France on four wheels

On a 10-day mo­tor­ing trip through his­toric towns, cute vil­lages and beau­ti­ful scenery

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - STEVE HAR­RIS

THE warm af­ter­glow of our an­nual arm­chair roller­coaster of the French coun­try­side, cour­tesy of the must-watch Tour de France, seems a per­fect time to plot a per­sonal, and more leisurely, road trip. Our plot­ting leads to a self­drive tour along quiet roads in a dozen river val­leys through the heart of France, from the English Chan­nel to the Mediter­ranean.

Our j our­ney takes us from Hon­fleur, home of ex­plor­ers, to Avi­gnon, home of the ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal. We take 10 days for the 1600km route of thatched cot­tages and chateaus, auberges and basil­i­cas, farms and forests, bridges and canals, ar­ti­san work­shops and gal­leries, mar­kets and ex­cel­lent cui­sine du ter­roir, me­dieval vil­lages and palaces, na­ture parks and univer­sity towns. And not a toll­way or traf­fic jam to be seen.

Hon­fleur seems a log­i­cal and sym­bolic start line. It is con­nected to Paris via the Seine, and in the 16th and 17th cen­turies was a key de­par­ture point for voy­ages of dis­cov­ery to the New World. To­day the beau­ti­fully pre­served mar­itime area, Le Vieux Bassin, with its charm­ing fa­cades, fish­ing boats and nar­row, cob­bled streets, pro­vides an agree­able glimpse into an an­cient de­par­ture lounge.

The ship­wrights also left some fine wooden build­ings, es­pe­cially 17th-cen­tury wooden salt stor­age halls ( salt to keep the fruits of long voy­ages to the cod banks of New­found­land) and the 15th and 16th-cen­tury Church of Sain­teCather­ine, the largest wooden church with a sep­a­rate bell­tower any­where in France.

Af­ter a hearty crepes break­fast, we briefly travel west be­fore start­ing our French river ‘‘cruise’’ along the Toques, tak­ing us to Pontl’Eveque, a pretty Nor­mandy town known for its colour­ful colom­bage houses and fa­mous cheese, past thatched cot­tages with irises planted on the ridges at Pier­refitte-en-Auge, to a morn­ing pick-me-up at a cal­va­dos dis­tillery in­side the grounds of a chateau at Le Breuil-en-Auge.

Along the Toques we pass through one of the few size­able towns on our jour­ney, Lisieux (sec­ond only to Lour­des for pil­grim­ages), and sleepy vil­lages such as Pontchardon and Ticheville to Le Perche, one of France’s favourite pe­tits pays. This is a coun­try­side of yel­low and green fields, forests of beech trees and cen­tury-old oaks, manor houses of red-tiled roofs and yel­low ochre walls, hedge­walled roads, with herds of splen­did white cows and the mighty percheron, con­sid­ered by many to be the no­blest and most gor­geous horses in the world.

Lo­cals fought for 20 years to get the French govern­ment to grant the re­gion the sta­tus of Le Parc Na­turel Re­gional, and the vic­tory in 1998 has led to more than 40 such des­ig­nated ar­eas across the coun­try, the idea be­ing to bet­ter man­age nat­u­ral re­sources and so­cial and eco­nomic po­ten­tial against ur­ban and com­mer­cial in­roads. The agrar­ian ideals help to pro­tect forests and pro­mote lo­cal ar­ti­sans and agri­cul­ture while re­ju­ve­nat­ing tourism. Parc head­quar­ters is at Le Manoir de Cour­boyer, one of the Perche’s 100 sur­viv­ing manors, built in the 15th cen­tury. Here the percheron seek the shade of ch­est­nut and wal­nut trees, and pull a wagon through the grounds of the manor house (orig­i­nally the walled res­i­dence and eco­nomic cen­tre of an agri­cul­tural es­tate).

In Mon­tagne-au-Perche, our next overnighter, the in­tegrity of 17th-cen­tury houses is pre­served, and modern de­sign dis­cour­aged, by man­dat­ing pale stone walls and 45-de­gree pitched roofs for new build­ings. We re­sist the fa­mous re­gional black pud­ding, but do sam­ple the baguette du Perche — there’s an of­fi­cial Parc Nat­u­ral seal stamped on ev­ery loaf of this per­fectly crusted, fra­grant bread, some made in mills 400 years old.

Belleme vil­lage sits be­hind me­dieval walls on a high plateau and near the mag­nif­i­cent wood­land of Reno Valdieu and the for­est of Belleme. Through more vil­lages and farm­land, we reach La Ferte-Bernard; its canals and bridges make it known as a small Venise de L’Ouest and Notre Dame des Marais was one of the first build­ings listed as a clas­si­fied his­tor­i­cal mon­u­ment.

