If you have been following my last couple of articles, you know that I walked across Spain on the famous camino de Santiago. I followed up that trip with two weeks in France with my wife, who came over to take a watercolour painting class. She met with her instructor from Blacksburg and several other students who made the trip as well. I used the time to explore the various communities where the painters set up to practice their art.
In all, I have spent 7 weeks now in Europe, my longest ever trip outside of the United States. I am writing this in the airport in Paris, preparing to fly home. Here are some parting thoughts.
With the painters, I visited the towns of St Clément, Arles, Aigues-Mortes, Séte, and Sommiéres in the region of Provence in southern France. All had ancient cores dating back to Roman times, with perimeter walls and castle ramparts. The group painted at many sites where Vincent van Gogh did his most famous paintings.
Afterwards my wife and I by rental car meandered our way north through the French Alps to the departure airport in Paris.
Some observations about France and its people…
The French revere food and drink, and both are superb. Not only is the food healthy, but even at simple restaurants, artfully presented on the plate. We saw few overweight people. Good food and good wine are part and parcel of a good life.
Businesses close from noon until 2pm so people can take a leisurely lunch, and dinner is often not eaten until 8pm or later. The French spend a far greater percentage of their income on food than do we Americans.
Along with their love of food, is their love of flowers. Every home and indeed every community was amply festooned with flowering plants. Buildings, bridges, trellises and terraces were often covered with ivy. Rose bushes are everywhere and are in bloom.
The communities have competitions among themselves to be judged the best for flowers. Communities of every size have several parks and there are many communal spaces, as well as bountiful public artwork, principally sculptures.
There is less sprawl in France than America, as many towns are quite compact, surrounded by cultivated land. The little village where we stayed in Provence was surrounded by vineyards. The sole commercial establishment was a winery. We stayed in several buildings that were 200 years old or more.
The secondary highways are typically much narrower than American roads. As they pass through some of the older, smaller communities, sometimes these roads are only wide enough for a single vehicle. Drivers must wait their turn.
However, France does have a superhighway system equivalent to our interstate highways. The major difference is that these roads typically have tolls, often being quite expensive to use.
Additionally, France has a government supported passenger rail system that is second to none in the world. The TGV, or Train à Grande Vitesse (high speed train) network extends throughout the country and speeds travelers to their destinations at over 200mph. Smooth, quiet, and blisteringly fast, TGV is a thrill to ride.
In towns, the French don’t need a car. The bakery, the butchery, the pharmacy and the florist are all in walking or bicycling distance.
Bicycling is the national sport and seemingly everyone rides, from children to adults to seniors. Motorists share the road habitually. And with France being heavily cultivated, motorists share the road with farm machinery, too.
The Alps are magnificent, higher than America’s Rockies and Cascades. They are intensely developed, with villages, chalets, and ski resorts in every nook. 30 percent of the world’s ski slopes are in the French Alps.
Taxes are high, but the French enjoy a number of benefits from the socialized model, including universal health care and state supported college education. We saw no indigent people.
As I write this and we prepare to return home, we get the news that still another mass shooting has occurred in Virginia. The French are mystified and horrified by our gun obsession. Frankly so am I.
The French people are preternaturally warm and friendly and have never forgotten our help in liberating their country during World War II. It’s hard not to love France.