road trip from Hamme back to Pascal’s home in Saint Sulpice, France, which is close to Toulouse in the Midi-Pyrenees region. We had to drop off Sam and Fred along the way-Sam at a recording studio that was located in a castle (no kidding) and Fred at his country home near the city of Cahors (which naturally meant that we had to get off the highway and drive all the way up and down a mountain and directly through the city of Cahors). Terry would be staying at Fred’s home while Sean and I were fortunate enough to be the guests of Pascal and his lovely girlfriend, Anne. We didn’t have any gigs until Thursday night, three days away.


As we drove down the French toll road of A20 in the Jumpy (which seemed to have a toll booth every ten feet with exorbitant tolls of ten euros (fifteen dollars) or more), I kept an eye out for exciting and interesting European cars. Unfortunately, I was disappointed-it was an endless sea of French compact hatchbacks, the kind that make lots of American forum posters giddy at the thought of purchasing them (used, of course). The only German cars I saw were some BMW 1 Series (mostly in 116d trim), Audi A1s, and Mercedes B Class (again, in 170 diesel trim)-I never saw a Bimmer larger than a 320d, and Audi larger than an A4, or a Merc larger than a C220.


A quick stop at a Shell gas station off of A20 revealed why. Gas prices were astronomical by American standards-about 1,80 Euro per liter. Factor in current Euro to Dollar conversion rates of .67 Euro per dollar, and then do some metric conversion in your head from liter to gallon and you’ll come up with a price of around $10 a gallon for standard petrol. Having a, oh, I don’t know…Boss 302 in Europe would be fantastic, with all the mountain roads and the well-maintained highways, but it would also bankrupt anybody who actually wanted to drive it.

Upon arrival at Pascal’s home, Sean and I unloaded our gear from the Jumpy, fended off some significant attacks on our persons from Pierrat, Pascal’s year-old Black Lab mix dog, and sat down to a glorious meal that had been prepared for us by Anne. Anne was a wonderful cook, in addition to being a professor of Spanish, and an owner of her own Citroen, a white C3 hatchback. I did my best to converse with them in my very poor French, and they did their best not to laugh at me. The combination of the long drive and the warm food put me right to sleep.

When I awoke the next day, Pascal asked us if we’d like to go to Cordes Sur Ciel, an ancient French city built on the top of a mountain- “Sur Ciel” translates as “on the sky.” But of course!


Cordes was magnificent-there’s simply nothing like it in America. Our nation just isn’t old enough. We parked the Jumpy at the foot of the hill and began our steep ascent up the cobblestone streets by foot. By the way, if and when you go to Europe, bring good walking shoes-none of the really good stuff is accessible by car, and if you are stuck with O’Neil sandals that you bought at the airport, you’ll have extremely sore feet and shin splints by the end of your trip.

Every so often along the climb, we’d have to make way for a car that looked and acted like it had no business making it up such a sharp incline-like an old Citroen Saxo or a Renault Twingo. I feared for the safety of the drivers, but they always made it.

We then went on to Albi, another ancient city with the largest brick cathedral in the world. Again, much of it was inaccessible by car and parking was hard to come by. The old streets of Albi were filled with music and histories-gypsy tunes in one corner, an amateur swing band on the town square. Albi was not, however, filled with that most precious of commodities in Europe for an American traveler, that being public wifi. Since our phones didn’t work in Europe and data roaming is hellaciously expensive (try $20 per MB!), Sean and I were on an endless search for public wifi access to stay in touch with friends and family via e-mail or Facebook.


The next day, Pascal was busy with some personal and business matters, so Sean and I took the train to Toulouse. People with an agenda to eliminate cars from American lifestyle always go on and on about how magnificent European public transportation is. I’m here to tell you-it’s not. Train passes are very expensive-our trip from Saint Sulpice to Toulouse was about eighteen euros round trip for a ride that took about twenty minutes. There’s exactly one station in Toulouse, a city that is roughly the size of Cincinnati, Ohio-once you get off the train, you’re walking everywhere you want to go. If you’re thirty-five, 5’9″ and 170 pounds, that’s not a huge deal. If you’re 65 and have physical issues, it’s a big problem. The streets of Toulouse were, again, largely inaccessible by car, especially the streets around the capital building where all the shopping is located.


