There is something about car travel that is intrinsically Canadian. The open road. The uninterrupted vistas looking over the vast untouched landscape. Tim Horton’s. And so, in the home stretch of our year in Europe, there was no way we were leaving without a good old-fashioned road trip. Piled into our Peugeot “Trendy” and armed with the Michelin Europe Road Atlas we set out to drive from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean in one day. We were from “The Great White North.” How hard could it be?
Originally the plan was to take a four-day trip around the Pyrénées-Orientales and Languedoc-Rousillon at the beginning of December. We would have some available cash and would be itching to get out of the small town we have been staying for a month. But an amazing thing happened that we conveniently used as a springboard for our trans-oceanic adventure.
On a lovely sunny afternoon sitting outside the wifi-café checking email and Facebook under the heat of the day, my wife gasped and covered her mouth with a look of surprise. Initially concerned about the news and then only with the fact it had been an easy minute since her last breath, I asked what was going on. With a smile, she told me that someone we barely knew had given us just what we needed, a night on the town in Perpignan, the nearest city to our small hamlet. Just for being us.
Bought and paid for, dinner would be waiting whenever we wanted at a luxury hotel and restaurant. All we had to do was make the reservation, mention our hosts’ name, and they would take care of the rest. Stunned, shocked and honoured we checked our calendar which was open (as it has been for most of the year) and called to make reservations for the following weekend. And since we would need a car to get there and back, what better time to take off for a couple of days and explore our region. The leaves would still be changing and the weather not too cold.
At home that evening with a map of southern France splayed out on the kitchen table, it was time to chart our path through the countryside. Or, as it turned out, through the country. Coming from a land where it can take 17 hours to get from one province to another, the drive from Perpignan on the Med to Biarritz on the Atlantic seemed like a hop, skip and a jump. Less than 600 km it would be an easy drive and although there were main highways, we could save the $50 Canadian in tolls each way and take the path less travelled. Small winding roads through fields and valleys would guide us along the “Route de Vin” in Rousillon, to the land of Armangnac and Floc de Gascogne, and straight to the vacation resort town of Biarritz in the Basque country.
Packing for a three-day road trip is no longer the concentrated task it was before living out of a suitcase for a year. Gathering things to get me through a measly 72 hours now takes a grand total of five minutes — toiletries, comfortable walking shoes, a change of clothes and a handful of maps and we were off. We had booked a Premiere Classe Hotel room for our night in Perpignan — decent yes, premiere not so much. Lacking a reception lobby, you check in through an ATM-like machine on the side of the building. Once you’ve paid with your credit card the machine spits out a receipt that also has the door code for your room on it. More like a pod than a room, one small window lets in natural light and the plastic formed bathroom has a door more for show than for actual practicality. But for 37 euros with free wifi it had everything we needed. Finding it however proved to be a challenge.
Unlike Canadian highways, big and small, highways in France are riddled with roundabouts that can present navigational problems even for the best of the best and spotting something on one side of the highway is never as easy as taking the exit and crossing a bridge. First, one must avoid the other roundabout drivers in a hurry to get somewhere, remember to regulate ones speed so that when exiting the roundabout you can stay on the road rather the veer off into the median and remember that if you miss your roundabout exit you don’t have to take the next available one. All you have to do is keep going around. Over the three days on the road there was a lot of going round and around.
The morning after our big dinner and a restful night in the hotel we hit the road, north to Port Nouvelle to touch the Mediterranean and then headed west. Our second stop of the day was in Carcassonne, a medieval city built in the thirteenth century, walled within three-kilometres of brick and mortar with 52 towers to spot enemy approach. Today the entrance into La Cite looks Disney inspired and the shops are a Goth girls fashion dream with tight-bodice-floor-length green-velvet dresses and chainmail vests. After an hour of wandering it was time to get back on the road.
Auch was the next stop, although this one for a coffee and cheeseburger from McDonald’s. I am sure it would have been far more authentic and full of real experience and francaise for us to pull into the town and find a café where we could sit and have an espresso and a pain chocolat or quiche Lorraine, but the McDs in southern France are all wired so it was un hamburger avec fromage, email and back on the road.
Biarritz came at about 8pm. We had been on the road for nine hours but we had made it across the country and to another body of water — the one that most of our friends, our family and our cat lived on the other side of.
That night was spent at the “hug kiss hug” hotel on the main drag of a town known for its luxury stores, parasols and long history of a vacation destination. A little like P-Town but more French and less gay. The next morning we took a drive down to check out our ocean and the Atlantic was putting on quite a show, crashing against the rocky shore. After some great photo ops it was time to do it all again, this time a little further south through more farm land and the mountains.
There is something about taking a blind corner in the dark after 10 hours on the road and looking up to see a mountain face in front of you, like 15-feet in front of you. It is breathtaking, awe-inspiring and terrifying. I suppose it’s like skydiving. Or rock climbing. Or leaving everything behind for a year and not knowing what will be waiting for you when you return. That night we made it home in time for dinner and relaxed back into our life. And I imagine in 23 days that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in the company of family and friends and friends who are family.