Driving around rural parts of France is a great joy - especially in the beautiful Chablis region and the Morvan where the roads are almost empty
Many of us cover a lot of miles, so you’d think driving would be the last thing we’d want to do on holiday. However, motoring in France is different. So empty and excellent are the roads, driving is a pleasure.
Of course, there’s the lunchtime highlight of finding those wonderful roadside Les Routier diners where you will see the inevitable mustering of trucks. French lorry drivers know a thing or two about eating and the general rule of thumb seems to be: the greater the number trucks outside, the better the food inside.
But it’s more than the obvious gastronomic pleasures offered by the open road in France – a good deal of the enjoyment is derived from the roads themselves. If you buy the yellow-jacketed Michelin Tourist and Motoring Atlas and are prepared to meander wherever the mood takes you, you’re in for a treat. The marvellous tome will guide you anywhere in that vast and scenic country – from the tiniest hamlet to the mightiest city, from the salt marshes of the Camargue to the heights of the Alps.
The atlas depicts every single byway and lane and here we come to the very best thing about motoring in France – these smaller roads tend to be excellent. When we see tiny yellow or white roads marked on a map in England we quite rightly envisage tortuous narrow lanes squeezed between high hedgerows. Such byways are a delight in their own way, but they do not make for easy motoring.
In France many roads marked as minor routes are actually fine highways capable of allowing large vehicles to pass each other unhindered - and they are almost invariably empty.
Immense forests, open prairies, meandering rivers, working canals, exquisite chateaus, medieval villages, quaint market towns are all part of a morning or afternoon’s motoring in the rural vastness of the Land of Gaul.
The Chablis region is situated east of the city of Auxerre, about three hours drive south of Paris. The region is named after the small town of Chablis. It’s a pretty place utterly dominated by the production of its famous white wine. It has always struck me as odd that somewhere so landlocked could produce a wine that goes so perfectly with anything marine. Shellfish and Chablis is one of the best food-drink combinations there is.
The wine-growing region is much smaller than you’d suppose. Indeed the Grand and Premier Cru areas on the hillsides around town are to be found on just a handful of airy slopes, so perhaps it’s not surprising the stuff is so expensive.
We took the scenic route to Tonnerre (10 miles east of Chablis) which led us around the southerly edge of the wine-growing region. We followed the River Serein upstream through the village of Chichee and onto Poilly, where we took an even smaller road up over picturesque hills to Viviers and on to Tonnerre. This afforded us sweeping views of this most French of regions – in one place we could see more than 50 miles.
But it was the day-long circular drive south of Chablis to the Parc Naturel Régional Morvan that I’d recommend to any Francophile. It is a forested region, full of lakes, and it is riddled with lanes and ancient track-ways.
Morvan means “black mountain” in the language of the Gauls, who ruled France before the Romans invaded. Evidence of their ancient regime can still be found in this most unspoilt of regions – in places like Le Beuvray which is the site of an old Gaulish fortress. The fortifications have now all but disappeared under a grove of beech trees, but the strategic site offers stunning views over the valley of the Loire.
Avallon is the northern gateway to the national park and worth a quick stopover if only to walk out along the massive ramparts that jut above the deep gorge of the River Cousin.
There are all sorts of ancient buildings up on the rocky outcrop, such as the 11th century collegiate of Saint-Lazare. The venerable law courts were part of a ducal castle, as was the clock-tower built in 1456.
The thought of picnicking by one of the area’s many lakes whisked us out of town with all the zeal of the ancient crusaders who used to populate these parts.
Within 20 minutes we were bathing in a lake near the picturesque village of Marigny l’Eglise. Local cheeses and pates were the main highlight, then we walked off the excesses of lunch - the Morvan is great hiking and cycling country and we found a path that seemed to go nowhere through the forest. The innumerable footpaths were once main thoroughfares linking the many villages and moorland farms and some have taken on that sunken profile caused by a million feet and hooves down the centuries.
To exit the park we took the westerly route north so we could visit the famous hilltop village of Vezelay. Situated a few miles east of the River Yonne, it is one of those places that, once visited, are never forgotten.
This is one of the most important sites of pilgrimage in France since it’s believed to have once housed the relics of Mary Magdalene. When we were there exquisite organ music floated about the place and white-hooded priests wafted incense and chanted a series of never-ending prayers in Latin. It was all very ethereal.
And so back to Chablis and to a well-deserved glass of the very same. Tootling through rural France might not be everyone’s idea of a holiday, but for nostalgic folk like me it’s like being in the England of the 1950’s. It’s big, empty, pastoral and unspoilt – which how I like my countryside. And fairly dry, which is how I like my wine.