Our quest for wifi in Toulouse brought us to this rather un-European place called “McDonald’s.” Security inside was tight-you couldn’t use the restroom or sit down at a table unless you had purchased food-and it was enforced strictly by hired security officers. I wasn’t really even hungry, and I knew Anne would have something MUCH better prepared for us when we got back to the house, but I had to order one of these as a tribute to my man from Amsterdam, Vincent Vega.


Shopping in Toulouse was fantastic. Sean and I found a men’s shirts store where I could have purchased every single shirt in the store and been happy with all of them. My personal challenge of buying something from every Lacoste boutique in the world was assisted by a red sweatshirt purchase from the Toulouse branch-quite reasonable at 69 euros on sale.

Another problem of a public transportation dependent society arose shortly after we left the Lacoste store-rain. We had about a mile and a half walk back to the train station, and a drizzle had started while we were inside that threated to turn to a serious storm very quickly. Faced with the option of getting soaked or taking a taxi, we hopped into a Skoda sedan taxi and paid another twelve euros to go to the train station.

Which reminds me-when you go to France, make sure you can speak at least SOME French. Hospitality workers speak some English (except for the fine folks at Air France-more on that in part 2) but taxi drivers, shop workers, agents at the train station? Rien.

In part 3, we’ll learn all about Spain, taking the train to Barcelona at 5 AM, the Mediterranean Sea, riding in a van with hippies, and roadside car searches for drugs-don’t miss it.

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17 Comments on “Bark’s Bites: The Jump(y)in’ Blues, Part Two...”

  • avatar

    Next time, I recommend finding a world phone to take with you. even if you buy a few year old GSM phone, some do work in Europe. Some/most iphones should work if you unlock them.

    (my wife’s old optimus d or something like that did.) and sim card with data access are actually very cheap compared to US based per MB rates

    • 0 avatar
      Sam P

      This. An unlocked GSM smartphone with a local data SIM card is the best travel aid ever.

    • 0 avatar

      Good advice about getting either a cheap prepay phone when you arrive or if you have phone that is comparable with euro systems a SIM card .
      The article makes mention of the high cost of fuel in Europe and then also mentions how well maintained the roads are. Do you think perhaps the two are related?
      Here in the USA political fear has kept the taxes on fuel, both national and state taxes, at rates that have not kept up with inflation. If you factor in the better mileage that new cars now provide and the fact that the number of miles we drive each year is trending down, the funds available to maintain our roads and byways are not sufficient to the needs of maintaining them .

      With the sad fact that increasing the taxes to the level now needed would be political suicide, because it has been so Long delayed that the increase would need to be massive, I see little hope of this coming to pass.

      Vermont has passed a special sales tax on fuel that is based on the price payed rather than increasing the tax per gallon and that may be one way forward. The fact that toll roads tend to be better maintained may indicate another way forward as may the charging for single occupancy cars in HOV lanes. Bonds to fund upkeep are a very bad idea as you are just passing down to the future an inflated cost of maintenance, there use should just be for things like new bridges.

      The principal of fuel taxes is that those that use the roads are paying for the upkeep of the roads. As that is no longer viable due to the way the taxes have not kept pace with inflation and the fact that needed maintenance has been so long deferred in so many areas that total reconstruction for many of these assets is the only proper way forward, what will have to happen…. I very much fear that it will be some form of charging us on a per mile driven basis via some sort of required built in GPS System or other method.

      I do hope I am wrong but the infrastructure of our road system requires serious investment and that investment is needed soon.

      • 0 avatar

        Yes, yes, more taxes. Absolutely a great idea!

        • 0 avatar

          I do not like forking over my hard earned cash as taxes anymore than you do.

