Le Rosbif Writes: Forget picturesque country lanes, with their traffic lights, cyclists, and mad villagers, says Anthony Peregrine – motorways are king
Recently I’ve been roving up and down France and in and out of Belgium, and have been reminded of the joys of (mainly) French motorway driving. Motorways generally get a bad press. When being built, they’re ruining the countryside and causing colonies of giant toads to be dislodged. I sympathise, but not much. Even with all the motorways we’ve got, there still seems to be ample countryside left over – and motorways mean more people can get into it. Sing ho! for democracy.
And toads can be shifted. It must rarely be the case that the only place where even exotic giant toads might survive is in the path of a motorway. If it is, well, I don’t know about you but – given time and counselling – I could probably adapt to their absence.
Once built, motorways are, like bananas and Monaco, considered a necessary evil. They’re OK for the sort of spruce chaps who have to be in Milan by nightfall, for Spanish trucks the size of Andalusia, and for coaches from Bulgaria. The rest of us are urged to get off them, to leave them alone in favour of a slower take on road travel. Thus may we appreciate the warp and weft of our surroundings, pop into Romanesque churches, and stop at proper auberges for three-hour French lunches.
Country lanes inevitably feature tight bends, a wide variety of speed limits and cyclists
Admirable, of course, so long as we’re going no farther than the next county. But the warp and weft of the surroundings also include traffic lights, pedestrians, cyclists, tight bends, a wide variety of speed limits, villages, mad women lurching into village streets, children, dogs, several hundred ways of choosing the wrong lane in town centres, and French cars coming the other way with only a white line between you. These, and many other elements (let us not mention barrier-less precipices), are prejudicial to the longer-distance motorist. They will threaten his back, his sanity and (if so accompanied) the future serenity of his family.
Compare and contrast with the feeling of release gained as one swings down the slip-road and on to the motorway. Hindrances are left behind. Like airports, motorways offer a parallel universe existing beyond the normal world. Concerns can’t get at you. The only duty is to thwack along at speeds approaching 80mph, thus fostering the idea that you’re living life in the fast lane – an idea unusually difficult to foster when you own a Peugeot 207.
In common with most civilised people, I have little interest in cars per se. So minute is my interest that I thought my Peugeot was a Citroën for the first two years. There are buttons in there that, five years on, I still haven’t deciphered. So my approval of motorways has nothing to do with seeing how the motor will go. What I appreciate is the liberating sense of getting somewhere in untrammelled manner. Plus other things. Like:
Spanking through the landscape
I yield to no one in my admiration for northern France and Belgium. However, even fanatics must admit that the landscape is sometimes flat, uninspiring and apt to turn to mud. When, pre-motorways, I first roamed these parts, it took days to get anywhere – very often behind peasants in Peugeot 4Ls, or nuns in Citroën Dyanes, all involved in a national competition to see who could drive farthest in first gear.
Motorways mean one may now zip unimpeded through the boring bits – the missing drama being supplied by Wagner or, better yet, Mott the Hoople. In no time, one is rolling south on, say, the A71 autoroute, with the Massif Central and its volcanoes filling the field of vision. At Clermont-Ferrand, our motorway becomes the A75, promptly rising beyond 1,100m. That’s higher than any mountain in England, Ireland or Wales. Here are upland pastures, moors and forest. It’s a remote world, all right – and you’re cruising through it at 80mph. Back in the day, impossible mountain lanes, ambling cattle, peasants and nuns had me bottled up for weeks.
Before too long, one is curving towards the Millau Viaduct, which soars massively across the Tarn valley as if completing God’s design for the site. This, the most beautiful French (European?) construction of the past 100 years, indicates that man doesn’t always foul up landscapes. He may also embellish them. In truth, the bridge is too ethereal for cars and lorries. It requires Pegasus, a couple of dozen unicorns and as many winged princesses as can be easily gathered.
The Millau Viaduct
Yet it wouldn’t be there were it not for the motorway. Granted, the A75 is the most dramatic and appealing autoroute in France. (And, bar the viaduct itself, it’s toll-free.) But the same considerations apply to all: if the countryside is tiresome, you can roar through. If it’s pretty, you may have a good look without getting snarled up in it. It’s win-win.
Electronic information panels attached to French motorway bridges are notable. They are particularly notable because the warning is generally topped or tailed by the word: “Prudence”. As in: “Prudence: road works in six kilometres”. I very much approve of this. The motorway warning people aren’t screaming “Watch out!” or “Danger!” They are treating motorists as cultured folk who will respond to an appeal to their higher instincts. I would appreciate it even more, of course, if I were a lady called Prudence.
Love ’em. What excitement. These are the gathering places of all peoples, the modern equivalent of post-houses and those desert towns in Uzbekistan where spice trains used to pause. Everybody is there – Japanese coach tourists, gendarmes, doctors, plumbers, Italian truck drivers, Dutch holiday-makers, soldiers – and they’re all rootless. Apart from the staff, no one is local. We’re out of place and out of time and all of us, citizens of the world, are wondering how the hell to work the coffee machines.
There are cafés, fast-food outlets, self-service cafeterias and, hither and yon, real restaurants. Last week, self-service-wise, I had baked ham and chips, bread, water and coffee for €9.50 (£6.75). It was good, too – and slightly below the national average motorway meal spend of €11.90 (£8.50). In summer, you might eat cheaper yet where you see the Croq’Malin sign – around £4 for a salad or sandwich, drink and dessert from the shop, £6 for a main course and drink in the cafeteria.
No one pretends that this is anything but mass catering, under the firm crack of corporate control. So no need for tips, compliments or damn-fool gastronomic discussion. Just eat and leave, generally in around 40 minutes. Or move on to the shop, which invariably stocks regional produce – vital if you’ve forgotten to buy presents. (“A jar of tripe for your mother!”). These days, there are also remaindered books, CDs of whale song and lots of clothes. These are also vital, should you have forgotten to pack any.
Motorways, in short think of, and provide, everything. I shall spend my next break driving up and down them.
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