Southern France with a speed limit

TOM FITZSIMONS
Last updated 05:00 12/01/2014
Kombi travel in southern France
Harriet Palmer

PARKED UP: Just one of many roadside stops Tom Fitzsimons and son Baxter made during their travels in the south of France.

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Here's how it works. We drive our khaki-green 1974 vintage Kombi at a speed of no more than 75kmh, mostly more like 60kmh, around the rural highways of southern France.

Every half an hour, we stop to let the ancient engine cool down. Beside us are Cezanne's mountains, laidback and lined, and corridors of plane trees, and the distinctive watery light of Provence, and a jumble of brown and orange leaves, falling as we drive.

"Autumn, sunset and Avignon form three harmonies," Victor Hugo apparently once said to his wife. Well, we don't quite make it to Avignon - we never make it very far at all - but the idea goes for the whole region.

At dusk, maps in hand, we turn onto a gravel road, draw up to the homestead of an independent French vintner and ask if we can park under a tree in a corner of her property.

In the morning, we go and taste her wines and buy a bottle - sometimes it's marvellous, a couple of times it's rubbish, most of the time I don't really know. But for a week of my year-long stumble around the world with Harriet and 3-year-old Baxter, this is our life - like something out of a postcard, clearly, but also like something out of crisis-level travel fantasy: I'll leave my job in Wellington and go and drive a vintage campervan around the south of France.

And yet. Fantasies do have their way of unpicking themselves.

Now, granted, I'm not the most mechanical character in the world. I'm hopeful that I could change a tyre, but I'd struggle to name the various bits of an engine, let alone fix them.

As for moving the thing, I've always styled myself as a competent driver, but it's true that I've mastered a specific skill and no more - driving a little car in a city.

Here in Provence, from the moment that we bunny-hop our way out of the yard where we've picked up the van and onto the French motorway, maximum speed 130kmh, that takes us to Aix-en-Provence, it's clear there's a wee issue.

Driving on the right-hand side of the road I've got down pat, more or less. (Every now and then Harriet still screams as I threaten to grate the wheels against a curb).

But driving an old grandpappy of a vehicle at glacial pace, while French drivers hurtle past me waving their fists - this I am not accustomed to. And yet that's the easy part. Once we arrive in Aix, incidentally a stunning town with many fountains and fine baroque architecture, I find I've driven down a narrow one-way cul-de-sac.

What's more, in France, there are always five cars behind you at such a moment. So this calamity is the first of several times during the week where Harriet has to get out of the car and orchestrate a mass reversal.

By this stage, I'm sweating extravagantly, partly from the effort of turning the stubborn old steering wheel, partly from the lack of a view through the tiny, obscured rear window, and mostly from the realisation that I'm going to crash this van at some point in the next seven days.

Still, in the middle of all this embarrassing manouevring, a parking space somehow opens up and I risk everything by trying to parallel-park the van. Miraculously, it works, and within five minutes we're strolling around the town, ogling fountains, eating pain aux raisins and drinking coffee, with no-one the wiser. And actually, as it turns out, the whole week goes something like this: picture-perfect, then a bit of sweating and swearing, and then a late, redeeming stroke of luck or pastry.

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Even though our ride imposes certain limitations on movement (there's a mileage cap of 100km per day), we manage to putter across a varied and often magnificent landscape in our week on the road.

After leaving Aix-en-Provence, we head northwest towards St-Remy-de-Provence, where Vincent van Gogh came to recuperate after cutting off his ear. It's a pretty little town, full of boutique stores selling fine Marseille soaps, and quiet enough that Vincent probably didn't notice the difference. We buy a pear-scented candle to light the van.

On the way, we take a turn into Eygalieres, a perfect hilltop village, where it's market day. Harriet and Baxter buy half a rotisserie chicken with ladles of "jus" poured all over it. I, sad vegetarian, get some tapenade.

We eat our haul with tomatoes and crusty baguettes on the side of a leafy road during one of our stops to massage the engine. Harriet swears it's the best meal she's had in France. At night, we keep turning into those winning French vineyards, having torturous third-form French conversations with the owners, and parking in fields full of olive trees, or vines, or mint and white horses. Yes, it's like that.

Next we head south into very different territory - the Camargue, a sort of massive wetlands, where the plane trees vanish and it's not quite so picturesque. Or perhaps I'm being harsh because when we wake up in Saint-Maries-de-la-Mer, right on the Mediterranean, we find our van battery completely dead. Luckily there's a German extreme camper with a twirled moustache and a brick-sized portable battery to get us going again, but we're forced into a quandary - drive the car long enough to charge the battery, or stop to give it its customary breather, risking being stranded?

This provokes an argument, which suddenly resolves itself when we spy, to our left, a long splotch of pink on the muddy waters. We pull in, jump out of the car, and there, a couple of hundred metres away, are about a thousand flamingos.

"Wow", we say, all panic forgotten, watching them step carefully over the estuary, or whatever it is. The van duly starts again when we return, as it does for the rest of the week.

With just a couple of days to go, we finally feel like we've hit our stride, our appreciation for the local vino improving, my steering growing ever straighter, our week away from screens and phones having some relaxing effect.

Other people seem to be getting happier, too - we're getting fewer fists and French swear words from our fellow drivers, and more thumbs-up and grins. One guy stops his car at a give-way sign and comes running back to recommend a nearby camping spot. Meanwhile, forced into bed at sundown, we're sleeping something like 12 hours a night. We've become ruthlessly efficient at turning the van into a house - popping the top, making beds, doing dishes, whipping up a little ratatouille on the camping stove.

Finally, we finish off our tour under magnificent Mont Sainte-Victoire, subject of more than 60 Cezanne paintings. We drive right up into the foothills to a fancy chateau and splurge on a couple of nice bottles of wine. Hell, we're so taken by the tasting in the cave that we buy a magnum of red wine, which we haul to Rome.

So it's all heading towards a lovely, sunny, soft landing to the week - at least, till our final drive back into Aix-en-Provence. There we get lost, get marooned in the wrong lane, get stuck trying to get into a parking building, have to cajole a queue of seven grumpy drivers into reversing simultaneously so I can get out, lose Harriet for a while, find her, and generally start sweating and swearing once more as we realise we'll probably miss our train.

"It's OK, Dad," Baxter yells from the back seat at one point, lone voice of sanity. And he's right, of course - we make it in the end, full of that peculiar gladness I always feel when I hand back any rental vehicle intact.

We've still got a spare minute or two before the train comes, we've still got a bag full of fine wine, and we've still got the memory of one of our most vivid, transporting weeks in a year on the move.

Tom Fitzsimons travelled with support from Provence Tourism and Flower Power Experience.

- Sunday Star Times

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