France is the world's number-one tourist destination. Americans are among the world's most assiduous tourists, but for the most part, we simply don't know how to visit France. We think only of its size (slightly smaller than Texas), forgetting its cultural density - 3000-plus years of recorded history against a mere 500 or so for Europeans in America - and start planning a frantic, high-speed attack, such as that depicted in the 1969 film If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. Americans often think in terms of flying from city to city, an absolute no-no if you want to stay solvent and shed a bit of the tension that vacations are supposed to remove.
The absolute best way to "do" France is by automobile, and the right approach is to take your time and visit just a little bit of the country at an unhurried, relaxed pace. An example: directly off a flight at Charles de Gaulle airport one day last June, we picked up the funkiest French car in production today, Citroën's transformer-inspired C3 Pluriel, and met practiced European traveler/photographer Ian Dawson, who used a train, not an airplane, to come from London. At an easy pace - never exceeding the 81-mph autoroute speed limit - we headed toward the heart of France. Leaving the A10 autoroute at Orléans, passing Château-roux with its huge American-built former NATO airport about three hours out of Paris, we took the Tendu - "tense" in English - exit off the A20. How that somnolent little village got its name is certainly not clear; absolutely nothing was happening and no businesses were open - a standard Monday situation in rural France.
Our goal was to leave behind tension, so we did it in the most literal way possible, heading east to Bouesse (population 398). Its thirteenth-century fortress castle once sheltered Joan of Arc, but today that castle is a small hotel with twelve rooms, part of the Relais du Silence chain. The young owners, Karine and Frédéric Lorry, received us warmly and provided a pair of spectacular rooms in the old dungeon tower, each with a four-poster bed and a fireplace big enough for roasting an ox. An excellent dinner before retiring early put us in the right frame of mind for a predawn start long before the hotel was prepared to provide breakfast. We slipped through Argenton-sur-Creuse, and in Saint-Benoît-du-Sault, we walked the narrow, crooked streets until we found one of the hundreds of Caf du Sports that enliven French village life. No, it's not a chain, it's simply a name that appeals to individual proprietors and local customers alike. It was still too early for the owner to offer anything but coffee, so we scouted out a bakery and brought back our own croissants.
In such a history-rich environment, simple wandering will bring you within sight of literally hundreds of ancient stone buildings, all of them exhibiting a harmony with nature and their surroundings, the most important of them carrying fascinating stories of their past. We sought little-frequented D (for départemental) roads, in no hurry to cover the distance that would have taken mere minutes on the four-lane highway that now links Paris to Toulouse and Spain. The polyvalent character of the Pluriel then came into its own. The touch of a button moved the cloth roof back for pleasant open-air driving. A brief stop and a bit of manual manipulation allowed us to drop the folded top and heated glass backlight into a compartment beneath the trunk. The side rails stayed in place, and we left the side windows up so that we had a cocoon of warm air in the early morning freshness. The rails do come off, but they cannot conveniently be carried in the car, even in novel pickup configuration, so we waited until we reached our second-night hotel to convert to full-topless mode.
Arriving at Rhodes, another village with an amusing name (there being no Colossus and nothing remotely resembling a giant construct of any kind), we crossed over the autoroute to the east and moved down to La Souterraine (literally, "the underground"), a town with a few more than 5000 inhabitants, built on the site of an ancient Gallo-Roman villa. Principal attractions are the town gate, built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and its contemporary church of Notre Dame. We parked near an amusing trick-the-eye mural that depicted an impressive set of stairs leading nowhere. The town is tidy, reserved, and agreeable for walking, meriting more time than we could give it but which we strongly recommend.
