All through the writing of Take the Slow Road: France, author Martin Dorey was looking for something that would sum up the essence of France and what it meant to him to travel there.
“I expected it everywhere and wasn’t disappointed. I saw it in the Musée D’Orsay, in the thermal baths of the Pyrenees, in the vineyards of Champagne and in the wildflower meadows of the Alps. It was in an oyster shack in Cap Ferret and at dawn on the Dune du Pylat. It was even at the bottom of a pichet of house wine at an open air restaurant somewhere near Le Lavandou.
And as someone who writes about great journeys, I found it in the terrifying drops of the Col de Souloir too, in the long straight roads of the southwest and in the overhangs along the Tarn Gorge. France has brilliant driving, but it isn’t what a trip to France is all about. Sure, the journey is important, but the places to stop along the way will reveal more…”
Take it all in. Take the Slow Road.
Everything was in perfect order, as it should be. A writer’s dream. What a pleasure to take my readers on a magical journey to discover the very best routes through this beguiling, so very familiar and yet so very different country. We drove through the sunflower fields, up mountain passes and into the heart of Paris.
It’s easy to deal in clichés when talking about place because clichés are what define it. Let’s accept that it’s no accident we think of beautiful villages, towers of steel, great art and fabulous wine when we think of France. Those things don’t exist for us in quite the same way anywhere else. You rarely drive off a ferry and immediately thread your way through fields of artichokes like you do when you disembark at Roscoff.
Having travelled a lot in France over the last 30 years I wasn’t surprised by the croissants or the nudist beaches in Aquitaine. Or even the artichokes. I admired the hollyhocks on the channel coast and savoured every stroke of my swims in the Jura but I wasn’t completely bowled over by them, even though I loved every minute of it.
Discovering the lavender fields of Provence
What I wasn’t expecting, however, was for France to hit me square in the nose. Like a thunderbolt, actually, while winding our way out of Grasse on the Route Napoleon.
This was the start of a drive that I hoped would lead us through the lavender region at the height of ‘lavender season’. I suppose, if I had thought about it, I should have expected to find the essence of France in Provence. It assaulted my nostrils with all the subtlety of your great aunt’s bathroom cabinet. A riot of lavender, buzzing with bees and dancing butterflies. This was France at its most joyously fragrant, and it was sending my olfactory nerves into a delighted spasm, receptors firing like sparklers.
This is what defines France more than anything else. Elsewhere you’ll find sea breezes and wet pavements, wild garlic in spring, doggy car rugs and woodland in the autumn. All good smells, I must admit. But they aren’t a field of earthy, freshly cut lavender on a hot day in Provence, just outside Grasse, the city that has produced the world’s greatest noses. It wasn’t just the lavender either, it was everything. Once my nose had awoken from its senseless slumber it smelled the heart and soul of France everywhere: in the heat, the pines, the garlic, the bakeries, the ozone rich white water of the Verdon Gorge and the musty smell of old 2CVs at the Citroen museum in Castellane.
The lavender route
The Lavender Route (Route 13 in Take the Slow Road: France) led us on an aromatic journey from Grasse to Nyons via the Verdon Gorge and around Mont Ventoux. We stopped at Sault to buy a Panama and some fragrant soaps for the folks back home. From the market place you can survey the fields of purple below you, punctuated by geometric clay tiled roofs and columns of dark green cypress.
Everywhere we went in Provence our nostrils sniffed with joy at what they were taking in. We realised that they had been soaking it up all along, from the steam that came off the first bowl of moules marinieres to the salty samphire we picked in St Valery in Picardy. We just hadn’t realised it. Even when we swam up the Verdon, among the chaos of the pedalos and kayaks, we smelt it in the limestone and the milky, turquoise water, the dust and the heat of the day, on our drying skin and in the juniper we passed on the way back to the van.
If you get the chance to go, just do it. Set the satnav for the south, take it easy and wind down those windows. France, I can assure you, will come to you sooner or later.
Some of Martin’s French Highlights from his book Take the Slow Road France:
Searching for the perfect lavender field
The Lavender Route is a joy. Once you’re winding your way out of Grasse you’ll begin to get those unmistakable whiffs of sublime beauty that being in Provence brings. The pines and the heat, with the smell of freshly cut lavender, honey and garlic will send you, I promise. When you need to cool off head straight for the Gorges Du Verdon and take a dip.
Exploring the Ile de Ré by bike
Ré is a fabulous place but not massively motorhome friendly, so the best way to explore it is by bike. Head out from your campsite along the pine-scented, traffic-free bike tracks and enjoy a long lunch at an outdoor restaurant. Book ahead if you want to guarantee your Fruits de Mer at La Cabane de la Patache. Afterwards a swim at Plage du Grouin.
Bathing in the Pyrenees
Thermal bath houses are big in the Pyrenees and there are some absolute beauties, with hot springs providing faintly sulphurous water for some fine outdoor bathing. The baths at Louden Vielle are like a watery adult theme park while the baths at Cauteret offer stunning views of the surrounding mountains. Bring your Speedos.
Sniffing wild flowers at the Col de Lauteret
The road to Briancon is wild and winding with amazing views and stunning peaks. That’s given. But turn up in July for a feast of flowers and fragrances that is second to none. World famous for its Alpine meadows, the Col is a great place to spot all kinds of flowers you won’t see anywhere below a couple of thousand metres.
Savouring lunch in heavenly Mont-St-Michel
With its heavenly spires, fabulous cooking smells and flighty flying buttresses, Mont-St-Michel is like a ship of delicately carved granite sailing on a sea of mud, water and garlic butter. It’s busy but it’s stunning, incredible, beautiful. The views of it across the salt marshes, from many miles away, will draw you in. You can’t resist. Go there, have lunch, get it over with.
Martin Dorey is author of The Camper Van Bible and the Take the Slow Road campervanning guides which include England and Wales, Scotland, Ireland and the latest book, Take the Slow Road: France, all out now – read our review