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Asleep at the wheel: the France trip I’m dreaming of

Comfortably ensconced on my sofa at home in the small Provençal village of Mouriès, I am enjoying the warmth of both my fireplace and a glass of local red wine. I am listening to the radio announcing that the fight against Covid is possibly taking a turn with the discovery of a vaccine. The future opens up. The wine possibly helping, my mind drifts to a half conscious state, and I am now fully dreaming about my next trip. I dare to imagine the Spring. The irregular whir of the car engine. The windows open. I’m on a road trip across the south of France, starting here in Provence and heading west, crossing some of the most remote and beautiful places to be found.

The engine has an irregular whir because I’m driving my classic 1972 Citroen 2CV on this journey, possibly the most beloved and recognizable car in France. One advantage is that it will give me the chance to experience the journey at a slow pace: on downhills with the wind behind me, I might manage a maximum clip of 65 mph.  And at that speed, la deudeuche, as the French know it, seems like it’s gunning for take-off. Yes, driving this car is an adventure in and of itself. So, driving it slowly might not only give me the occasional fleeting feeling of safety, but also offer  the chance to re-discover the outside world at a gentlemanly pace. Making sure not to miss anything through the narrow frames of the wing-windows of the ancient vehicle. And – most importantly – giving me plentiful opportunities to connect with people along the way.

I cannot wait to be on this mini adventure – navigating the narrow, remote countryside roads. Stopping to visit picturesque little towns and villages filled with character and cheerful locals, happy to share their love of the place they live in. It may be clichéd… but I don’t care in the slightest. That is exactly what I have missed this year and I can’t wait to get out on the road.

I shall leave Provence and its iconic landscapes behind me, and head north west, making sure to stop in Barjac first. Barjac is a town at the border between the Gard and Ardèche regions, close to the gorgeous Gorges de l’Ardèche, a canyon with cliffs as high as 900 feet in some parts and a beautiful river at the bottom.

I will park my car next to the main square of the town, next to the beautiful 19th-century fountain, and enjoy the unobstructed view over the Cevennes region and Mont Lozere, both being my next destinations. I shall then head to the nearby medieval town centre and wander the narrow, winding streets. Most of the shop owners and inhabitants have spent their entire life in this town and are happy to share their knowledge of the area, their culture and joie de vivre with anyone ready to make the effort to connect with them.

Back in the car I’m going to head on to see my friends Caroline and Olivier, who own a beautiful guesthouse nearby. We will be so happy to see each other after so many months being lockdowned. Maybe I’ll have bought some saucisson and a bottle of wine in Barjac and we can break bread together. We can also plan my next visit to Barjac, as the town hosts two big antique fairs each year, in April and August, both lasting 4 days. The town is then filled with over 400 stalls selling everything you don’t need, from old, rusty coffee pots to an elegant, rare and extremely expensive pieces of furniture. I have never gone home empty handed (usually with cheap, rusty coffee pots…)

Then I’m off again, driving south west to the Cevennes region, famous for its wild landscapes, filled with endless, impressive oak and chestnut forests, as well as beautiful granite mountains. You might possibly have heard about the region from the book ‘Travels with a donkey in the Cevennes’ written in 1879 by Robert Louis Stevenson. It is nowaday possible to follow Stevenson’s footsteps (and those of his donkey, Modestine) in a peaceful trek through the hills. The local culture and history of the area are rich, and it is always a great experience to get lost in those innumerable scenic roads, crossing villages, often inhabited, and wide open landscape. This little exotic drive will send me 100 years back in time.

The steep descent to the town of Meyrueis will mark the end of the Cevennes and the start of my drive through the magnificent Gorges de la Jonte. I shall have to stop at the surprising antique Citroën garage right in the centre of Meyrueis, a real treasure. The place is filled with immaculate classic Citroën cars, some of them unique. The owner, the grandson of the founder of the garage, is a true Citroën buff. I cannot wait to see him again, and listen to his stories. The area nearby (le Causse Méjean) was once the testing zone for a collection of vehicles destined to take part of one of the first and most exciting car expeditions in the world, back in 1931 : la croisière jaune. But I’m moving on to the gorges de la Jonte, hoping for the sun to shine, giving me the chance to fully open the roof of the car and enjoy the view overhead and the amazing limestone cliffs. This astonishing scenery continues as I leave the Gorges de la Jonte and connect to the beautiful Gorges du Tarn. I’m going to be passing through multiple villages, all of them worth a stop, the medieval village of Saint Enimie being the most prestigious, with an mesmerizing huge cliff on one side and the peaceful Tarn river on the other side. Perfect setting for a stop to fully enjoy the view and drink a café au lait and eat a pain au chocolat at the local café.

From Saint Enimie, the roads heading north to the region of Aubrac, or south to the Languedoc, all seem  very tempting. But I’m headed west. My route crosses rugged and deserted stretches of the Aveyron region , before entering the sweet welcoming landscape of the Quercy. Hard to describe in a few words, the beauty of villages such as Saint Cirq Lapopie, Rocamadour and the multiple medieval castles along the way, will all see my pull my camera out of its bag. What a drive this will be! But I’m saving the best for last, as ahead of me lies the Dordogne: medieval castles (over 1600 of them), gorgeous landscapes, gardens, caves (the most beautiful prehistoric caves in the world with up to 25,000 year old paintings and carvings), wine… And foie gras. I shall definitely spend a good week here, visiting and revisiting places, in my car, on foot, or from the saddle of a bike. It’ll be good to reconnect with people I met on previous journeys, go to some of my favorite local markets (the one in Sarlat is just mouthwatering), spend an afternoon strolling in the pristine boxwood gardens of Marqueyssac.

I think I’ll end this amazing road trip with a relaxing few days at my friend Didier’s house, in the heart of Perigord. Or maybe I’ll continue my journey to Bordeaux, the Basque Country or the Pyrenees. Who knows – France is a small country, and the neighbouring region, often so varied and always so beautiful, is never too far away.

I am suddenly waking up from this half consciousness. I am cold, the fire has almost died and my glass is empty. Time to refill both the fireplace and my glass, unfold a paper map of France on the table, and start planning this trip for real.

Judging by how Michael made the best of the Lockdown, it’s easy to imagine he’ll be putting whatever freedoms 2021 afford us to excellent use. He’s licensed to take passengers in that 2CV, by the way…. If you want to ride shotgun, you can contact him here.

The local culture and history of the area are rich and it is always a great experience to literally get lost in those uncountable and scenic small roads crossing villages, often inhabited, and far from the fuzziness that most cities are facing. This little exotic drive would give me the feeling to be sent 100 years back in time, far from home and stress.

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