When people think of France, many experiences come to mind, such as walking the streets of Paris – baguette in hand, sipping wine while looking out to sea, eating cheese in a rustic mountain cabin. For most people, accomplishing these dream-like experiences is achieved by a combination of walking, catching the train, or flying. What people do not associate with France is the classic road trip. The road trip: a staple of any American adventure, is rarely associated with the European continent and even more rarely with France, but this is a mistake. There is no better way to discover what the French countryside has to offer than in the front seat of a car, and some cheese in the back seat.
You can only get so far in planes and trains, but automobiles will reveal hamlets invisible to the SNCF (French national rail). Mountaintop views and the very edges of France become as accessible as the hill of Montmartre. And it is these now attainable mountain tops and coastal views where you will start to experience a side of France the cities can never give you. You will be able to see (and taste) the terroir honestly.
The patience afforded from a road trip lets you get off the beaten path and truly discover France. People fall in love with the country because of its gastronomical history. But do not be fooled to think that the wine and the cheese of France come from the cities; it comes from deep within the countryside. Cows on mountain paths, vineyards that stretch on beyond a what you can imagine. La campagne is where the real history of France can be found.
There is no part of France where the grand history can be seen more clearly than the Loire Valley. The Loire Valley plays host to the highest number of castles in the whole country, more than 300 in this small area, the most sensational coming from a time when the French aristocratic class were competing to see who could have the grandest residence. A road trip is the only proper way to explore this region, as it is the only way to explore it. Train stations are few and far between, and the grandest castles require long treks from public transportation.
A car gives you the freedom to explore the grandest castles; however, this alone is not the only reason to navigate the country roads of France. For the most important castles, one could do their research diligently, booking trains and buses, hop on and off with the flocks of tourists shuttling from place to place. It is not the most comfortable way to travel, but it is possible.
For me, the real reason I yearn to roll down the windows and drive is for the surprises. The Loire Valley is littered with magnificent castles beyond the major ones, and you never know what towns will surprise you with an incredible view. As we drove through the valley, we passed through the village of Chinon, where we were greeted by a castle similar to many others we have seen, but this time we were spellbound as the rain clouds broke and the light illuminated the view before our very lenses. Parking up, we spent a full half hour mesmerised at the view. When you are in a car, you make the route, and you can stop whenever the clouds break to get that perfect picture.
My biggest tip, stay off the highways and stick to the small roads and you will discover adorable villages, beautiful nature and, so long as you have a good friend, it will be the best trip of your life.
And for those of you intimidated by the French roads and French drivers, we have a solution; join Aperture Tours founder Alexander J.E. Bradley and me for our spring Normandy and Loire Valley workshop, and we will chauffeur you throughout the countryside, showing you the best photographic locations along the way.
Author : William Lounsbury
William is a photographer in Paris with Aperture Tours: professional photography guided tours, designed to help you get the best out of your camera whilst exploring wonderful cities with a local. A professional photographer specialising in photojournalism, William enjoys to get off the beaten track and shoot spontaneous moments as they are presented to him.