France on four wheels
On a 10-day motoring trip through historic towns, cute villages and beautiful scenery
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.
It is possible to drive 1600km across France with not a tollway or traffic jam to be seen