From my window I have a clear view of the D820, the old Route Nationale (RN) that runs from Toulouse to Paris. For me these represent old France. France before iPhones, prepackaged sandwiches, shopping centres and Renault Meganes. The reason people went to France instead of Spain or Greece for their holidays. Pulling off at an ancient boulangerie in some obscure, unpronounceable town to demolish two or three pain au chocolat in one go, washed down with some heavy, undrinkable coffee.
In 1998, me and some guys drove down to Nice to play in a bar for a week, taking the old routes as part of the trip. It was great, stopping at broken down cafes and bars that seemed barely standing, ordering brie filled baguettes and demis that we topped up with our own supply of lager we’d bought from the supermarket.
It was great. We were young, we were going to play in a bar for a week with free food and booze, plus some cash at the end of it. OK, so the gigs were a bit of a disaster, mainly because the owner of the bar wanted three hours of catchy covers, not 70 minutes of prog rock, as we played. We spent most of the first night learning cover standards like Hotel California and Stand By Me, some of which we played two or three times a night. On the way back, we drove back on the expensive autoroutes because we were tired, arriving back in Nottingham with about 20 quid to spare.
Of course, a lot of the old routes are really busy now, especially around towns or where there’s no autoroute alternative. But there are stretches that are practically deserted, especially in the evenings. Even the D820 outside my window, which is a main route, has periods when I’m wondering where the next car will come from. In fact, towards midnight, you could probably have a picnic in the middle of it. If you felt like it.
The old garages, auberges, cafes and hotels that once lined this route before the Paris-Toulouse motorway was built still thrive, although many now serve tourists rather than salesmen, drivers and travellers.
When people ask me, what do you like about France, Oggers? I say Route Nationales every time. They are surprised. They expect me to say food or wine or scenery or campsites or cakes. But no, the old RNs are always top of my list…
…Well, maybe that’s not quite true any more. I’ve recently discovered an almost childlike penchant for cakes. Especially Flan. A huge oozing mass of eggs, cream, milk and flour cut into slices. It’s like a thick blancmange or concentrated custard put in a pastry base. It’s really cheap and if you find a good patisserie you can really eat a lot. Which is probably why I’m starting cycling again, which is another thing I like about France.
..to be continued.