Think of France and the French for a moment. What images, thoughts and ideas fill your mind? For me it used to be Brigitte Bardot, chic, fashion, cheeses, onions, snails, frogs, crepes, champagne, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Bordeaux. Yes: sex food and wine. And that accent. Is there anything sexier than a beautiful woman speaking French whilst eating snails?
Margaret and I have probably seen more of France than most people, including the French. We take our time travelling through the country four times a year on average. We usually make three or four overnight stops and on our last trip down to Spain we spent nearly two weeks in Brittany. And we do try to take a somewhat different route each time, rarely parking our motor caravan in the same town or village.
We have grown to love the country, though not through sex, food, and wine, rather through its rivers, its architecture – the churches and chateaux – and the varied country scenery. In fact we find the food generally expensive and poor and the wine poor if not expensive. I make no comment on sex except to say that we find the villages and towns that we grace with our overnight presence rather dull (with some exceptions of course: see this blog). So dull that we look forward to a night out in Dover (we have a local there called Blakes) or our first night in Spain.
Usually we begin to search for somewhere to park up for the night as the light fades. And generally, though not always, we end up in run down places with many vacant shops and restaurants. Worse still the eateries that are open close early. On our most recent trip we stopped at Prades in the Pyrenees. We left with memories of difficult parking and narrow streets; of almost becoming accidental extras in a film about Pablo Casals - a famous Spanish cellist who lived in the town; of the many dreadlocked dog owners; and of at least three restaurants, all open, all deserted. We were excited to find that one of the restaurants offered traditional French cuisine, but calmed down when we saw that Elvis Burger was on the menu. We ate alone in a pizzeria.
The second stop was at a place called Riom just to the north of Clermont Ferrand in mid France. We parked near the railway station which was somewhat noisy and walked into the historic town, which was mostly dead and had very few eateries. We ended up in a hotel restaurant which offered a reasonable menu and there we consumed well-done (as requested), tough, steak accompanied by exceptionally well-done chips. Unusually, in our experience, there were other people eating there, all sitting alone.
The third stop was at Senlis, not far north of Paris. This was completely different. There were many shops and restaurants, all open. There were dogs but their owners were not dreadlocked and their animals well-groomed. Golly, there was even a charity shop in Senlis, plus a complex and commanding cathedral, together with charming streets boasting warm, busy bars. We ate in a Michelin Starred restaurant and were asked if we had a reservation!! The food, surprisingly, was not too expensive, but it was not too good.
The point of this blog is this: France is a fraud. Just as London is not England, Paris (and its surroundings) is not France. Yet our images of these two countries are often formed by the capitals. And, given our own experience, it is no surprise that the voting pattern varies so much between the big cities and the remote countryside, just as it does across the north/south divide in England.
Over the years we believe that the contrast in France has increased. In the early days we did find traditional restaurants with good food, chequered table clothes and waiters who knew themselves to be our superiors. Now we are more likely to find pizza and kebab take-aways. Still, we are thankful that the rivers, the chateaux, the churches and that delicious accent all survive.