"To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted." Bill Bryson
I was going to write a post on the glories of La France Profonde, from the Dearman point of view, inspired by reading at the weekend that the French government are planning various campaigns and decrees to prevent overcrowding at the most visited tourist sites. It seems that 80% of visitors to France visit just 20% of the country, and France is the most popular tourist destination in the world. So I trawled my photographs and then I tried to find the article about these government decrees, and in the process came across an article on a website called 59 Steps called La France Profonde or La France Vacante. And basically it said everything I wanted to say. Well I have often said there is nothing new under the sun. I despaired.
The article begins:
"Where can you meet a German notary able to quote paragraphs of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars in Latin? Or go to a concert of Russian folk music in a tiny country church set in a farm yard, performed by a virtuoso accordionist and a singer with an ear-splitting operatic bass voice? Or get the best croissants in the world? ... Where you go to the local square for a meal, and find a guy with a piano on wheels playing Bach?" Steve Royston/59 Steps
All of which is the sort of thing I was going to say, but I have to say something, so let me give it a try. And let me say at the outset that everything I am about to say also applies to Italy, to which we have now travelled a few times, and really to the entire world to which we have not travelled.
Suffice to say that yes perhaps you should do the 'big' sites but be prepared for disappointments along the way. These places are photographed and written about so much that the actuality of it all sometimes falls well below expectations. Other times not. So take a small group expensive tour, so that you don't have to queue for hours, and also so that you will learn a lot, then leave and go native as it were.
I'm also not sure about the wisdom of touring in the sense of driving to a different place every day, or even every other day. Yes it has its attractions but make sure you stay in small family run hotels or bed and breakfasts (chambres d'hôte) in little villages - not in some international hotel in the centre of a big town - well unless you are doing one of those must see and small group tour things. And as you drive around you may suddenly come upon a wonderful think like a Roman viaduct or an old castle with nobody, or almost nobody there. But even though there is nobody there, there will be signs that tell you about the place and helpful people in the ticket office who will tell you more if you ask. Yes it helps enormously if you speak French, but these days they often speak English too. All of these kind of things, are of course, marked on the map, so admittedly, for example, we did see the viaduct on the map and chose it for our lunchtime picnic. That's another thing lost in modern times. Maps. The GPS does not give you the same opportunity to explore.
No, rather than touring, and therefore living out of a suitcase, hire a car and book a week here, a week there, in some gorgeous old house in the countryside. None of them are very far from some really famous, or lesser famous sites but honestly you don't need them. Every little village, however tiny has something, and most of them have a tourist office, staffed mostly by charming young women who are eager to help and if there is no tourist office, there will at least be a tourist map.
So here are a few examples to illustrate the point, beginning with the village on the map which almost entirely exists of the one street shown below. And yet is also contained an old church and cemetery - alas the church was closed, although we could have knocked on a door to get somebody to show us around. But it was lunchtime and we thought that might have been a bit rude. I remember visiting another village a long time ago where the church was closed but an old lady saw us there, and ran across to open it and give us a personalised and enthusiastic tour of her little church.
In Aragon there was also a museum celebrating the local industry of sheep or was it goat raising, behind the wonderful door below - also closed alas. Our fault, because we are often browsing around at lunchtime. And the icing on the cake? A restaurant in the small local hotel, with a chef who had just lost a Michelin star - which his wife Priscilla was very pleased about. The food was divine, and not being Paris, also not hideously expensive. Where was Aragon? Well not far from Carcassonne - tourist mecca if you like that sort of thing. Well it is undeniably impressive but really, really tourist. Then there were beautiful villages nearby - one dedicated to antique bookshops, one with three castles, one with the castle shown above. I cannot remember all of their names, but the memories linger of each tiny place.
Taulignan - another tiny village - well a little larger than Aragon. It had shops, including about three hairdressers, one of which David visited for a haircut. This one was not really near anywhere famous, but didn't need to be. Montélimar is the largest known place within reach but we didn't visit it. The first surprise was to arrive on the night of the local lavender festival, so we dined with the crowds along the streets and watched the band play to the locals after the meal. But that wasn't all - there was a market - which was tiny, tiny, tiny - around half a dozen stalls selling complelely local produce and an opportunity to talk to some of the stall holders as well as buy their wares. And in the centre of 'town' an extraordinary silk museum. France is littered with such tiny museums that celebrate some local feature, whether it be an industry, a renowned citizen, a building ... There is always something. And did I mention that they are all beautiful? I suppose there are villages in France that aren't. But we haven't encountered one yet.
Thoard in the foothills of the Alps, where the manager of our house invited us to her home for Sunday drinks with their parrots and roses and where we dined in the village's two tiny little cafés which served us delicious local goat's cheese I remember. Gorgeous.
Varages - a village that had a small local pottery factory which was under threat, and so the mayor was on a starvation protest at its closure. There he is on the steps of the town hall receiving the flag - I can't remember why - but it was accompanied by a wonderful procession of villagers - small boys enthusiastically drumming and leading a procession of young men dressed in 16th century gear, with all the villagers lining the street and cheering them on. Old guns were fired, and the evening was closed with a boules competition and a fair in the streets. Not planned but wonderful - and on another night a glorious meal in the restaurant across the square. Modest but delicious.
And speaking of festivals - which admittedly you are less likely to encounter in the winter months - two more which surprised us. One in the village of La Garde-Freinet, in the hills above St. Tropez, where it seemed the whole village just processed down the main street in honour of the world cup - the soccer one. Such a modest but joyful occasion. And in the town of Beaucaire on the Rhone, the local yacht club on Sunday had a home-made raft competition on le petit Rhone - not that small. Many of them capsized but it was all a lot of fun.
As to Beaucaire itself. It's a truly beautiful town with no tourists to speak of. Why we constantly asked ourselves during our week there? It's not far from Avignon, so perhaps everyone goes there, but even its twin town of Tarascon across the river seemed to have more. Not that we minded a bit.
And last but not least - the encounters with the locals. As always, yes, it helps that we speak French, but it is also possible even if you don't. You won't get this at those big tourist sites. The locals are too busy serving the millions of, mostly unappreciative, tourists that descend on them every year. Yes they make their living from them, but most tourists are ungracious, and they destroy the environment, little by little.
In that village of Montclus we were joined by our two, then young, sons - one with his now wife - both living in England at the time - and some dear Australian friends on their first trip to France. My younger son, who had previously only visited Paris remarked in the course of his couple of weeks with us that there were two Frances - Paris and the rest. Indeed the French themselves - those outside the capital that is - regard the Parisians in the same way that they regard foreigners.
I miss it all so much. Australia has beautiful countryside, friendly people and good food too, but not the history and not that indefinable something - the 'je ne sais quoi'.