As we amble gently south, we’re slowly getting the hang of the various regions of the French Atlantic coast. In some respects, our Satnav’s inescapable infatuation with Finland has encouraged our increased use of good, old-school paper maps and these, combined with the unrivalled skills of The Navigator Par Excellence, have meant a far greater sense of place as we’ve been able to recognise when we’re crossing from one distinctly mapped region into another.
So, when we made landfall in Roscoff, we found ourselves in one of the many featured locations of the Shipping Forecast, Finistere – from where we continued into the Loire-Atlantique & Vendee, thence into Charente-Maritime and then (currently) the Gironde.
It was the transition between Charente-Maritime and the Gironde which seemed most distinctive, in that suddenly, the arable fields around us were almost completely filled with sunflowers. Their purpose we could only guess at – seeds or oil derived therefrom – but they were clearly (and sadly, from a visual point of view) past their best. In fact, they were formed up in forlorn battalions, uniformed in tattered brown and faded yellow, all facing in the same direction, each and every one of them shamefacedly drooping their heads as if in defeat, and all seemingly marching in retreat across the landscape.
In contrast – and marshalling these defeated ranks – fields of ripe maize marched alongside, their golden bayonets poking aloft in close formation, each one standing tall alongside their soldierly comrades as they proudly marched the vanquished armies of sunflowers towards their final fate.
Meanwhile, in the seemingly deserted villages through which we passed, three things proved of note. Firstly, most of them genuinely did seem deserted. Honey coloured stone villas, terraces, cottages, houses – call them what you will – all seemed as if the holocaust had arrived just ahead of us and wiped all evidence of human habitation off the streets. Yes, the occasional car passed us by – the occupants staring rather more than they should have done, presumably at the unfamiliar-looking number plate on the van, but probably more likely in horror since the driver, as they perceived it, seemed to have her head down, buried in a large, unfolded paper map.
Secondly, the French could clearly teach the rest of Europe a lesson or two about traffic-calming. In obvious fear of any of the non-existent pedestrians being mown down by passing vehicles, each village is preceded by a suspension-challenging 30kmph speed-bump, which continues to shake the entire contents of the van, no matter how slowly we edge ourselves over them. (More to the point, despite best efforts, they have completely wrecked – of all things – our cutlery drawer, which will need serious refurbishment back in Blighty.) Once the speed-bump (always topped with a superfluous painted pedestrian crossing) has been negotiated, we enter a series of delightful, high-kerbed chicanes (reminiscent of those fairground rides which thrilled us as kids when we were let loose in small, motorised cars which steered themselves around a circuit, regardless of our childlike, committed and enthusiastic turning of a completely unconnected steering-wheel). These chicanes are planted with flowering shrubs, herbs, and other flora – all of which brushes both sides of your vehicle as you pass through, and deliver an overpowering psychological constraint to your speed as you – quite literally – admire the daisies as you pass through.
And finally, since your average speed is now slower than the apocryphal horse-and-cart-through-central-London’s-rush-hour (and your vehicle, is in effect, being kept on the carriageway simply because it’s clattering off the containing kerbs), you have time to marvel at the shuttering which covers each and every window you’re passing. I’m not kidding. Whoever won the Window Shutter Manufacturing and Installing Contract for All Of France must surely now own Monte Carlo. We’ve never seen so many window shutters. Open, closed, weather-beaten, faded, newly painted, nearly all of them very beautiful in their own right – every single house has about eight hundred of the things. They’re everywhere. What a coup. You can just hear the sales patter now: Look, you hang ’em on every single window and they keep the heat in and the heat out. You don’t need curtains, and they make your home look, well, sort of French, n’est’ce’pas?