Fast Ride Through France, September 22 - 24, 2007

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
Trip End Jan 05, 2008

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Monday, September 24, 2007

I rose very early my last morning in London to catch the train to Dover to meet the group for the start of the tour later in the morning.  The first train of the morning on The Tube just after 5:00 A.M. was filled with drunken British youths and middle-aged Polish men heading home from their Friday night partying, whose antics gave me a few good top-of-the-morning chuckles to start my day.  The two-hour train ride from Waterloo East Station to Dover is through Kent, the so-called "Garden of England" and its southeasternmost county.  Kent is said to be a wine growing region with great untapped potential, one that will certainly become even greater in the era of global warming.  For now, though, it's just pretty green countryside with small towns and lots of fields separated by hedges. 
Meeting the truck and drivers at the P&O Ferry terminal in Dover to cross the English Channel gave me a real sense of deja vu, since it was the same beginning as my Silk Road trip about a year and a half earlier, only with different fellow passengers, different drivers, and a somewhat smaller truck named Daphne.  However, my sense of reliving the past quickly subsided as I began to interact with my fellow passengers while waiting for and then on the ferry.  Whereas on my previous tour those of us who started in Dover all ordered beers and crowded together around a table in the lounge eager to get to know each other, once on the ferry this time the twelve of us all seemed to wander around the boat in our separate ways while exchanging a few pleasantries as we passed each other. 
We spent the first night at a nice campground a short distance from the ferry terminal and not far from the main beach in Calais.  "Don't get too used to these nice European camping facilities; they're not going to last", the drivers warned us, as we spent the afternoon going over such truck life formalities as individual truck jobs, truck rules and regulations, and how to put up the tents.  I spent the hours around sunset strolling on the beach and then wandering around Calais searching for an operational ATM to take out some Euros, the day ending with a group meal and somewhat strained "get to know each other session" at a pleasant seafront restaurant. 
This trip started with several long days transiting quickly through Europe with little to do besides read and watch the French countryside go by.  On the first morning on the road I let my eyes wander from my Lonely Planet Morocco guidebook and the cows of Normandy outside the window towards my surroundings inside the truck and noticed one of the quotes tacked up on Daphne's announcement board: 
"Travel is the frivolous part of serious lives and the serious part of frivolous ones." - Anne Sophie Suetchine 
Now, aint it da truth?  While most people my age have lives dominated by the serious concerns of career and parenting in which travel is a "vacation", a short time to recreate between the priorities of making enough money to provide a high standard of living for the brood.  In contrast, I and most of those I meet on overland trips characterize ourselves as travelers and based on the number of places we have visited and time we have spent on the road clearly make travel a important part of our lives.  And we usually call what we do "traveling" rather than vacation to distinguish voyages of continuous discovery around the world that often involve significant discomfort from brief breaks for recreation and rejuvenation usually characterized as vacations.  Whether you call such travel "self-actualization" or "self-indulgence" for most it's made possible by choices to postpone or not engage in child rearing and to not take too seriously the competitive treadmill of spiraling toil called career. 
Our rapid traverse on expressways through western France took us through LeMans, Tours, Poitiers, Bordeaux, and Bayonne.  The strong French leisure ethic was apparent that Sunday as both all the supermarkets were closed (foiling our plans to buy provisions to cook camp meals) and half the rural male population of France could be seen out in the fields trying to shoot things for dinner.  Yes, saved by French social policy from a first night of camp Spaghetti Bolognaise!  Instead I had something called Assiette de Degustation, a platter of slices of four raw meats (beef, lamb, turkey, and duck breast) accompanied by a hot square rock on which to cook them and an assortment of sauces at a lakeside restaurant in Saint Jean D'Angely, a small town in the cognac region north of Bordeaux where we stopped for the night at a campground.  The dinner, the accompanying red wine, and the tasty fortified local rose (Louis Beuron Pineau de Charentes) I bought at the campground store reinforced my view developed on previous trips that beyond the tourist ghettos there are no bad meals in France, only foreigners with unrefined tastebuds. 
Two days traversing northern and western France also confirmed my impressions on its magnificent civilization and the balanced French attitude toward life.  The pastoral landscapes and quaint towns of one of Europe's less crowded countries combine with one of the world's finest balances between modernity (nuclear power, TGV, Airbus) and natural and historical preservation (fine food, small scale farming) to make much of rural France a virtual paradise.  And contrary to the image of surly locals portrayed by many Anglophone France-bashers, I've found ordinary French people to be as good-spirited and friendly and as willing to converse in English to the degree they are able as any other nationality.  The Toys-R-Us stores and the long queues at McDonalds and Burger King drive-throughs also belie popular notions about widespread French rejection of American culture. 
Once Monday morning rolled around the Hypermarkets were open (but not until a very civilized 9:00 A.M.), but this being France the food selection was nothing like what you'd find at a Wal-Mart Super Center in the U.S. and I went to town to the tune of almost 100 Euros buying all kinds of mouth-watering goodies for my personal consumption - duck mousse, chocolate bars and pralines, patisserie, charcuterie, croissants, olives, wines, cassoulet, and a selection of those cheeses (Morbier and Idiazabal among others) made from unpasteurized milk that I've only read about because they can't be sold in the U.S.  At least I know I will eat well for a few days even if camp meals consist of peanut butter and bologna sandwiches or noodles with red sauce. 
Heading south from Bordeaux almost to the Spanish border lies a long stretch of dull, scrubby pine forest and sandy soil named the Landes that looks much like the coastal plain in the southeastern U.S., after which comes the Basque country's lush greenery and foothills of the Pyrenees, a region with a particularly neat and affluent look about it.  To me there's something about the Basque farmhouses in the region around Bayonne, Biarritz, Hendaye, and Saint Jean de Luz with their white walls, black roofs, red trim, multiple flower boxes and attached barns that's particularly quaint and old world.
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Kathie on

It's so funny to read about it now, your first impression of all of us!

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