Along the banks of the Anille River, we sam­ple chaus­sons aux pommes, an ap­ple turnover cel­e­brated in a fes­ti­val at Saint-Calais for more than 350 years, and then find the Etang­sort Val­ley to reach La Chartre-sur-le-Loir, the heart of Jas­nieres dessert wine coun­try. We criss­cross our way across the Loire River west of Tours, be­fore find­ing the banks of the In­dre to reach Azay-le-Rideau. Al­most 500 years af­ter it was built, this chateau re­mains a stun­ning sym­bol of power and wealth aris­ing from the sur­round­ing water in­side park­land; it was de­scribed by Balzac as ‘‘a di­a­mond ris­ing from water’’.

From the op­u­lence of Azay we head for the sim­plic­ity of eat­ing a monk’s navel. Well, that is said to be the orig­i­nal mould of France’s fa­mous mac­aron, and Cormery is fa­mous for mac­arons.

Across the plateau de Sain­teMaure we con­tinue south to Le Grand-Pres­signy, well known to arche­ol­o­gists as the world cen­tre for flint blades 4000 years ago. Through Preuilly-sur-Claise to the next pretty val­ley, the Claise, and then the Creuse val­ley at Tournon, head­ing up­stream along de­light­ful river­side roads to Le Blanc, cap­i­tal of Parc Nat­u­ral de la Brenne. The white stone of the houses ex­plains the name, and river­side walks along the lower half of the town lead to al­ley­ways up to the me­dieval Ville Haute.

Fur­ther along the Creuse we come to Ar­gen­ton, where an­cient houses with bal­conies hug the river, and al­low the town to also pro­claim it­self a ‘‘lit­tle Venice’’, be­fore we en­ter Ge­orge Sand coun­try and the beau­ti­ful vil­lage of Gargi­lesse-Dampierre. There­after we cross the river at Pont­des-Piles to reach our next stopover, Uz­erche, where an­cient tow­ers watch over a sweep­ing bend in the river.

From here we run the Ceronne Val­ley to Beaulieu-Sur-Dor­dogne, known as la Riviera Li­mou­sine. We stay in Au­berge des Charmilles, which lives up to its name, along­side a stream feed­ing into the Dor­dogne River. Walks, cafes, gal­leries and shops make this town an ideal base for a few days, with the op­tion of short drives to take in pop­u­lar spots such as Brete­noux, Castel­nau, Ro­ca­madour and Carennac.

Af­ter brief stops to check out an­cient houses around the Place du Mer­ca­dial at Saint-Cere on the River Bave, and a former pil­grims’ stopover, Figeac, on the Cele River, we head for Albi, the city of red bricks, on the Tarn River.

Awarded World Her­itage list­ing last year, Albi has been in­hab­ited since pre­his­toric times and was at the heart of bat­tles in the 1200s be­tween Catholi­cism and a dis­si­dent re­li­gious move­ment, Catharism. Albi stayed loyal, and the grate­ful bish­ops erected the mag­nif­i­cent Palais de la Ber­bie as a sym­bol of their power and vic­tory.

The palais and the Saint-Ce­cile cathe­dral com­plex form one of the great­est col­lec­tions of brick mon­u­ments in the world. Be­yond are beau­ti­ful Re­nais­sance houses built on the wealth of 15th-cen­tury trade in saf­fron and pas­tel, the Oc­c­i­tan name for the blue dye plant, and mu­se­ums hon­our­ing Toulouse-Lautrec and La Per­ouse, the renowned mar­itime ex­plorer.

Nav­i­ga­tion is a chal­lenge to reach the his­toric old town quar­ter of Mont­pel­lier and the de­light­ful Ho­tel Du Palais. From its pri­vate man­sions, mu­se­ums and gar­dens, it’s an easy walk to the con­tem­po­rary univer­sity and com­mer­cial ar­eas, and to wit­ness the suc­cess­ful graft­ing of a largely pedes­tri­anised and pub­lic trans­port city around the walled old town.

Just past Mont­pel­lier we briefly salute our south­ern mar­itime book­end, the Mediter­ranean, and make a bee­line for the Pont du Gard, a World Her­itage-listed mon­u­ment to Ro­man en­gi­neer­ing set in 165ha of land­scaped Mediter­ranean plant­ings. The ex­traor­di­nar­ily pre­served aqueduct helped con­vey water 50 kms to Nimes, cross­ing the Gar­don River at a height of 48m. To do this with more than 50,000 tonnes of stone, start­ing in AD38, re­quired mon­u­men­tal skill.

Avi­gnon was home for a suc­ces­sion of nine popes, and we af­firm that choice in our fi­nal few days, aban­don­ing our wheels to en­joy 5000 years of re­li­gious, eco­nomic and cul­tural his­tory, and UNESCO and World Her­itage-listed ar­chi­tec­ture, on foot. It’s a de­light­fully pedes­trian fin­ish to our tour de France.

au.franceguide.com

THINKSTOCK

It is pos­si­ble to drive 1600km across France with not a toll­way or traf­fic jam to be seen

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