Driving some eight hours straight from the Netherlands to France doesn’t exactly qualify as slow travel, I know. Yet that’s what I did with my friend Mélanie.
And, of course, I have an excuse (two, to be exact).
First of all, we ‘did’ that journey the slow way in the past – several times. Hitchhiking, when we were students, had no money but a sense of adventure, lots of confidence and good faith.
Many argue that hitchhiking isn’t safe but I don’t agree. I believe that for people who travel with a healthy dose of common sense, hitchhiking is a perfect way to travel slow, to meet local people and to learn the ins and outs of a culture.
For several years we hitchhiked to France for a week or so around Easter. Each year we picked a different region to explore in detail. During those vacations we had one fixed address though, our friends’ place in a hamlet that is so typical of the French countryside: with one road meandering among ten stonewalled houses – often with closed shutters – and not soul to be seen. In this case the village has not a church but the remains of an old castle on a hill – adding to the ambience of the place, giving it a bit of a medieval feel.
Life moves on. We gave up hitchhiking and we continued to visit our friends a couple of times but with the luxury of our own car. I left the Netherlands for my overland journey and France faded away into a tiny corner of my memory.
The question came out of the blue, per email. “Would you like to go to France with me for a weekend during your stay in the Netherlands this year?” Mélanie wrote. I didn’t have to think about it. “Yes!”
And there’s the second excuse: ‘Only’ a weekend, or not at all? The choice was easy.
How would it be, after thirteen years? Traveling together with Mélanie again (although she did visit Coen and me twice during our overland journey), being in France, visiting the hamlet, spending time with our friends?
La Douce France
It was as if our last trip had been only last year.
How wonderful to reconnect so easily and beautifully again with people and places I have loved for so many years. Very quickly I remembered what I love about the French countryside, and my friends in particular: the love and dedication they have for each drink or meal. During each Easter our friends spoiled us with the best, authentic French cuisine you can imagine and this time it wasn’t any different.
It felt like watching art: the care with which they put glasses on the table, the time they took to discuss what we should drink for our apéritif, the in-depth explanations or stories on where and how they got the locally produced food that we were about to eat. It all emanated love.
Our weekends here have always been about slow travel, even if we didn’t have the term for it. We’d spent many hours around the kitchen table, often with a fire roaring in the fireplace as it can still be cold here around Easter. Or, if the weather was good, we’d move to the veranda or sit around a table in the shade of one of the many trees in the garden where we could make pizza in a homemade oven.
We’d talk about our lives and the world. You know how you can talk all night long about how the world should be managed? We all do this every once in while, don’t we? The French have a perfect expression for this: on refait le monde – we remake the world.
On Saturday and/or Sunday afternoon we’d go for a short drive to visit a castle or museum in the nearby surroundings. This weekend wasn’t any different. We visited a château different from any other castle we have ever seen before as it is shaped as a pentagon – with five straight sides and five angles: Château de Maulnes, in Pimelles.
But there was a new experience as well. As I took up running only about two years ago, I have never done this in France. Now I had a good reason to get up at six and go for a run to nearby villages. The fresh air, sunrise, and soft early morning light gave me a new feel for the surroundings. It was incredibly energizing.
This weekend was one of those moments in life where I felt incredibly privileged with the life I lead.