Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Long Journey (prt III) - Bourg-En-Bresse to Reims

Cooling the car down, somewhere in FranceThe next morning we were in good spirits. It was Sunday 2nd January and learning from our mistakes, we made an early start and worked out a route that not only avoided motorways but was also shorter, using France's minor roads. We were under way just as dawn was beginning to break. We drove straight north out of Bourg-En-Bresse and made good time up an empty country road, stopping for our first "cooling break" after about an hour and a half of travelling (that's the photo from this installment - can't remember the name of the town).

Actually, the first few hours of our day were lined by pretty towns and villages. The Ain Department is really quite a nice part of the world. Our cooling stops were a pleasure (though admittedly sometimes a little too hurried - we felt the time pressure constantly). It was our intention to try and make Saint Dizier by night-fall. I secretly wanted to get a bit further, but that would've done.

As the morning progressed we discovered that one thing our map didn't point out was hills. And if there is one thing a Fiat 500 hates more than pot holes, it's hills! It now seems to us that France slopes gently upwards all the way from Lyon to Calais. Common sense will tell you otherwise, but I've never been up so many hills in all my life. My girlfriend was becoming less and less amused with every time we were brought to a 25mph, 3rd gear crawl by yet another steep hill. In fact such was her sense of humour failure, she could no longer say the word "hill" without a slightly unnerving air of malice coming out in her voice.

Powerless to alter the geography of the country we'd chosen to navigate, we pressed on and to our amazement (in spite of the hills!) we made Chaumont by late lunchtime. This was beyond our wildest dreams. Suddenly it looked like we might make it to Vitry-Le-Francois or even Chalons-En-Champagne by the end of the day. Phenomenal progress!

After a late lunch from an open boulangerie we managed to find, in spite of it being nearly 3pm on a Sunday afternoon, we continued towards Saint Dizier. The hills were subsiding a bit as the roads we were taking at this point pretty much followed the River Marne in the bottom of the valley. As a result, our pace quickened and we arrived in Saint Dizier at about 4pm. We would normally schedule a cooling stop about now, but everything smelled ok, it was getting dark and there were about 35 kilometres of dual-carriageway along the main road to Paris, the N4, to negotiate if we wanted to make it to Vitry-Le-Francois.

And so we did. We reached Vitry-Le-France about half an hour before sunset. It didn't look like the nicest place in the world so we decided to push on further still to Chalons-En-Champagne. It was only a short hop up a further stretch of motorway and we had a bit of daylight left. And more importantly, I knew that there was a minor road (presumably the old road) that ran up the other side of the valley. We drove up the motorway for about 20 minutes until the light began to fail, then pulled off in to the countryside to finish our journey out of harm's way. A series of farming villages lined the rest of the route to Chalons and the progress was pretty good. We got there about half an hour later. It was just after 5pm, and though we were tired it now wasn't at all far to the city of Reims. A goal we felt was impossible the night before, but we were within touching distance! We decided to give it one final push, as the more ground we covered today, the easier tomorrow would be. We hit upon two problems though:

One, our map was not really detailed enough for the maze of villages surrounding Chalons and two, French road signs in town centres are an absolute joke. Not for the first time that day we found ourselves going round and round in circles trying to find our route, but doing this in the morning when you're fresh and cheerful is one thing. Doing it when you're tired, fed up and looking forward to a hot bath is tantamount to massachism!

The problem is that the French tell you what road you're on regularly (in this case the D1 towards Tours-Sur-Marne) as you're trundling along, which is great. Every sign-post signs the next big village or town and the number of the road you'll be on if you take it. Lovely. Until you enter a major town or city. Then, for some reason known only to French town planners, all route numbers disappear without trace leaving you floundering! No sign reading "Tours-Sur-Marne (D1)" any more - oh no - that sign is plain white and reads simply "Juvigny". As it transpired this was a tiny village on the outskirts of Chalons, not even on our map. Of course we missed our turn... useless! I stood about 10 minutes of Chalons' back streets and side alleys before I exploded in to a torrent of abuse directed at the French (in particular, their signage manufacturers) and our woefully inadequate map.

Thankfully, my girlfriend speaks fluent French (I usually call it showing off, but I was grateful on this occasion) and she asked for directions. A lovely elderly couple gave us detailed directions to get to Reims using the back roads. Of course, we took their word for it but we weren't really sure we were going in the right direction so there were still some tense moments. As we went it became clearer though and ultimately the directions were perfect, so many thanks to them. It took us over an hour to get to Reims and we were pretty tired so we stopped at the first hotel we came across, a Holiday Inn on the river. Not a great hotel and it didn't look very central, but we turned the corner and were greeted by the main road up to the cathedral, which looks pretty stunning as you head towards it. We were very central! We just didn't realise it.

We dropped our bags again and set straight off to find some food in Reims. There's one particular street/long square called Place Drouet D'Erlon which cuts across the city centre from north(ish) to south(ish) which is just packed with little brasseries and restaurants so we found a brasserie there called L'Apostrophe. The food was good, the environment was relaxing and it wasn't too expensive so we had another nice evening before going back to the hotel and straight to bed.

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