A ride from southern France to Spain delivers as many treats on the autoroute as off

Javier Salas
| Credit: Javier Salas

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.

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.

IT WAS DUSK WHEN WE TURNED OFF THE AUTO-ROUTE heading south into the Pyrenees; we passed through Lourdes—where Christopher swore he saw jogging nuns—and continued along the road as it snaked into a deep river gorge. Soon we reached Cauterets, a spa town deep in the mountains, where a French friend of mine had been sent as a child to cure his respiratory illness. In late May, between ski and summer seasons, its streets were almost empty. Christopher looked around and pronounced the town "a bit twee." We checked into a small, pleasant hotel, then wandered on foot in search of dinner. In a cozy restaurant we ordered a galette, the local culinary specialty: a crêpe with its round edges folded neatly into a square, the center piled with salad and cheeses.

The next morning we drove back to Lourdes, parked the car, and followed the teeming multitude walking to the shrine. The way was lined with souvenir shops selling Virgin Mary—shaped plastic water bottles, glow-in-the-dark ballpoints, and other tacky memorabilia. By the time we reached the shrine, built over the legendary grotto where Saint Bernadette had her miraculous visions, we were so exhausted by the kitsch that we turned and left—with a quick stop at the town market hall to stock up on sheep's cheese and country bread.

From Lourdes, it was a quick drive to the Spanish border, deserted but for a currency exchange booth. Once we crossed, the shift in landscape was swift. Industry and huge apartment blocks jammed the narrow valleys and pushed right up against the freeway. This rainy, green, mountainous region is home to the Basques, who call the area Euskadi. A distinct ethnic group, the Basques are neither French nor Spanish, and their ancient language is not related to any other European tongue. Today, it is again taught in schools, and the road signs are in two languages: the resort town of San Sebastián is also Donostia; Bilbao is Bilbo.

Basque food is Spain's finest, and once we arrived in Bilbao, a few hours beyond the border, we went in search of lunch. There couldn't have been a greater contrast than that between dour Lourdes and Bilbao's bustling old center. Its narrow pedestrian streets were crowded to bursting with locals and visitors who, like us, were wandering from tapas bar to tapas bar. I devoured tiny plates of shrimp, squid, octopus, sardines, olives, and grilled peppers. Poor Christopher was limited in his lunch choices, but he perked up in a pastry shop, where we discovered chocolate "sardines" packed in a tin.

Sated, we drove on to the Guggenheim museum. Signs led us straight to it without a single wrong turn. We rounded a corner and there it was, Frank Gehry's incredible, majestic titanium jumble set down at the edge of a freight yard, with Jeff Koons's gigantic, flowering puppy sitting out front. Most astonishing, we drove right into a free parking space just steps from the entrance. Our Green Hornet was dusty and bug-specked, but the trunk was filled with food and wine, a record of a journey that I looked forward to reliving, meal by meal and bottle by bottle, once we returned to France.

Once you're on the autoroute — and armed with a Michelin map — it's impossible to get lost on this trip.

Day 1
From Nîmes, take the A9 to Narbonne, stopping at Sète for an early lunch. From Narbonne, continue west on the A61 (the Autoroute des Deux Mers) as far as Toulouse, and then switch to the A64. Just past Tarbes is the N21, the turnoff for Lourdes and Cauterets. The Hôtel Christian in Cauterets (10 rue Richelieu; 33-4/8988-4005, fax 33-4/ 9318-5651; doubles from $42) is comfortable and reasonable.

Day 2
After touring Lourdes, head northwest on the D937 to rejoin the A64, drive west to Biarritz, and take the A63 until the border with Spain. Continue on that road — now called the A8 — until San Sebastián, a good place for lunch or an overnight stay Bilbao is an hour west of San Sebastián on the A8.