JUST PAST MONTPELLIER, LESS THAN AN HOUR INTO OUR TRIP, we made our first detour, down to the slightly seedy Mediterranean port of Sète. The day was hot, and hordes of tourists sought refuge under umbrellas or awnings, devouring the local oysters and mussels that are served up in the restaurants lining Sète's canals. Christopher, an almost obsessive collector of everything, shopped for postcards while I strolled past the cafés, feeling très européen in my new leather sandals (back home, my fashionable friend Miranda had dismissed them as "too Gladiator").
At Narbonne, where we turned west, most of the traffic continued down the coast toward Barcelona. This was good news. While French roads are wonderful, French drivers are (warning: sweeping generalization ahead) horrific tailgaters, coming up fast behind you, flashing their lights, and honking impatiently. Any American driving manual will tell you that safe braking distance on the highway is one car length for every 10 mph. I was unnerved to see signs along the autoroute, where cars and trucks were speeding in excess of 80 mph, reminding drivers to maintain a "safe distance" of two car lengths. (At least trucks are banned from the autoroute on Sundays.)
Soon after passing Narbonne, we took our second side trip, into the scraggly-hilled Corbières region. We were heading south to Lagrasse, an almost unbearably picturesque medieval river village. Like many other charming but isolated towns in the south of France, Lagrasse has been reborn as a haven for bad craftspeople, come from all around Europe to create and sell their appalling ceramics, blown glass, and jewelry to tourists. It does have a very good regional produce store, so we loaded up the car with wine and honey and olive oil before finding a café. Our onion tarts arrived dotted with bits of ham. Rather than offend our waitress, Christopher, a vegetarian, wrapped his tart in a napkin when she wasn't looking ("She didn't bake it herself; I'm sure she couldn't care less," I told him, rolling my eyes) and threw it away after we left.
I wanted to see Carcassonne, once a fortress for the persecuted Cathar sect—Pope Innocent II liked to burn them en masse. But Christopher said the famous walled city has been turned into a theme park, with actors walking around in medieval costumes. That sounded like fun (no purist, I) but he wouldn't budge, so instead we stopped at an overlook above the town. Walking out into a field of red poppies to take in the sweeping view, I had a major movie moment: Meryl Streep's last scene in Plenty. World War II has ended, and she walks into a similar French field, spreads her arms wide, and says, "There will be days and days and days like this." Any true film fan will tell you that these moments are why we travel.
That and rest stops, especially in the case of these particular autoroutes. Forget Meryl and the Guggenheim—what could compare to the Aire des Corbières service area, whose wine selection was larger than that of my neighborhood wine store back home?At Aire de Commingues, Christopher and I sat outside at an umbrellaed table with a view of the mountains and dined on quiche, tarte aux pommes, and café crème. All the service stops were clean; many were stylish. Most had not only shops, cafés, and ATM machines, but also exercise areas and showers. And they all sold regional produce. At Aire du Pic du Midi, named for a nearby observatory, children played in a huge model of the solar system in a field of wildflowers. Half of the glass-and-steel Norman Foster—style restaurant was given over to a free theater and planetarium. We skipped the show in favor of tomato salad and a cheese platter. There were complimentary olives at the cash register. I could have happily stayed here and skipped Spain.