So there we were on a hot afternoon, standing with our baggage on a baking train platform in the French town of Libourd, watching the last train through town chug off into the distance as we tried to make sense of what the local train agent was telling us: "Your trains have been cancelled," she was saying in slightly accented English. "There is a strike. You will have to go back to Paris…."
We four — Jim Newlin and Silvie Granitelli, and I and Martha B. — weren't smiling exactly with the news we might be stranded, but we were learning the value of being flexible while on the road. It served us well, and what the heck, we don't have to go in to the office or anything anymore, and where better to be stranded that in the middle of France?
We were there in Libourd, after nearly a week in Paris visiting museums and taking in the sights, and another four or five days in the Durdogne region looking at cave paintings and prehistoric artifacts and touring the countryside, merely to catch a cross-France train east to Lyon. The plan was to spend five more nights outside the big city in the commune of St. Didier de Formans, just up the hill from the banks of the Saonne River, where my boyhood pal Bill Howell and his wife Catherine have lived and worked for years.
But the last train (to Bordeau, yet) had just pulled out the wrong way, and we were stuck. There was no point in going back to Paris, even if a train came along to take us. With a train strike on and taxicab drivers also demonstrating, there would be no advantage in going to Paris. Couldn't we just drive to Lyon? "Oh, no, Monsieur, it is too far to drive." How far? "It is 518 kilometers."
Wait. That's what, 320 miles or so? Shoot, we drive that just to see a ball game in Washington, and not much more to see a show in Nashville. Where's the nearest car rental? Two were within a short walk, and 90 minutes later we had gotten a refund on unusable train tickets, arranged for a rental and were loading our gear into the French version of an SUV. We were going right back up through Perigeaux, where we had started that morning, and preparing to head east on the A 89, a gorgeous auto route that would take us across the Massif Central mountains through some of the prettiest farm country we've ever seen. Mind you, the tolls on A routes in France are hefty, just as everything is pretty expensive. Not sure what we paid in total but it was pressing $100 USD. On the other hand, we could take it at 130 kilometers per hour, and the scenery was breathtaking in places — high bridges over deep valleys, panoramic scenery of the countryside and everything that you couldn't see in the big cities.
We got to the Lyon area late, but we got there, and when you're traveling in a foreign country without a, um, compelling command of the language, you're grateful when things work out at all. Before we left, a friend had sent me the French phrase he found most useful. Translated, it was "This doesn't work." Among the things that didn't work for us were our limited vocabulary, a smartphone that Verizon had assured me was all ready to go but which could not be used to call out until the last couple days of the trip (and which never received a call, except for one from a US telemarketer), and our certainty that we could figure out how to order food at lunch.
What could possibly go wrong? That last assumption was called into question the day we were in some storybook medieval town and saw what appeared to be "tomato salad" on the chalkboard menu. Well, it wasn't quite that in the way we interpreted it. It was lettuce and tomato on an extremely dry and chewy jambone and fromage sandwich — a ham and cheese badly in need of mayo, mustard, peppers, all that stuff that Americans love. But we were in France, we were hungry, and we dispatched those baguettes in a hurry, and laughed about it later. Shoot, we liked even the things that we had no idea we were ordering. We never did find the N 6 route to St. Didier, instead wandering around until we found the place. And one GPS we had seemed never to know where in tarnation we were — didn't even recognize where we had been in several cases. We finally turned it off. Thus did the Marx Brothers Visit France — or should it have been the Four Stooges?
Lest we leave the impression that everything went like that, let me correct the record. It was wonderful. We stayed in a comfortable apartment in the Sorbonne-Pantheon district of Paris, saw great artworks in the big museums that border on the Tuilleries, ate in terrific restaurants, bought magnificent cantaloupes and apricots from shops around the corner, rushed all over the place on the Metro without a problem and stood in awe in places like the Pantheon, Notre Dame and the Louvre. In the Durdogne we were well taken care of by Phillipe Parsy, proprietor of Le Sorbier, a comfortable inn and fascinating locavore restaurant who gave us good advice on places, wines, food and sight-seeing and made reservations for us at other restaurants he considered up to snuff. We saw the painstakingly recreated replicas of cave drawings, toured castles and chateaus, peeked through bow-and-arrow slits in ancient fortifications and watched the world go by in little cafes with billion-euro views of the world. And in the Lyon area we got veteran guidesmanship from the gracious Bill and Catherine Howell, who also introduced us to a 3 1/2-hour dinner at what is surely one of the finest restaurants on the planet. Not to mention pricey, too.
We'll be going back one day, I expect. There were some sights we didn't see, some museums we didn't fully gawk at, and perhaps even a church, abbey or cathedral we haven't yet seen, unlikely as it seems. But any place where people drive a Carolina Blue truck like this little baby is worth visiting again, just to see whatever we didn't see the first time around.