It is the first day of the summer holidays and that signals a really obvious thing – huge movement of traffic throughout France’s autoroute network, with millions heading for le soleil! Cars crammed to the back windows with luggage and roof boxes seem to sprout on top of almost every vehicle. There are some hair pulling traffic snarls with hazard lights flashing en masse at choked points on the road. Everyone keeps thinking or muttering ‘destination, destination‘ as two whole months of summer holidays yawn out before the youngsters of France! Certainly a lot of patience is required to make those epic drives across the country and we as a family have done our fair share. Arriving at the autoroute service stations at lunchtimes on these busy holiday traffic days is impressive – the quantity of people astonishing. It translates to scores of people taking their cute doggies for pipi stops, children milking their mothers in shops for all the junk food normally refused to them on any sane day, whilst outside a bunch of dads gawk at maps or have a bit of a stretch whilst taking a break from driving and quite possibly their children. Picnicking families are positively everywhere and whilst there are some families who are so utterly organised that their spread looks like it should be featured in Saveur magazin,e there are a lot who are looking for a simple sandwich. Le jambon beurre – a log of baguette slathered with butter and sliced ham, is dependable, simple and a staple relied upon by millions. I think of it as the unoffical symbol of the autoroute stop!
It wasn’t always about these mundane drives along seemingly never ending autoroutes and carbon copy service stations. Once upon a time, the great journey south was taken on les routes nationales; the national road network intersects picturesque towns and villages, making a drive across France utterly spectacular and quaintly delicious. Yes we can move so much faster on bland autoroutes but oh what we miss these days! The singer Charles Trenet crooned his swing chanson, Nationale Sept (National Seven) in 1955, immortalising the 996km of national road from Paris to the south of France. The spirit of holidays, the epitome of leisurely appreciation of the journey, rather than only celebrating the destination. I enjoyed listening to this evocative song yesterday and I dipped into a favoured reverie of what it will be like when one day, I fulfil my fantasy of taking a tour of the national roads for that same enjoyment of the drive itself. And this dream must involve a spectacular car, a Citröen DS 19. Oh DS – I think wistfully back to when those two letters still signified the most adorably cool car, rather than a video game! The elegant sister of the quintessential quirky french car, the Citröen 2CV. Of course my own DS must be a rich, dark red with the creamy white roof. I imagine my husband and I will cruise on the national road network with a back seat stuffed with spaniels. I will admire le paysage as we roll, idling in charming villages. I can well imagine myself with enormous, black vintage 1960s glasses, quite possibly having taken up smoking for the first time in my life just for the occasion of this iconic journey. Stopping to enjoy proper meals in simple yet delicious restaurants providing menus of excellent value and sampling regional specialities. Sleeping in personalised chambre d’hôtes. Oh the journey, the journey.
I wish everyone a happy and safe summer holiday and bonne route!