We are coming up the east side of France, hopping from one municipal aire du camping to another, with our plane ride home now just a week away. What we have been doing is drive for three or four hours a day, which is 100-150 miles on these tiny non-toll roads, and aim for the next aire du camping that’s a reasonable distance away, and in the general direction of Antwerp, where we’ll put it on the boat for home. What this strategy gives us is a generous sampling of small town France and no idea at all of what’s around the next corner.
Now it is possible to travel quickly across France – they have beautiful four-lane highways that my GPS lets me jump on for a few miles, until the “Péage 2000 meters” sign appears and off I go on the next exit. They’re toll roads. You can zoom from one side of France to another at 80 miles an hour if you want to, but there’s a cost, not too bad for passenger cars and 3.5 ton European style RVs, but us five ton Americans pay trucker tolls.
The good thing about it, though, is I look enough like the swarm of 3.5 ton campervans I’m sharing the road here with that I can get away with a lot. This is because Sprinters tuck the dual wheels underneath, so a heavy one looks like a light one, unless you know where to look. I can’t fool a toll booth operator, who knows vehicles backwards and forwards, but it just doesn’t compute that a campervan would weigh more than 3.5 tons to the Europeans, given the tax and toll structure here. I sail through signs saying “3.5 tons maximum”. I wave to the cops, and they wave back. It’s just automatic here – campervans and Class Cs are assumed to be 3.5 tons. One happy coincidence is due to the difference in the way Europeans and Americans classify light trucks – we do it by weight carrying capacity, they use total loaded weight. The 350 or 3500 designation on one ton American light trucks gets misinterpreted by Europeans as meaning the total weight is 3.5 tons. I’m not gonna enlighten them. This confusion has gotten me into many a central zone in these towns where technically I wasn’t allowed to drive. Even though it’s easy to sneak by, it’s still a risk – in the event of an accident, I’m sure I’d get all the blame, no matter who did what.
On one stretch of four lane highway the speed limit was 110 for 3.5 tons and below, and the heavy guys were limited to 80 kph, and also limited to the slow lane. Long lines of semis trundled along in the slow lane. I’d pass them, but duck back into the slow lane as soon as possible, because there was almost always some very fast traffic coming up behind me. 110 kph is 68 miles an hour, which the French round off to around 80.
Most of the time we’re on a tiny two-lane road, and sometimes a one-and-a-half lane road, doing about 50 and drinking in the beautiful French countryside. We can’t remember names of places anymore, it’s all blurring together and we’ll have to sort it all out when we get home and go back through the photos.
We went through Brittany, the Loire, and are now up near Calais, watching the building material change from limestone to brick to half timbered, and realizing how much of French village life still exists as it has for hundreds of years. Then and now, people went off to the big city to make their fortune, but the goal was always to retire back “home” where they were born and raised. Each village lists notables who have done this over the centuries on a plaque in the town square, and you can bet they’re buried in the local churchyard, no matter how famous they got in Paris. Everybody knows where home is here.
The main thing is the history, with all the tragedies and triumphs. Like this abbey on the left, which had the misfortune to be built in the 1760s, just a few years before the revolution. Abbeys were great concentrations of wealth that the church used to participate in the social system in place at the time, and they fared poorly in the ensuing upheavals. Most of the churches fared better, and were eventually repaired.