We continued our drive south from the Reims area in Champagne-Ardennes, where we woke up to the same cool, damp weather we had been experiencing in Calais. We were inland now, but not much further south. The champagne vineyards we passed were all bare vines – nothing sprouting yet in the vineyards, although the grass was out and so were the cows and sheep, happy the winter was over. Lots of calves and lambs were frisking around, and the meadows were dotted with dandelion and buttercups. We stuck with our GPS-selected route through all the small villages and byways, bypassing the expressways and toll roads.
Mostly we seemed to be following D996, a road which was mostly two-lane with an 80 kph (50 mph) speed limit, and we’d hit a new village every ten miles or so. There were a few stretches where it was evident that this road didn’t get enough traffic to qualify for frequent repaving, but by and large it was well-maintained and easy driving. Of course, we were sharing it with locals who liked to drive much faster than we did, probably because they’d been driving it all their life and knew each curve by heart, farmers in tractors hauling hay and other things a kilometer or two down the road, and on one occasion a giant road paving machine, who didn’t see the need to pull over and let everyone by. We must have followed this guy for twenty miles. When you drive the back roads, you get to meet everybody.
After a while we left the Champagne region and entered the upper Rhone valley, called Bourgogne by the locals and Burgundy by us deep thinkers who have sampled more than our fair share of the local products. I drove by signs with names which were only words on a wine bottle to me before – Nuits St Georges, Gevery-Chambertin, etc. – as we entered the Mediterranean drainage area and left the North Sea drainage. That beautiful creamy palomino colored limestone well known those who visit the Paris area gave way to a coarser, darker building material in the houses and barn buildings we passed. And the sun finally came out and it warmed up to 60 degrees. I was ecstatic.
Each village had its own charm – this spiral steeple amazed me as I drove slowly past. For a stretch the local building material was brick – I even saw half-timbered houses with brick used as a filler in between the timbers. Most of the land seemed devoted to grain production, with wheat and other grasses. The fields covered with bright yellow flowers are to produce canola oil, mostly for biodiesel use. France has an ambitious program to convert to biodiesel, but like many ambitious French programs it’s way behind schedule. The current amount of biodiesel being mixed into French fuel is around 5%, not enough to aggravate my DEF using Sprinter.
After a day of driving, we settled into a giant camping facility a few miles northwest of Lyon which was just waking up from its long winter slumber, and had what they called “stop and go” camping, basically boondocking in an out of the way corner of their parking lot for eight euros. It was all we needed or would utilize anyway. Fiona had to become an imaginary kitty for the night, since they don’t allow animals, but she managed it well. It was so nice to wake up to sun and shirtsleeve weather the next morning – we had finally gone far enough south to be back into what we would consider tolerable.
South of Lyon our GPS led us up onto the Massif Central, a mountainous region in south-central France where the Loire river originates, with amazing towns like Le Puy-en-Velay, a hotbed of early Christianization of the region, and one of the starting points for the Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage route. We got up to around 4200 feet in altitude as the driving became difficult, and passed many people with backpacks trudging along this route through the mountains. My nice warm weather went away until we came over to the western side of the mountains and hit the A75, an expressway without tolls that took us straight south to the Mediterranean coast.
After three days of more or less continuous driving, I was grateful to be approaching our destination – Narbonne-Plage, a beach town on the Mediterranean coast we had visited eleven years ago on our rental car tour of France. After a bit of a hassle trying to find an imaginary road our GPS insisted was there, we slipped into this deserted town, and found a couple of other campervans parked in a little parking lot on the boardwalk. Technically illegal, but there’s nobody here yet – beach season starts late in France. We cooked a nice dinner and fell asleep listening to the waves as the full moon rose over the sea. Last time we’d run down to the beach during the day, and then schlep back inland for the night in a hotel. This time we’re staying oceanfront.