We had entered the motorway nervously. We were still trying to remember to drive on the right hand side of the road, and neither of us had quite adjusted to being on what all our instincts told us was the wrong side. We had just precariously, but ultimately successfully, navigated a roundabout. Not normally a problem for us when driving at home, roundabouts here had to be negotiated anti-clockwise, not the more familiar but polar opposite clockwise we were familiar with. Now on the motorway, we had to get up to speed quickly to drive comfortably with the flow of traffic. On motorways in Europe there are two main rules: one, keep out of the way of both the huge trucks, from all over the continent. To do so you need to be going much faster than them, and therefore in an outer lane; and two, avoid the speedsters in their high performance cars in the outer lane, who zoom up behind you flashing their lights rudely at you to MOVE OVER!
The Renault wasn’t the most responsive car. But with regular gear changes, we were getting to a good speed when suddenly – SCREEECH – the gears slipped and instead of going into fifth gear, went into third gear at about 100 kmph. My husband cursed, slowed, and tried again. He grew up driving stick shifts, but the dodgy, unreliable French gear box – which we have since also heard the guys on Top Gear complain about – was the worst he’d ever come across. (Even my father’s ancient Lada four-wheel drive – his fishing and golf wagon – had a more reliable gearbox).
That said, our Renault Scenic got us around a large part of France over the next four weeks. It became our little home away from home in between hotels. The back seat was piled with clothes, maps and reference books. We stopped at supermarkets and bought plastic containers for food, knives, fruit, vegetables, cheese and baguettes, and woven cane blankets for our picnic lunches. At lunchtimes we pulled that little Renault into green parks beside lakes, into carparks beside canals in the Midi, in the middle of vineyards in the lush green Dordogne, on the shores of the Mediterranean, and on mountain roads heading to the Alps, where we would relax and eat our baguette, ham, brie and tomato sandwiches. It was sometimes an effort to find a verge large enough for us to safely park off the road, and invariably, after we found a spot and had enjoyed our lunch, we’d drive off and around the next bend find an official picnic spot with plenty of room and good views. But the flexibility brought us freedom, and made our trip all the more relaxing.
The Renault had air-conditioning, and that became very important after climbing to the top of the village Les Baux de Provence on a steamy June day in the south of France, or after rambling through Aix-en-Provence or exploring the fortress of Carcassone.
There was no GPS. This was in 2002, before they became more standard issue, and so I was the navigator. After all these years my husband and I work quite well in the navigating stakes. My husband drives, and insists he doesn’t care if we get lost, as long as he’s told when to turn at an intersection, or which exit to take off a roundabout. I’m good at reading maps, and my only fault is occasional indecisiveness in the event of map failure, which means there may be a brief spate of yelling. Oh, and yes, close to Bordeaux we discovered that both interpret the words “continue on straight” in completely different ways. In terms of navigating, schoolgirl French allowed me to read most road signs, but a good phrase book helped too.
Driving in France was actually quite easy. Our rule of thumb when driving in a foreign country is always to collect our car at the airport, to avoid the stress of driving a new car, on the wrong side of the road, at the same time as navigating our way out of a major city. We were out of the airport and at Versailles before it even opened, avoiding the queues that arrived later.
The Michelin Red Guide – largely a hotel and restaurant guide – was invaluable for all the small town and village plans, complete with car park signs and one way systems. This meant that we could zip into a small village, know exactly where to find the central car park, and then walk and explore. We discovered the French don’t like to pay parking fees. As euro or two was not a problem for us, the parking was easy; carparks always left empty – even on market day in ancient Uzes – whilst the French edged their tiny cars sideways into parks or alleyways or on the curbs in order to save a few centimes.
One of the charms of France, indeed most of Europe, is the sheer age of the towns and villages. However this means that, if you want to stay in the oldest and often most interesting parts of town, then parking at your hotel is unlikely. We stayed in a lovely hotel in Sarlat right at the entrance of the town walls, and our car stayed in a garage about half a mile down the road. Many car parks were underground, built for the tiny French cars of the 1960s, and so our Renault Scenic felt huge. Manoeuvring the car down the driveway and into the dark underground carpark was always an effort, but my husband managed this without incident, if not without bad language and perspiration.
