As a pretty dedicated Francophile, it has always frustrated me somewhat that my mum- who has taken me around the world, encouraged and lets face it, funded my own travels- has never really got France. I’m sure other language students will understand my predicament, whilst people who haven’t experienced an all-consuming romance with a foreign country might find it a bit strange; it’s kind of like introducing your parents to the love of your life, and them thinking you could do better…
I can’t really blame her for her lack of enthusiasm, considering her first two experiences on the other side of the channel consisted of 1. Navigating the mist and the rain of the Pas-de-Calais to drag my ungrateful and miserable ten year old self around WW2 sites, and 2. a drawn out coach holiday to Disneyland Paris with my even less grateful and even more miserable self. Actually based on those experiences it’s a wonder I even grew to like the country…
Anyway, as my inexplicable love for France grew, fuelled by Baudelaire and red wine, my mum was obligated to come and visit me wherever my obsession took me, Bordeaux, Montpellier, the Alps…And while I’m sure she enjoyed these trips, I can pretty much guarantee that if it weren’t for the prospect of not seeing (wonderful) me for another few months, she would have considered her time much better spent in an olive grove in Greece or better still, on a beach in the Caribbean.
So last week while embarking on our road trip to Italy, I gave myself the challenge of trying one last time to convert my mum to France…
Arriving in Calais is never a good start, lets face it. I’m from the rainiest town in the UK and I still find the place grim. I didn’t have the most festive start planned for the journey either, and we spent the morning distributing donations to refugees in ‘the jungle’. My mum was then treated to a rant that began with the terrible handling of this humanitarian crisis and ended with institutional French racism and the birth of fascism. Not exactly how I was planning on selling her the virtues of France… Time for a well needed pastry-stop.
Her face lit up perceptibly at the counter of Paul in the service station. For those of you who don’t know, Paul is a French bakery franchise, and was almost single-handedly responsible for my 5kg weight gain in the first month I moved to France. We’re talking fresh pastries, glazed tarts, macaroons… A ridiculously impressive spread for motorway services. Not a dry muffin or a pre-packed sandwich in sight. Add this to the fact that dogs are welcome and it was definitely France:1, UK:0…
After stuffing our faces we headed straight for our first stop- Rheims. Rheims is famous for its great big Gothic cathedral, where all the old kings of France were crowned. I had seen photos and had painstakingly tried to sketch it during my art A-level, but I was still awestruck by the sheer scale and the detail. It’s pretty pimp. Not even the scaffolding on the front window could ruin the view- if anything it made it more impressive trying to imagine how it would have been built back in the day. While mum was pretty impressed by it, I think what really struck us both by the end of the week was that wherever you go in France, every dull grey city that you drive into has this beautiful historical centre…It’s a gift and a curse as far as a road trip is concerned because you just want to stop everywhere!
After a bit of a drive through the Champagne region, including a night-time stop off at the fairy-tale like Troyes, Dijon was our next destination. Apart from the mustard, I hadn’t really heard of Dijon, but it quickly became my new favourite place. It’s basically like walking down Diagon Alley, little winding streets, Tudor-esque wooden beams and wonky roofs, contrasting with marble churches and turrets.
We ducked into a little restaurant on the main square to take shelter from the rain and try the local specialities. Snails and Boeuf Bourguignon need no introduction, but I was a bit ashamed to admit that after all these years I’d only ever tried snails in Morocco, and hadn’t been the biggest fan. Since ‘when in Rome’ was the motto of the trip (although we didn’t actually make it that far south) I decided to give them another try. It can be argued that anything would taste good if you cooked it in that much butter and garlic,but I have to say that the snails were actually delicious, and had a subtle but quite interesting grassy taste. While they’re not knocking Raclette off the top spot any time soon. I would definitely have them again.
For a bit more fairy-tale charm (and because I was gagging for some Savoyard fondue) we decided to make Annecy our next stop. This little city at the foot of the Alps is basically the poster boy for Europe, as far as anyone outside of Europe is concerned. The lake, framed by snowcapped mountains and medieval turrets is probably one of the most Instagrammed and #wonderlust-ed images in existence, and I knew my mum would lap it up. On a clear day. Unfortunately, on that particular day, we could barely see over the lake, let alone the mountains. We were lucky enough to be there on a market day though, which almost made up for the weather, adding to the old-world experience, and definitely stacking up brownie points for France. After a morning of wandering we had a lovely lunch on the river (confit du canard and entrecote, merci beaucoup) and then decided to head towards Mont Blanc, with a stop-over in Chamonix.
