I heard it often times before. “How can you drive in that country?” “They drive like crazy over there.” “You have to rent a manual car? “Aren’t you scared?”
Few of my friends know the immense pleasure of driving through the French countryside. The highways and roads are generally in great shape. It is rare to find billboards (those eyesores that usually dot landscapes), the highway rest stops
offer pleasing refreshments and, oftentimes, the local produit de terroir, and the trucks have to stay in the right side unless they are passing. Unlike city driving where traffic rules are confusing and seldom followed, country driving can
be a relaxing mode of travel where cars politely overtake and where trucks and tractors slow down to allow your passing. It also offers a wealth of picture perfect sightseeing opportunities.
In our corner of France, the hills,
vineyards and sometimes mountainous route are not heavy with traffic. The cars or trucks do not threaten the tranquil setting despite, on occasion, their haste. One traverses through the N (national) or D (department) roads through small towns,
villages and hamlets where a canopy of plane trees offer a welcome and/or bonne route (good journey) in entrances and exits. Slowing down, one can spy the single café on the square with men enjoying their glasses of local wine or beer and elderly
women with straw baskets walking cautiously toward the boulangerie or the epicerie (local convenience store). Sometimes a local dog yelps in surprise and eyes the car suspiciously determining whether to run after it or stay put with its master in
the shaded awning of a café.
When driving through the rolling hills and valleys with vineyards as far as the eye can see, I sometimes spot a lone figure or two bending down, checking the vines with white a van close by. It
is such a tranquil setting that, one day, I plan to stop and wander through the vines pretending that I know all about viticulture and engage them in conversation about weather, soil and grape variety. I wish.
When the weather is
fine, as it almost always is, intrepid bicyclists travel the same route crouched on handlebars and in full bike attire. Seldom do I catch them huffing and puffing. They make it look effortless that, on more than one occasion, I entertained the
idea. But it passes. I do not see many people walking alongside these routes. But I do see some who would park their cars on the side and walk through the vines with a dog or amble up a hill for some hiking.
pleasure is so inviting that, when the girls are in school, I take the chance to get on the road and wander. There are times, nonetheless, when my unplanned itinerary leads me to through unknown paths. Once, upon looking at a local map, I decided
to take a route that cuts a path through vineyards thus shortening my drive between villages. It was a short cut indeed but one with an accompanying palpitation of the heart. For the route was wide enough for only one small car and this narrow
road was sandwiched between deep ditches. No shoulders to park should an incoming car come around the bend. The view was breathtaking and so was the driving. I was fortunate that no one came my way but I was vigilant about the tapered paths
that branched out from my route as these are, presumably, for the narrow and tall tractors that tend to the vines. I filed in my mind that those paths would be my temporary shoulders.
Earlier in our residency, the girls and I tried
a route near our home. Within two minutes we were surrounded by vineyards and no villages in our line of sight. Second daughter, then 8 years old, asked, “Mom, are we lost?” Before I could reply, first daughter
responded, matter of factly, “Of course we are lost. Can’t you see? We are surrounded by vines.” Fortunately, she was proven wrong when we turned around the nth bend and Cazedarne came into view.
one of our out-of-town trips, this time to Albi, I planned our itinerary to minimize driving via cliff hanging roads that circle the Montagne Noire (black mountains). We were lucky to have done so. On our return home, I suggested that we go through
Carcassonne for a quick respite and so I chose a different route. We drove through dark forests and heavy green landscapes; some with sunflowers in full bloom. It felt good avoiding the mountain tracks until I felt my ears popping. I asked
my niece to check the map and tell me where we are situated. “We are on the top of the mountains, Auntie, “she replied, studying the map. Uh-oh. Do the trees or heavy shrubbery mask a steep decline? I dare not stop to check.
I resolved to be calm in the presence of three younger girls who were chattering away armed with the confidence that the driver can get them to the destination, the promised McDonald’s.
Due to the geography of the area
it is fairly common and regular to encounter hills and mountains. One of my least favorite route is the Cebazan to St Chinian two lane highway (D612) that weaves through the mountain side depositing one besides a lookout point where the valley
and the distant Montagne Noire are picture perfect views. Visiting friends take this occasion to memorialize the view with lots of photographs. Then the daunting ride down to the valley that curves around the mountainside and, at one point, faces
directly down to St Chinian in a fairly precipitous drop. Hands clutching the steering wheel, right foot gently braking, my mind battles with two images; my guardian angel reminding me to remain calm, calculated and focused and the dark side taunting
me with the image of the final scene of Thelma and Louis. The rational side always prevails.
Despite these palpitating heart occurrences, the drives offer moments of tranquility and relaxation that nourishes the
soul and quiets the worrying mind. I find these moments frequently when driving between Puisserguier and Capestang. As I traverse the narrow road leaving Puisserguier and flanked by protective plane trees, I ascend a small hill. Once on the
crest, I face a vista of rows and rows of vineyards. Barren but solid and straightforward in the winter, bushy with leaves in the spring, laden with fruit in the summer and a portrait of yellow and orange in the fall. And as I contemplate the splendid
scene before me, I remind myself that this is not a dream.