As I already mentioned, driving through a country gives a traveller enormous freedom. Some of our favourite memories are in off-the-beaten-track villages with locals, or finding something surprising on the rare occasion we get lost. Having a car in the Loire Valley meant we were at our leisure to visit the chateaux we chose, and for as long or as little as we wanted. Driving in the Dordogne meant that we could visit a variety of beautiful villages, such as Domme or Rocamadour or La Roque Gageac. (I wrote with adoration about this region under D for Dordogne).
When we looked out of our window of our Sarlat hotel and saw a market being set up, we could spend the morning exploring the market before leaving for Toulouse. A day or two later we were able to visit my cousin’s mother-in-law in a tiny French village in the Languedoc, enjoying lunch under the wisteria, before exploring the tragic Minerve of the Cathars, miles away from the main road and the destinations of tour buses or rail or canal travellers.
Freedom meant that we could picnic in the beautiful Gorges du Tarn, taking our time, knowing we could speed our way back to Avignon via a high-speed motorway. The flexibility of our car meant that when we stopped in Sisteron and discovered it was market day, we were free to enjoy an hour or so pottering through the wares on sale – amused to find everything from bread, cheese, aubergines and colourful capsicums to mattresses and power tools. And without a car, we could never have stayed in the tiny but adorable wine village of Meursault, recommended by friends and since recommended by us to other friends, that became our base for walking and driving through the Cote de Beaune in Bourgogne (Burgundy).
But driving through France wasn’t just about freedom. It was an unexpected delight. The sheer beauty of France surprised me. The Dordogne was a particular favourite, stunning, lush and green in late May/early June. A few weeks later the Luberon, in the higher reaches of Provence, was also green and hilly and completely different to how I had imagined it from Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. Provence itself was flat and dry, but Chateauneuf-du-Pape was everything a wine region should be, with rolling valley after rolling valley covered in green, lush vines. Stopping in a tiny village’s wine cave, and finding a wine I had read about, was an added treat. The woman serving us stressed we should not drink the wine for ten years. “Dix ans!” she waggled her finger at us. Obediently, we’re still waiting. (I really hope it hasn’t gone off!) And of course, by the time we arrived in Annecy, we were ready for its dramatic lake and mountain scenery and gingerbread-house buildings. Staying on the lake, rather than in the city, was a delight we could only enjoy with the freedom of a car. We even drove to Chamonix-Mt Blanc, and ascended to the Aiguille du Midi, where we felt on top of the world.
Of course, plans are made to be broken. We had intended ending our journey at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, before spending a final five days or so in the city. But we discovered we would be there at almost exactly the same time as friends of ours, who we had not seen for some time given that they were at the time living in China. So we arranged to arrive in Paris a day early, to be able to spend a day together. This meant we couldn’t drop off our car yet, and so instead of finding the airport (usually an easy task), we had to navigate our way through the very centre of Paris to our hotel to check-in. Even that wasn’t as easy as we had hoped, as the one-way system was not marked on the map (note: this was an example of map failure, not navigational failure). On about our fourth time around the block, we managed to get find our street and hotel. We then made our way through the crazy Place de la Concorde across to the apartment where our friends were staying. My brave husband then said goodbye to me and my friend, leaving us to explore Paris for the day sans enfants, whilst he and my friend’s partner and the children made their way out to Disneyworld. They later met us back in Paris at yet another friend’s house. Navigation wasn’t quite so relaxed, the traffic was chaotic due to both rush hour and a major concert nearby, and by the time we made it back to the Hotel du Ville carpark only a block away from our hotel, he needed and deserved a very large glass of wine. Or two. Or three.
A word of caution: Driving anywhere can be dangerous, and we were reminded very starkly of this as we were leaving the very famous St Emilion wine village. We witnessed a ghastly and upsetting crash, directly in front of us, the result of an indecisive driver dawdling across a very busy road. Not all the occupants got out of the car. The crash sobered us. After that, intersections were dealt with cautiously, but decisively.