Heading southwest, we passed over the A20 again, toward Bessines-sur-Gartempe, where uranium mining and processing (and now toxic-waste cleanup) has gone on for half a century, gold mining even longer. Using minor roads, we stayed to the west of Limoges, the biggest city in the region, with nearly 250,000 people. It is an important center for porcelain, situated as it is near deposits of pure white kaolin clay. For the French, it is also synonymous with dullness and social undesirability. In the days of Louis XIV, the Sun King, anyone who fell out of favor with the court at Versailles was exiled to Limoges, and to this day, anyone who is fired from his job is said to be "limoged," so we decided to stay away this time. Based on previous experience, however, we can recommend a day or so of exploration on foot. There are fascinating sections of the old town, and despite their habitual reticence and reserve, the Limogeauds are polite and welcoming to tourists.
At Aixe, we crossed the Vienne River, which gives its name to the region, and continued southwesterly via the village of les Cars to Châlus. It was here, in 1199, that Richard the Lionheart - king of England and all of western France - was hit by a crossbow bolt. The wound became infected, and with the onset of gangrene, Richard called for his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of two kings and mother of two more, to come to his side. Knowing that death was nigh, he pardoned Pierre Basile, the archer who shot the fatal bolt. But as soon as he died, Richard's men found Basile, skinned him alive, and hung him. So much for royal mercy. Today there is little activity at the castle, its gardens abandoned, as seemed to be an old Rolls-Royce that sat between some outlying buildings. The Châlus dungeon tower is forbidding and indeed would seem impregnable to the military forces of 800 years ago.
Seeking something a bit less grim to contemplate, we headed east again to La Rochel'Abeille, where the Moulin de la Gorce has become a splendid hotel with a one-star Michelin restaurant. Located alongside the mill pond in a verdant park, the hotel has only ten rooms, assuring outstanding personal service for its guests. Part of the exclusive Relais et Châteaux network, the Moulin is worlds away from the huge international hotel chains, giving us yet another reason to avoid main roads, main attractions, and above all, preorganized travel. If you stay in cities and are dependent on train stations, airports, and timetables, you're not likely to find small hotels as charming and agreeable as the ones we stayed in, plus the many we bypassed but would cheerfully try another time.
To get the best results for a planned but unstructured trip like ours, you need good maps, because French road-sign posting is abysmally bad. We like Michelin maps for their clarity, but there are several excellent publishers, including the Institut Géographique National series showing every detail and contour of the terrain. You also need guidebooks, and there are numerous excellent choices, some for hikers, backpackers, and bicycle tourists, some for sybarites. We prefer Michelin's green guidebooks, most of which are available in English in your hometown bookstore.
We experienced the gentle humanity of the French countryside in Saint-Yrieix. Having spent too much time photographing the Pluriel in its multifarious guises, we missed the official lunch hour. For Americans, used to buying fast food whenever it might be desired, the rigorous rigidity of French feeding is a surprise. Restaurants are open from noon, but service usually starts only at 12:30, and should you arrive much after 1:30, you may not be seated. By 2:15, when we stopped for lunch, all the customers were gone, the serving staff had taken off, and we despaired. Not to worry. Madame offered bread and cheese and beer, and she charged a pittance for the food and coffee, all with a smile. For everyone who has been hassled and rudely treated in Paris, rural France comes as a welcome surprise, just as heartland America delights foreigners who have been impersonally insulted in New York City.
One of the highlights of our excursion was discovering Jumilhac-le-Grand, a village neither of us had ever heard of, and which is not even mentioned in the Michelin red guide to hotels and restaurants. Jumilhac's feudal château is a masterpiece of late Middle Ages architecture. The original thirteenth-century structure had a "face-lift" in the sixteenth century, with the addition of new pointed roofs with distinctive black ridge tiles. Jumilhac is only eight miles from Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche, a town I've passed through at least 200 times in the past forty years and which to this day I cannot pronounce. But neither can the locals. We asked three for the right pronunciation and got three different answers. Just eight miles down the D80 from Jumilhac, our wonderful trip ended in anguish. Not our emotional state, sad as we were to go back to the workaday world, but that's the literal translation of Angoisse, the last village before reaching the "big" road, D704, that took us home in opposite directions.