          But roads do not maintain themselves. The road Mage does not wave his wand to magically resurface your streets.

          How do you propose to pay for all the long postponed maintainance to the roads and bridges in the USA? TANSTAAFL!

          • 0 avatar

            Yes! I want it all for free. Really?

            Too many in this country need to disabuse themselves of the immature, inconsiderate, selfish, self serving notion, ‘That they did it all themselves’, and nobody has a right to ask for a penny from them. After all, they owe no one… anything.

  • avatar
    Kristjan Ambroz

    While I am by no means an avid user of public transport, Toulouse does have a functioning underground, which would have gotten you from the train station to pretty much anywhere in the city center (for much less than the cab, which looks to have been a rip-off, at least compared to the prices we were paying when there in April).

  • avatar

    Guess you have never driven in the Northeast? Grids? Roads that don’t meander like a drunken cow? Unheard of here. A GPS is a mighty handy thing to have with you. Driving in Boston is not a terrible preparation for most of Europe. Speeds are similar too.

    As to the cars, a BMW 320d does 0-60 in ~8 seconds, and has a top speed of over 145mph, which it will happily maintain from one end of Europe to the other. While quite reasonable mileage. Why would you need or want more? If you live in a place where fuel is expensive, parking is difficult, and the roads are tiny and crowded, why would you want anything bigger than a small hatch (or a 3-series)? The French are a practical bunch.

    The trains in Europe actually are pretty amazing. They are not free. But you can get pretty much from anywhere of any size to anywhere else of any size in a reasonable amount of time, and on a reasonably dependable schedule. Certainly not the case here. If you don’t want to walk when you get there, take a bike with you or pay for a taxi. Or learn the local metro and/or bus system. It’s not hard. The buses really do go from everywhere to everywhere, and they are cheap.

    • 0 avatar
      Sam P

      “Driving in Boston is not a terrible preparation for most of Europe. Speeds are similar too.”

      Applies to the PNW and Lower Mainland of Canada as well. Vancouver, BC is just as much of a traffic mess as a European city. Driving in Zurich seemed much easier to me at least.

      • 0 avatar

        Traffic jams, yes, but the cities of the NW are mostly grids. Sometimes several grids, that meet at some line, but grids nonetheless. Much easier to find your way around than streets laid out by cows, like Boston.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree. When the environment limits of confines your choices, you make do with what you have. And sometimes, “making do” turns out a lot better than expected. Some of the small French hatches the author seemed to have off-handedly dismissed are quite capable and fun to drive, though not necessarily fast.

      Driving my brother’s Fusion can be a hassle in Brazil for example. Streets are narrow, parking spaces too. Making u turns in the Fusion is quite bad. In places where most others car make the turn and go, it’s not unusual to have to make many back and forth maneuvers just to turn the car around.

      Last gen Fusion I’m talking about here. The new one, I haven’t had the chance to experience yet.

      • 0 avatar

        Agreed… And because the market is basically knocked down a size or two, the smaller cars a
        Tend to be more luxurious. That’s another observation I frequently hear from Europeans – they are startled by how large things are in the US, but puzzled that they aren’t nicer. A 2400 sq foot house with asphalt shingles and vinyl siding, and a base trim Accord parked out front seems very odd.

  • avatar

    What do they call the Whopper?

  • avatar

    Europeans frequently comment on how strange it is that all the streets in US cities are laid out in a perfect grid.

    Of course, there’s an age range – too old, and they’re somewhat haphazard, but these areas are uncommon. In newer, fast-growing suburban areas, it’s also uncommon, as the roads tend to show less planning.*

    * outside of states that were subject to the Homestead Act and subdivided into sections and quarter sections.

  • avatar

    “there’s simply nothing like it in America. Our nation just isn’t old enough”

    That was what struck me most about visiting Europe. Here in the US, any building more than about 150 years old will have a brass plaque attached and tours given. In Europe, anything less than 300 years old is just an apartment or office building.

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