For my baby boomer sisters and me, bickering in the back seat of our parents' Cutlass Supreme, the lure of family car trips was not the destination, but the stops — the Hot Dog Johnny's and Howard Johnsons. So a recent trip on the autoroutes of southwestern France was like a journey back to my childhood. The Poconos, of course, didn't have vineyards, and Hot Dog Johnny's never served foie gras. Even on the road, I discovered, the French know how to live with style.
I was visiting my friend the artist Christopher Corr, who lives north of Nîmes, when he suggested we "pop over" the Pyrenees to Bilbao and visit the Guggenheim Museum. It would be a good old-fashioned road trip, with high culture as its goal and plenty of joie de vivre along the way. So early one morning, we left the car-rental office in Nîmes in a spanking new, candy-green Renault Clio hatchback, which I promptly dubbed the Green Hornet.
"You've named the car?" asked a skeptical Christopher, who is British and doesn't drive. "I'm American," I reminded him. "We have intimate relationships with our vehicles." Within minutes we were trapped in our first French roundabout—an experience akin to being sucked into a deadly whirlpool. I took the opportunity to lay out the cardinal rule of road trips, passed down from my father: The driver rules absolutely.
As we circled the rotary, confused by two signs to Montpellier pointing in opposite directions, I elaborated. I would control the windows, the music, and the air, and decide where and when to stop. It would be Christopher's job to keep me awake and entertained, to supply me with food and drink on demand, and to navigate. He looked at me aghast. Relax, I said. Unlike my father, at least I wouldn't be smoking cigars with the windows shut.
The autoroutes would lead us through rapidly changing landscapes, both physical and cultural: from the flat vineyards south of Nîmes along the Mediterranean coast, up into the rocky Corbières and Cathar country with its stout fortresses, into the Pyrenees and the insular Basque region, then to the damp Atlantic coast, and finally into Spain. We could reach Bilbao in one long day, but we decided to make it an overnight trip with plenty of time to explore.
I loved the spiffy Green Hornet—smooth ride, responsive stick shift, lots of zip—and the autoroute seemed to have been paved just moments before we arrived. Even the frequent tollbooths were a nice surprise. The automatic coin baskets give both change and receipts, and at the booths with attendants—often lipsticked, cigarette-smoking blondes—we were wished bonnes vacances. We never once saw a police car.
The French are mad about signage. Besides the usual speed limit and distance markers, there are signs that compare the prices of gas at upcoming service stations; suggest alternate, more scenic routes; and, every few kilometers, announce regional points of pride—cassoulet or skiing or rugby.