Last week, as I hope you know, I traversed the South-West region of France to see and explore areas completely new to me. I have been to Paris many times, I speak French, I love French culture and yet I had never gone further outside of Paris than Versailles. Yeah, I don’t know why either. The trip was, as expected, remarkable and I learned a lot about the country and I think even myself, the hallmark of any great travel experience.
I was at first anxious. I used to be fluent in French, but that was more than fifteen years ago and I have lost a lot of my language skills, especially the vocabulary. I knew that I would meet people and be in small towns where English wasn’t an option and I just didn’t know to expect. The reality is twofold. First, just about everyone I met at least knew a small amount of English. Many of the towns are used to tourists and over time the residents have picked up key words and phrases. Also, as always, the universal sign language of pointing and nodding always does the trick. But, on a personal level, my French returned – well mostly. Once I had to try on my own, without the help of a tourism official or guide, I got used to speaking French once again and by the end of the week had recaptured a lot of my language skills. Was I perfect? Far from it and my accent is horrible, but I had conversations, got around town, ordered meals all on my own and all in French. I’m pretty proud of myself, I must say. But even if I didn’t have these skills, the areas I went to are all so very easy to navigate and the people so genuinely friendly that it wouldn’t have been a problem had I not spoken a word of French.
I also discovered that many of the things I love most about Paris are present in other parts of France. (don’t tell them that) While there are certainly regional specialties, the food everywhere was excellent. Some meals may have been better than others, but none were bad. What I love most about French cuisine is its reliance on fresh food well prepared in traditional ways. There’s nothing better than a coffee and pain au chocolat in the morning, or some ham and butter on a baguette for lunch. Dinner in France is always multi-course, always relaxed and always enjoyable. Wine flowed like water and it’s true, it is cheaper than soda and better for you too. My one point of confusion is how the French all stay so skinny. The food is rich and ample and yet there they are, always well dressed and looking fit and trim. For my sake I think a week of fasting may be in order.
The French countryside was as I imagined, but also different. Driving through Cognac was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. Even though it was raining, the rolling hills completely covered with vineyards and houses and chateaux in the distance all looked exactly what France should look like. It was postcard perfect. The towns and villages though surprised me a bit. I honestly thought before embarking on the escape that it would just be a parade of churches and old houses, but it was so much more. Each town has its own very unique personality and residents own a fierce sense of pride about their communities. And each community is different and known for something unique. In La Rochelle their location on the water and cultivation of salt and seafaring ways was well evidenced. In Cognac of course, the strong liquor rules dominion. But even in Angouleme, while ancient with an impressive history, their greatest sources of pride revolved around their artistic ventures. Cinema and cartoons fuel that city’s psyche.
Most importantly, what surprised me the most was just how very much I liked it. I mean, it’s France so I pretty much assumed it would be a nice trip, but I didn’t just enjoy my time, I relished in it. For an American, traveling through French villages and the countryside is alien and new. The United States has more than 70 cities with 500,000 people or more; France has fewer than 15. In the United States you can drive from Maine to LA and never leave the boring, bland soulless interstate. The same is definitely not possible in France. In France you are forced to see new things and learn about areas heretofore completely unknown. Driving by an 11th century castle is normal and laughing with a new friend over a glass of wine at a café is how evenings are spent. Rather than exist in a bubble of work-home-repeat, traveling through France was a true cultural immersion and it must be the same for everyone who visits, whether they like it or not.
In particular, the regions I visited: Pictou-Charentes, Midi-Pyernees and Provence, are well worth the time to explore for a week, two weeks or even longer. I know many people back home who have spent time in Paris, Normandy, Loire, and they’re all great. But never once have I heard about people spending time in La Rochelle or Albi and that needs to change. These areas are just as beautiful, just as rich in history and culture as any other and they need to be a stop on everyone’s European itineraries.
Much, much more to come of course over the next few weeks and months, but these are just some of my first impressions while traveling through France.
Have you been to any of these areas in France? What did you think?