Driving through France is like taking a road-trip through Europe, on fast-forward. Such is the variety of its landscapes. But each terroir has its unique identity, too.
Setting off South from Paris, once out of the tangle of ring roads and suburbs, I hit the south of the Bassin Parisien. Huge cereal fields fill the horizon, miles after miles. Under the storm clouds (the sky is never so big as in the plains), all is flat, apart from silos and wind turbines. In this soulless landscape, church towers are few, far between, and tiny.
Two hours south from Paris, I cross the Loire river at Orléans (pronounce Or-lé-ans, that rhymes with “enfant”). This is where Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc), the patron saint of France, won a decisive battle against the English. Aged 16, she cut through the doubts, wranglings and back-stabbings of the French court. Full of self-belief and religious zeal, she essentially got on a horse and attacked. She lifted the 6 months-long siege in four days. She is still celebrated in the city every year during the “Fêtes johanniques”.
As it turns out, Orléans nowadays is not that interesting to visit, so I simply drove through. The crossing of the Loire river is impressive, however. The river, the longest in France, is huge and wild. Its frequent and sudden floods won’t allow its banks to be tamed. They are a mess of banks of pebbles, temporary islands, dead trunks, willows. Even further down its course, where the Loire valley evokes romantic chateaux, beautiful parks and delicate wines, the river remains its own wild self.
South of Orléans is la Sologne, a plain of woods, ponds and swamps. A brief prosperity during the Renaissance gave it a few elegant brick châteaux. But its poor soils make it unattractive for agriculture, so now it is a land of shooting, fishing and horse riding. Life in the few small towns I drove through seems pleasant, perhaps a little boring.
South of the Sologne is the Berry. Once again, the land is fertile, and fields of cereals and pastures roll by. This old province is not an official entity nowadays. But in the popular imagination, this is deep France (“La France profonde”): rural, protected from foreign influences, perhaps a little backwards. The Berrichon accent is the stereotypical “peasant” accent. For me, Berry evokes a recipe, “Chou rouge du Berry”, of red cabbage, cooked with red wine and bacon.
The capital of Berry is Bourges, a beautiful city, whose stunning gothic cathedral speaks of the wealth of the region. The medieval streets around it are full of character and lively. A must-see is the palace of Jacques Coeur, the finance minister for Charles VII (the same Joan of Arc served). On the East of the city, a maze of canals tames the rivers. Lined with weeping willows, walnut and oak trees, they create a delightful area of gardens and vegetable patches. It almost feels like the yin to the city centre’s yang.
These fleeting impressions don’t feel like enough to get to know a country. I wish I didn’t have decide what I don’t have the time to visit. But in France, where landscapes don’t stay the same for very long, and where maps don’t tell of the terroirs, I will settle for impressionist travel.