After All

After All: Speeding when stationary, with lost GPS signal

Image credit: Vitali Vitaliev, Christine Bohling

In the last column of his 'French Motorways' series, Vitali describes his recent coast-to-coast drive across France in the company of a malfunctioning satnav.

Halfway into our coast-to-coast drive across France, our camper van’s deranged satnav, whom we had nicknamed George, came up with a new crackling statement. “GPS signal lost!” he (it) was announcing triumphantly every five minutes. It was a significant addition to his usual mantra, “You are over the speed limit!”, which he particularly enjoyed repeating when we were stuck in a long motorway queue.

I first introduced George – or the SatNag, as we had monikered him – to E&T readers in 2021. We inherited him as part of an outdated sound system, firmly embedded into the dashboard of our Toyota Alphard campervan, aka Alphie. George was irritating, but also irrepressible: three years on, despite using a Google Maps satnav from my wife’s smartphone, we were still unable to silence our ‘SatNag’!

Luckily, not much navigation was needed on the superbly engineered French autoroutes, with no shortage of well-​designed road signs, including the always relevant (as opposed to George) ‘Ralentir’ (slow down) and the ever-so-helpful ‘Rappel’ – a reminder that a previous restriction was still in force. So graphic and timely were the signs that we would often forget they were in French, not in English.

When we first spotted the sign for Troyes – a medieval Gothic town in north-central France (so old that 19-year-old Alphie looked like a gleaming wonder of modern engineering on its narrow cobbled streets) and our first overnight stop on the way to Marseille – we tended, shamefully, to pronounce it as ‘troi’, as if it was the ancient Greek city that gave its name not only to the treacherous wooden horse, but also to a malicious software, and not correctly as ‘trwa’.  

Our next overnight stop could not be more different – France’s third-largest city of Lyon. The A6 Motorway, nicknamed Autoroute du Soleil (Motorway of the Sun), runs all through the city centre at the confluence of the Saone and Rhone rivers, and from the flyover we could enjoy for some time the impressive panorama of La Confluence – Europe’s largest urban development.

La Confluence’s uniqueness lay in the fact that the new eco-friendly residential area was constructed not in the suburbs, but right in the city centre, on the site of the old Port of Lyon. Driving through (or rather above) the now completed urban development, with its smart and sustainable residential blocks, roof gardens, car-less streets, lakes, parks and the futuristic glass-and-steel structure of the now fully functioning Musee de Confluence - of which I had previously only seen the work-in-progress carcass in 2014 - I felt like an elderly Peter Pan flying above a utopian Neverland. I rather enjoyed that unexpected encounter with a place last seen nine years earlier.

We had another – less joyful – encounter in the Domaine Lyon St Joseph, a suburban guesthouse, where we stayed overnight with three young Ukrainian girls – refugees from my war-torn motherland – living there temporarily with their mothers. We had a quick chat in the hotel’s gardens, where they played and ran around like all little girls would. There was one striking difference though: they never laughed or smiled.

Meeting the girls was a reminder of the main purpose of our French journey – to catch up with my own Ukrainian relatives, turned refugees, now living in Marseille.

Ignoring George’s unasked-for warnings, we arrived in Marseille without incident.

After All

Image credit: Vitali Vitaliev, Christine Bohling

The city was in the throes of the mistral, a seasonal strong wind that blows from southern France into the Mediterranean, clearing up the air and disrupting the locals’ sleep as it knocks on doors and window shutters all night. It is also rumoured to bring about distress and irritability in humans.

I’m not sure if it was the mistral’s doing, but I did get irritated by the categorical sign (pictured) at the entrance to a suburban beach we walked past every day, banning (I quote) ‘camping, tents, animals, fishing, barbecues, radios, swimming with clothes on, nudity, smoking and vaping’. Beaches in the south of France seem to be much less welcoming than motorways.

At least the sign did not prohibit the consumption of the bouillabaisse – a traditional fish soup originating in Marseille. In one of the Vieux Port restaurants where I tried it, it was rather a three-course meal, which included the soup, so full of fish that a spoon could stand upright in the middle of the plate.

To the accompaniment of George’s incessant protestations and claims of lost directions, we drove to Calais via Provence and Burgundy. And although as the driver I had to remain teetotal throughout the journey (French motorways’ legal blood alcohol limit is 0.5 g/l as opposed to 0.8 g/l in the UK), I felt as if I was sipping from an invisible wine glass by simply looking at the road signs with the names of the villages and towns we were passing: Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Beaujolais, Cassis, Bouzeron... Never had I been exposed to so many bibulous toponyms.

We could not resist stopping at the village of Chablis, the home of the classic Burgundy white wine, for a coffee.... I did, however, find time to pop into a local caveau (wine cellar) to familiarise myself with the main peculiarity of Burgundy’s white-wine-making technology – the use of malolactic fermentation (normally reserved for reds only) to balance the grapes’ strong basic acidity. To be honest, I just wanted to stock up with some of the area’s bottled produce for home-tasting.

For the rest of the journey to Calais, with the final stop in my favourite French town of Montreuil-sur-Mer, Alphie felt heavier than normal, and the jolly jingling in the back would often drown out George’s meaningless nagging.

On our return to the UK, I – belatedly – came across the only existing book on French motorways: ‘Bonne Route’ by Anna Fitter, published in 1995. And although it was too late to use it practically on our (already completed) journey, I’d like to share the following thought from the book’s introduction:

‘For the traveller from another country, the [French] motorways provide an unexpected, and fascinating, insight into what it means to be French.’

Hear, hear.

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