PAYZAC, France — We spent our first day on French soil in motorists’ purgatory, but quickly found our way through the pearly gates.
As usual, I’d managed just a couple of 20-minute naps on our seven-hour, cross-Atlantic night flight, jammed sideways into one of American Airlines sandwich-sized seats. No matter. This was the start of a month in France. La cuisine. Le vin. Les fleurs. Le style. Les dames … Mais oui.
But wait. The second week in July, we discovered, was ground zero for the “July-istas,” as the news called them (in French, of course) — the first wave of end-of-school vacationers disgorging from Paris onto the highways just in time for our arrival.
As we left the airport, nothing moved, and in my hallucinatory, sleep-deprived state, all I could do was mutter to myself and mouth the words of James Taylor’s lament: “Damn, this traffic jam.” (And, after awhile, wonder where on earth I’d find a place to pee in the middle of a four-lane parking lot.)
Five hours and 10 minutes later we pulled into a sumptuous and expensive Novotel on the outskirts of Chartres, home of one of the world’s great cathedrals, and practically pleaded for a room. Distance traveled: 70 miles. Some super marathoners could have almost matched our pace.
The next morning, over coffee and croissants, Kathy and I noticed that news anchors were predicting an even worse exodus than the day before. The TV screen showed a reporter behind the wheel, crawling down one of the nation’s toll roads. With a 240-mile drive south to the Dordogne region ahead of us, it was time to drive below the radar — or at least away from the masses. We started on a secondary highway, but soon veered off onto one of the two-lane tertiary roads that crisscross France. Marked yellow on the map, they wind through every village, routing drivers through a maze of roundabouts.
This is France in the slow lane, an approach not unfamiliar to me after nearly 41 years married to a map nut. This time, though, I did hope to arrive at our cottage in Payzac, a village of 350 tucked on a hillside in this farming region, before nightfall. It was going to be close.
A little background. We have never owned or rented a GPS. Kathy considers them an affront to her intelligence. So instead of consulting electronics, when things go wrong, while she figures out which direction to follow, I simply drive in circles around those roundabouts at the entrance and exit of any self-respecting French village. It’s a trick my cousin Stephen taught us five years ago.
Reading French road maps is sort of like reading clues on a treasure hunt. The numbering on road signs rarely conform to the road numbers on the maps. Nor do the roundabout signs typically tell the traveler the next town en route. So, for example, if you, as we were, are headed toward the village of Oucques, the road sign will suggest you are heading in the direction of Blois, twenty miles further up the road. Go figure.
Route numbers seem to change every few years here, too, so trying to follow them is a lost cause. Kathy really is awfully good with maps. But in budgeting for French car trips, I’ve taken to calculating a few extra dollars here and there for gasoline burned driving in circles. (If you are a Peter Sellers fan, think of the car scene in the Pink Panther, linked here on YouTube.)
This drive south worked splendidly, however. We got lost briefly just twice. And our route, through the less well-known chateau country south of the Loire River took us through one sweet town after another, though most were not mentioned at all in Lonely Planet’s France. On D956, we drove through Chemery, with flowerpots hanging from its street lights and a chateau where a weekend B&B package goes for a mere $1,000. We rattled through Selles-sur-Cher, with flowers cascading off its bridge and, of course, its own chateau. In Valencay, we passed a winery and paused to photograph its majestic chateau.
The traffic? No problem. The scenery? Lovely.
As we drove through the countryside, wheat, windmills and corn gave way to sun-warmed vineyards. In some places plane trees lined the two-lane road. In others, we wound our way through forests.
Pull-offs with picnic tables dotted the route. Though most were sans toilette (without bathrooms), a row of bushes served as an appropriate “visual break.”
“This is the busiest day of the year and we’re having a blast,” Kathy said triumphantly.
As we pulled up to our rental cottage at 6 p.m., hours before sunset, nothing stirred.
The landlord had left the key in the door. No wonder in that our nearest neighbor here is a hooting owl (a night visitor) and an aging donkey across the road. (Other guests have named him, first Derek, then Bo. But in respect to the real Bo Derek and a sign of our cultural competency, we have changed his name to Bergerac.)
As for our car, Pierre, it sat in the driveway most of the next two days while we stretched out on the deck, caught up on sleep and walked — back and forth to the village.