Conor Power sings the praises of winging it on the N-roads and D-roads of France
France is a great country to drive through. With one of the finest motorway networks in Europe, you can whizz along from one end of this great lovely lump of a country to the other at 130kph.
Or, if you’re not in that much of a hurry, you can save money and take the alternative roads – the ones where life is a bit slower but where you get to see so much more and you might just get to discover some unsung gems.
On the last couple of legs of a long journey that started in Antibes and ended in Roscoff, we decided to do just that. Our motorway experience from Antibes to Lyon wasn’t exactly efficient in any case. We had hit one of those black weekends that they all warn about and a journey that should have taken four and a half hours took almost seven hours of fretful driving where a river of cars kept slowing down suddenly from 130kph to 50kph.
The other thing is that while you are on the motorway, the beauty spots are just that bit out of reach. They are only visible on brown signposts or away on the horizon as you continue along your tarmac corridor.
We also tried Air BnB for the first time. It’s a system I’ve been mistrustful of – mostly because it’s one of those ‘interrupter’ businesses that gleefully takes business from established models, making one person sitting behind a computer screen somewhere in America incredibly rich. In my paranoid head, I also feared that the potential for double booking or for finding that the place you booked doesn’t even exist was a real risk with Air BnB. However, it all worked out beautifully for those two nights.
For night Number One, we made our booking at about midnight the night before. Taking the off-motorway route from Lyon to Roscoff, we figured out the halfway point and started looking for somewhere to stay in that zone.
A quick search revealed an option that seemed too good to be true – €40 for a whole house in a little village somewhere in the rural north of Perigord. The Air BnB system allows feedback from customers and the feedback seemed very good on this one so we entered the credit card details and clicked on the appropriate buttons.
Three and a half hours later, we arrived at the tiny village of Aulon in the Creuse department of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region. For much of the journey, we had rain to contend with but as we pulled up beside the cluster of brown stone buildings in the charming hamlet, the evening sun began to come out.
We quickly found our hostess – a young mother living a stone’s throw away who, along with her mother-in-law, kept the little house spotlessly clean and tidy and provided a warm welcome for weary travellers.
The village had one place that covered the services of supermarket (or “superette” as they refer to a little local shop), tabac and bar where a very kind owner ensured we were well supplied for our short stay.
Before we set off the next morning, we had booked the second night’s stay. This time, it was in the village of Mortagne-sur-Sèvre in the Vendée department.
They owner, who lived in the next street parallel, let us into the house, which was marginally more expensive than the first place but equally spacious. We sipped some wine as the sun went down at the end of the street, while neighbours returning from work greeted us in the kind of friendly manner that you won’t get if you stay in some motorway hotel or city centre hostelry. The following morning, we found the local supermarket/café and got our daily bread and coffee before we hit the road for the final leg to Roscoff. We were sad to be leaving France but at least it had ended well – with a real little adventure and where we got to find the real France once more. Vive l’Air BnB!