|The Lac du Der|
That extra hour we spent on the road was definitely worth it. Not only was the slower driving and lack of maniacs and traffic jams infinitely less stressful, it also turned into a voyage of discovery and something of a trip down the memory lane of the France I used to know.
Living in Picardie and Lorraine, the France I discovered first was not the glitz of Paris, the splendour of the Alps or the turquoise seas of the Riviera. Nor was it the rich Celtic traditions of Britanny or the gastronomic delights of the Perigord. Instead I learned about life in those vast swathes of the country where small towns appear every so often, tucked into corners of the huge expanses of field and forest and where everything is shut on a Sunday, and a Monday too. On the way out we struggled to find a boulangerie to buy lunch, and on the way back we discovered the beautiful Lac du Der, apparently one of the largest lakes in Europe but probably unheard of even by most French people.
These places are unexplored by tourists, but they account for an enormous area of French territory. School pupils learn about a diagonal "line of emptiness" that crosses the country from Strasbourg to the south-west, crossing the regions of Champagne-Ardenne, Bourgogne and the Limousin which, like the majority of the country's regions, have a population density of less than 100 people per square kilometre, and often even half that. (For comparison, the Ile-de-France has 974 people per square km.)
And while these empty regions may have fewer obvious attractions than the big cities or the coast, I suspect that they contribute significantly to certain less well-celebrated aspects of French culture. I was surprised when I first came to France, for example, by the number of people who buy land to build their own houses here. But when land is abundant, why not? Or by the prominent role played by enormous out-of-town hypermarkets, whose growth presumably depended on the custom of people who couldn't buy everything in their local high street shops. I think it is probably also partly responsible for the importance people place on spending time with family and life-long friends: often, in these places, there's very little opportunity to meet new people. And finally, I wonder if it may be responsible for the importance that French people place on welfare, continuity and security: these areas are probably great for having the space to bring up a family, but if you lose your job, the next opportunity may not be just around the corner.
So if you have the opportunity, next time you have a long drive to do, take your foot off the accelerator a little and take the time to discover La France Profonde.