I became a convinced and unshakeable Francophile with my first visit to that country in 1952. It might have had something to do with the method of locomotion. I had just emerged from seven months of unemployment, followed by three months of low-paid factory work, so we couldn’t afford anything fancy. We decided why not go by the only means we could afford, a tandem bicycle. So off we went to Petticoat Lane in the east of London, where we found a pre-war tandem that looked in working order, for fifteen pounds. We rode it home fairly successfully, considering our lack of experience with the two seats and four pedals, but when later we took it on the road it quickly became evident that the gears weren’t working. Not to worry, we could get them repaired.
Hold your horses: we went all around London, looking for a bike mechanic who could make he needed part, but they all jibbed at this one: it was obsolete, they told us, years and years out of date, and they didn’t have anything suitable, and thought it unlikely we could ever find anything that would make it work.
We persisted until we found a guy with a shop under Hammersmith bridge who said he would make us a part for the defective gear. He did so, and it worked like a dream.
We bought the tiniest tent we could find that we could both fit into, strapped on to the front handlebars, sleeping bags to match, strapped on to the back handlebars, and an extremely small stove reduced to a tiny square package, run on gasoline. Unwise in the ways of pannier bags, we had a big oblong sort of package made from a rough plastic, into which we piled our change of clothes, our books, and everything else we might need. One day we set out for Newhaven, for the direct ferry to Dieppe, which would take us directly into Normandy to begin our journey south.
Once we got started, the riding was tougher than we expected. Our legs were by no means up to climbing each dip and soar of the undulating countryside of Normandy, although the downs were a piece of cake. I remember we passed through a village called Yvetot, and it was somewhere around here that we were betrayed by sloppy English workmanship, for our immense carrier bag almost immediately split at the seams. That first night, in a spot of distress, we asked the wife of a local peasant farmer if we could sleep in the yard of their house, and if she by any chance had some thread with which we could mend our ripped bag. She provided us with water, gave us some eggs, and after we had our tent pitched, she arrived with needle and thread and insisted on doing the job for us herself. How kind was that?
We were away early the next morning; we crossed he Seine, following roads that on the map were hardly more than tiny lines, yet each one was paved, and every 100 metres, every kilometre was marked by a little roadside marker, so one always knew exactly where one was. I remember sleeping at Elbeuf, going through villages called Conches and Breteuil, until finally coming upon the amazing spectacle of Chartres, whose cathedral at first loomed ahead of us across the plain, then totally disappeared, and only reappeared, surrounded by small, ancient houses, as we got closer. This was one of the most impressive spectacles I had ever seen in my life to that point, ranking with India’s Taj Mahal. The only other experience that was half as memorable was when we cycled past two huge fields of flowering clover, one on each side of the road, overpowering us with their glorious scent.
As the days went on and we headed further south, our young bodies quickly became accustomed to the strenuous exercise, until I remember the day, between two small towns called Bellac and Confolens, heading south towards Angouleme, we caught the wind behind us, and at last had the impression we were sailing across the landscape. That was the turning point in our trip: henceforth, it was easy. We stopped that night in another farmer’s field, and were rewarded by the mistress of the house with two pieces of the immense apple pie her family was gathered around for dinner. After passing through Bordeaux, at the end of a lonely road through the southern forests, we came upon the town of Mont de Marsan in the early foothills of the Pyrenees. Camping that night in a woodyard, we decided to treat ourselves to a restaurant meal. We were the most ragged-looking couple one could imagine, brown as berries by this time, dressed only in shorts and tee-shirts, when we presented ourselves at the rather tonky-looking Hotel Richelieu, half expecting to be turned away. Not a bit of it: we were greeted as if we were royalty, ceremoniously ushered to a good table, and served with the grace of champions. I think that is the night I became, as I have remained, a hopeless Francophile.
Every morning we arose early, cycled to the nearest village, followed the smell of new-baked bread to the village boulangerie, and headed off to eat our bread-and-cheese breakfast sitting on the side of the road. In the evenings we ate the many delicious berries we were able to gather along the roadside during the day.
Compared with Britain, which was dark, rationed and still sort of traumatized by the experience of the war, France seemed to be glowing with rude good health, every village shining with patisseries and charcuteries and boulangeries groaning with delicious-looking and wonderfully-tasty foods. In a town called Beziers we had to pause to have a puncture fixed. In the late afternoon, when in England all eating places would be firmly closed, we poked our heads into a café where the owner and his wife were eating their meal. We asked if they had anything to eat. She shook her head doubtfully, said, “I will have a look,” and returned with a tureen of the most superb soup either of us had ever tasted. That’s France.
We rode on gloriously rain-free days into the low Pyrennes, through Pau and the bizarrely religious Lourdes, and in a village called Bagneres-de-Bigorre our big bag , monument to poor English workmanship, finally gave out, and we invested in a superbly made pair of French panier bags that lasted us for many, many years.
Then we set off for the Mediterranean, where we slept on the wind-blown Cape de Sete, and watched the fishermen along the wharf at Sete itself mending their nets. We continued north on beautiful days along the valley of the Rhone, through Montelimar (“the nougat capital of the world,”) until one day to our amazement the rain fell.
So, only a hop and a jump from Paris, we took the train for that last stage, and in Paris were able to camp right in the middle of the city in the Bois de Boulogne. We cycled round the Place de la Concorde, defying the traffic to do its worst, and even had enough money to take in some shows in Pigalle. We were star-struck by Paris, never had any experience to confirm the rumours of how rude Parisians were. Then headed north for Dieppe on the way home.
Waiting for the ferry there, we had time to order for the first time in our lives, a glorious dish of moules marinieres, marinated mussels. The perfect send-off from this home of great gastronomy.
We returned to France many times in later years, the next time on a Lambretta scooter, thereafter in a car, with children, taking full advantage of the fact that every tiny community in France has its own camping ground, many of them not much more than open fields surrounded by other fields, offering only washing and toilet facilities. When in the 1960s, the beaches became too crowded, we would camp ten kilometres inland on one of these charming fields, and drive down during the day to the beach. I know the French can be insular, but I admire the way they live, each in his neighbourhood, and don’t seem to care much what the outside world thinks about them. The neighbourhood café with its little boxes behind the cash, in which are kept the napkins of each customer, to me is the symbol of French life.
Every year nowadays, I watch the Tour de France on TV, just for the superb helicopter shots showing the medieval villages, the well-ordered countryside, the beautiful forests and landscape of a country which, to me, is exceptional in every way.