Sitting on the terrace of my favourite restaurant just outside Pont l’Eveque in Normandy, sipping a nice cool glass of white wine, I overhear English people at the next table exclaiming about the beauty of the place, the view, the orchards. They had spent four weeks in Brittany and were just passing through our secret corner of Paradise, le Pays d’Auge, that part of Normandy which lies directly below Le Havre and stretches down to Vimoutiers in the Orne. “Forget Brittany,” I said. “Next time, come to Normandy and forget the SatNav. Buy a detailed map of the area and take the routes départementales or vicinales — the roads less travelled.”
This land of green pastures and rolling hills was the jewel in the crown of the Plantagenet Kings of England. The best of its medieval towns, Lisieux, (where Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine), Caen, Vimoutiers, Falaise (birthplace of William the Conqueror) were destroyed during the Second World War. The charm of the Pays d’Auge now lies in leafy country lanes dappled with sunlight, small villages nestled in shady valleys and little Manor houses swathed in apple orchards.
Last winter when I couldn’t drive because I had an operation on my claw-like hands (Sarah Jessica Parker and Madonna have dreadful hands so I am in good company) a girlfriend in the village offered to drive me to the supermarket about five miles away. I have known Marie-Claude for 30 years but haven’t been shopping with her before. We swept off in the direction of Lisieux along the main road. We joined the rest of the traffic streaming into the town. On our way back there were huge traffic queues struggling to join the roundabout out of the supermarket parking lot. I guided her out a different way and we took a quiet back road home.
Highways in France are called ‘routes nationales’ and are indicated by the letter N plus a number. The N14 is the main road from Paris to Normandy; the Freeways are called ‘Autoroute’ and designated by A as in A14; other roads are called D roads or C roads or even smaller roads called V roads. This means, in effect, that there are plenty of ways to go from A to B. It was on this shopping trip that I discovered that Marie-Claude had never used most of the routes I take.
She regularly misses the sight of apple and pear trees in blossom which I can enjoy as the little lane I take snakes its way through apple and pear orchards; she doesn’t get to see the Wild Boar and its piglets trotting across the road between the trees nor the statuesque deer poised for a moment at the side of the road; she doesn’t have to stop while two guys in gumboots and equipped with sticks herd their Norman cows with juddering udders over to the milking shed; she misses the Shakespearean banks at the side of the road where oxlip and the nodding violet grow; the donkeys don’t bray at her as she pulls over to let someone pass. She sees nothing. Who was it who said, “What is this life so full of care, we have no time to stand and stare”? I have also realized that she is not the only one. Most people are too dozy for their own good. There is no point in spending loads of dosh on a holiday in far off places if you can’t see what is around you.
I have lived here now for more than 30 years and I know the byways like the back of my clawed hands! If you can’t make every outing into a new event or even an adventure, why not stay in bed like Oblomov, that Ivan Goncharov character who has come to symbolize total inertia?
As Margaret Thatcher might have said, “You take the highway if you want to, this lady is not for turn-piking.” As Britain’s first lady Prime Minister, she certainly took the road less travelled!
All photos © J Mclean. All Rights Reserved.
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