The road up to Chamonix was beautiful. We decided to ditch the motorways, or more specifically the tolls, and take the Route des Grandes Alpes. Our scenic route took us through little alpine villages and ski resorts, winding up and down mountains that went from flame red autumnal forests to snowcapped wilderness. Reaching Chamonix was actually a little bit disappointing after the dramatic landscape that we had just passed, but the hotel spa definitely made up for it! In the evening we ventured out into the town centre, which although was quiet and out of season still had the charm of a ski resort.
We had, unfortunately, visited Chamonix at pretty much the worst possible time of the year. It had just started to snow, so hiking was not permitted without a guide, yet there was not enough snow to do anything fun in either. Not too put off, we took the lift (the highest in Europe!) up to the Aiguille du Midi, which has views of Mont Blanc spanning three different countries. Pretty impressive. On a clear day… Unfortunately, once again, it was not a clear day, and the placards labelling the mountain range seemed to be taunting us against a backdrop that was mistier than the previous night’s hammam…
As we queued up for the Mont Blanc tunnel into Italy, I couldn’t help but feel a little frustrated by the weather. While I think my mum was mostly joking when she said she wasn’t surprised to see so many people queuing to leave France, I couldn’t exactly call my mission a roaring success. The weather had thwarted us at pretty much every turn, and while I had tried to show my love at her best, it was as if she had turned up hungover and in last night’s clothes.
After a few hours in Italy, I started to realise that all hope was not lost. After stopping in the beautiful Courmeyeur, only to find all its restaurants closed at 3pm (what?) we pulled up to a service station, expectations high after recent experiences in France. When presented with our meals, I think we would both have preferred to chow down on some frogs’ legs… Dry pasta, moulded into the shape of a microwavable bowl and now standing upright on a paper plate, held up by its charred edges. Could this really be Italy?? I’m sure even Britain’s infamously vile Little Chef would have blushed at the sight.
Although things in Italy were thankfully uphill from there, we were both relieved a few days later when we passed the little blue sign informing us that we were back in France. Apart from the little wave of satisfaction I always feel when I see a border as it should be, I also knew that my mum was glad to be back in a country where I could ask for directions if we were lost, order a meal with a degree of certainty (well, most of the time anyway) and more importantly, communicate to a vet that we needed to get the dog vaccinated before returning to the UK.
We had managed to arrange a last-minute visit to my cousin Theo in Antibes, and my mum was finally treated to the joys of the south of France when we woke up to the sun rising over the harbour in the morning. I also enjoyed not being in the metaphorical driver’s seat as Theo took over as tour guide and showed us around the beautiful old town. Strolling past people sprawled out on the beach, and even swimming in the sea, it was hard to believe that a mere few hours drive away was like going beyond the Wall in Westeros.
Unfortunately we didn’t have long to basque in the sunlight, and after a long overdue steak with blue cheese sauce we were on the road again, taking a detour through the underwhelming and slightly nauseating Cannes. After making the long awaited stop off at Paul only to find it fermé, Mum decided to tug on my heartstrings and suggest a detour in order to have dinner at my favourite restaurant in Montpellier, L’Entrecôte. I don’t know wether it was the prospect of the unbearable nostalgia for my Erasmus days, or my digestive system subconsciously informing me that a second serving of steak in a day was a faux pas, but I couldn’t face going back to my old uni town.
Instead we opted to make Avignon our last stop. Having visited the town from Montpellier a few years earlier, I knew that it would be the jewel in the crown of this trip. Entering through a narrow arch in the city’s walls under the moonlight there was somthing magical about navigating the little winding streets, deserted out of season and out of hours. Turning a corner and being faced with the splendour of the Palais de Papes was even more magnificent in this light, and only slightly eerie. After a whirlwind tour of the fortified city, we had one more crepe in France before hitting the road for one last time.
Looking back on this trip I’m pleased to say that as well as converting my mum to France, I also rekindled my own love for the country. I surprised myself in spewing out facts and theories that I had learnt over the course of my degree, suprised not just that I remembered but that I still cared. In the space of a week we passed through all four seasons and about a millennia of history, as well as consuming the equivalent of a small petting farm. The trip may not have gone exactly as I had planned, and my mum may not be signing herself up as a frequent traveller on the Eurostar just yet, but I’m sure that when she’s packing her bags to come and visit me in Courchevel this winter, she’ll be doing so with a bit more enthusiasm!