Years ago, I knew a man whose favourite part of the family holiday was to pore over foreign maps for weeks in advance, planning the journey in detail. Which route would be the most scenic, which the fastest, which the most cost-efficient in fuel consumption and toll road fees? Once en route, he was confident and comfortable, looking forward to a relaxing journey with no chance of getting lost. (Like most men, his greatest fear was having to stop and ask for directions.) He was truly ahead of his time: a human satnav if ever there was one.
We, on the other hand, set off in our camper van for our month-long French odyssey with embarrassingly little forethought. Having never driven further south in France than Paris before, my grasp of the French road network is even thinner than my knowledge of French geography.
But what the heck, we’ve got the good old Rough Guide to France in the van. That series has always served us well, our vade mecum at home and abroad. (Yes, we even have the Rough Guide to England.) The sticky flecks of retsina and moussaka are the only thing holding our Rough Guide to the Greek Islands together. And there are French road maps under the seat to fill in any missing topographical detail.
Indeed there are maps aplenty. Two copies of The AA Road Map of France, one bought on the cross-channel ferry during our last trip to France, identical to the one already stowed under the seat that we’d forgotten we had. Both maps are dated 2003 – the same vintage as our daughter. It flits across my mind that things might have changed since then.
This time, on boarding the ferry, I remember this foolish purchase and resolve to do better. I go to grab The Rough Guide to France from the van’s book cupboard to swot up. All the Rough Guides from our past travels are all lined up there: Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Greece. Except France. Of course.
But not to worry: my brother’s helpfully lent us two guide books that stood him in good stead for his annual jaunts to Nice with his girlfriend from university. In the early 1980s. Tentatively I start to flick through them. Printed entirely in black and white, their few photos look as if they were taken around the time of Jacques Tati‘s classic 1953 French film, Les Vacances de M Hulot (Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday).
So it looks as if we’ll have to fall back on the sat nav.
The sat nav and I are not good friends. It doesn’t help that since buying it several years ago, my husband, never knowingly one to read instructions, has yet to update its software. Travelling in Britain, it frequently fails to recognise new roads or junctions. If you allow it to speak, you can hear panic in its voice whenever its little screen map depicts us driving across blank territory. As we happily travel along a new motorway, it shrieks at us to “GET BACK ON THE ROAD!” or “DO A U-TURN AS SOON AS POSSIBLE!” My hopes of successful navigation in France are therefore not high.
It also doesn’t have features that fit it for a vehicle larger than a car – such as our camper van. I’m sure there must be satnavs for lorries and buses or they’d be forever getting wedged beneath low bridges. It offers several navigation options such as avoiding toll roads, motorways and unpaved surfaces (always a good idea), but there’s nothing to keep us clear of height or width restrictions. Once in North Wales, we nearly became lodged without warning in a progressively narrowing lane. I had visions of being stuck like Winnie the Pooh in Rabbit’s hole after eating too much honey, unable to go forward or back. Except for us, laying off the honey for a few days would not have helped.
Early in our French trip, an unanticipated low bridge pares like a slice of cheese the plank of wood that’s wedging our inflatable canoe on the roof (yes, I did say inflatable – but that’s another story).
I do not want to become dependent on this inflexible guide and so I peruse my brother’s books once more. One cuts five routes through France navigating almost entirely by the stars – that is, Michelin stars. This method is way beyond my vankeeping budget. The other seems to base its routes on religious sights. It’s like a pilgrim’s guide book that’s got into the wrong cover. This approach doesnt’ suit our family’s atheistic tendencies. It’s also at odds with our concept of France as a state with no religion. Our only remaining alternative is raw instinct.
Now, instinct should not be dismissed lightly. My father’s love of Sancerre wine dictates a delightful detour to that part of the Loire Valley. We are so charmed by this tiny, unspoiled hilltop town that we stay an extra night on our journey south and factor it in to our return trip too. It was also at Sancerre that we made some wonderful new friends from about the only other British “camping car”, as the French call them, to be seen throughout our journey. Senlis, too, we found on a whim, tracking it down because we thought it sounded a nice name: we stayed three days and plan to return.
But instinct will only go so far. Once we’ve chosen a destination, we must depend on the satnav to get us there. At first we condemn it out of hand when it veers us our instinctive route. Leaving the medieval castle above Montelimar, it tries to take us towards the mountains: how can that be right when we’re heading for a town beside the Rhone? Later inspection of the 2003 map reveals that it knew a secret shortcut. We have the decency to apologise.
Thereafter we decide to give the sat nav its head, knowing that if we can just learn to trust it, it will all turn out fine – if only we can train it to recognise our size. And if we can somehow pull that trick off, Rick says at the end of Casablanca, I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.