It cut through the Amboise Forest, but the road had no name, none that we knew anyway, which was perfect. As my wife, Robin, and I drove south between two rivers, the Loire and the Cher, spotted sunlight warmed the tunneled lane. Signs said to watch for cyclists and tractors. A particularly French pairing, I thought. We'd also been told, by the helpful wine seller back in Paris who had pointed us to this very spot, to watch for small dirt drives with markers for vineyards. "You have to follow your feelings," Johan Pascaud-Blandin, the young man, had advised.
Follow our feelings—that's something I've long thought was a lost art in travel. Everything now is so digitized, geo-located, Instagrammed, ranked by a gauntlet of faceless trip advisers. And that's before we've even left home. Never before have travelers had more information and more possibilities. Our wanderlust has been corrupted by a kind of anxiety for the Ultimate Experience.
In fact, my five-day trip to France was meant to buck the overdigitized state of travel. I asked myself, What if I spent a whole trip with no reservations? No Lonely Planet, no Airbnb, no iPhone. I had traveled without plans in Andalucía four years back and ended up in the greatest little whitewashed village in the middle of their running-with-the-bull fest (that's one bull, singular). And I'd recounted the adventure a hundred times. So what if I unplugged, truly, and leaned on locals for my every next move?
The ground rules I set were pretty simple: Start in Paris. Progress via face-to-face suggestions. Every single decision would come from a local source, unaffiliated with any official tourism gig, beginning with what area and town to visit each day. Inns, cafes, art galleries, fresh markets, hiking trails, back roads. This little experiment was risky, perhaps even disastrous, especially for a guy with nil language skills. But I figured there were worse places in the world to be lost.
Which is how we ended up—well, somewhere near the Loire Valley, a two-hour drive southwest of Paris. We had asked Johan for his favorite stretch of Sauvignon vineyards, and the deal was to trust the local wherever he took us. So we rented a little hatchback (picked up directly under the Louvre) and hit the road. Famous for both its grapes and its châteaux, the pastoral Loire wedge east of the city of Tours rolled out exactly as I imagined. Stonewalled villages. Boucheries and patisseries flanking Gothic churches. Corduroy hillsides fanning outward everywhere. And women, normal-looking women, not the casually luxurious sort found in Paris.
We stopped at a crossroads in Saint-Georges-sur-Cher. Here we were, in Johan's favorite cut of wine country, with no next move, when a goofy kid wearing a soccer jersey, 17 years old maybe, hopped out of his coupe with a look of uninitiated friendliness on his face. His name was Florian. In choppy English and with hand signals, we asked him if he could recommend a small hotel or, better, anyone nearby with a back cottage. A glow came over his face. There was a place, the old mill, a rich man and his wife, two rooms, not far. Florian seemed more than pleased as he drove us the mile to the right road.
The place was called Le Moulin du Mesnil, a limestone mill turned respite, and I'd be lying if I said it didn't make me believe in a god (41400 Saint-Georges-sur-Cher, moulindumesnil.com, rooms from $92). Even in the bliss of Amboise's Sherwood-like forest, a tiny fear had breezed into this optimistic journey: What if I ended up in a crummy town and a damp motel? What if I wasted a full day in France—on my first trip?
Yvonne David's bucolic bed-and-breakfast (or omelet supper if you play your cards right) was affirmation of my anti-planning travel. Robin and I arrived near sundown and slept with the windows open to a private patio and listened to the mill brook at daybreak. Before heading to work, Yvonne, a bubbly, part-time schoolteacher, delivered fig bread and coffee, then pulled out two bikes from her barn, penciling out a route along the Cher to her favorite small village, Bléré.
Surely, rural France is best viewed by bike. Four easy miles took us by an early-season poppy field, crumbling homesteads, and an amazing château, Chenonceau, which arches across the Cher like a kingly aqueduct (37150 Chenonceaux, chenonceau.com, tickets from $15). A onetime country manor for royalty, the 16th-century castle is predictably opulent inside, but surprisingly cozy as well . Five miles farther, Bléré (population: 5,000) was one camera shop bigger than a village. The young guy who sold us a new battery charger pointed us to lunch at a sidewalk cafe called La Sarrazine, where the 20-something chef hand-delivered our meals (21 rue du Pont, 37150 Bléré, 011-33/2-47-30-33-52, salted scallop crepes, $15). From there, we rode on to meet Yvonne's favorite Loire vintner, Bruno Curassier of Domaine de la Grange, for a quick six-bottle tasting. The tasting is free, though you have to agree to buy at least one bottle (Rue de la Grange, 37150 Bléré, lagrange-curassier.fr, bottles starting at $6). In his honor, I named our red rental car Rosie, pronounced happily like the pink wine.
Yvonne's counsel solidified a no-reservations hypothesis for me: Only trust a local who gets excited about her recommendation. When I made some loose rules for my trip, selecting the right source was crucial. Artists, boutique owners, concierges. But one thing I learned quickly from the Loire stop was that specificity was as key as gusto. Yvonne had praised Bruno's wine as the only Sauvignon Blanc she drinks at home. She'd also raved about a restaurant in Lacave called Le Pont de l'Ouysse as the true home of foie gras (46200 Lacave, lepontdelouysse.com, three-course prix fixe dinner $78). The fact that it was a four-hour drive from Bruno's didn't deter me one bit.
Stéphane Chambon inherited the chef shirt at Le Pont de l'Ouysse from his father, Daniel, but the restaurant goes back to 1886, when Stéphane's great-great-grandmother fed the town's bridge builders. He keeps the Michelin-starred recipes alive—most famously, the foie de canard bonne maman, duck liver roasted in a grape-and-caper port-wine reduction. That in itself fed us generously, rivaled closely by an evening ambience that made me think of Midnight in Paris, the Woody Allen flick we'd seen a few nights earlier. Chestnut and lime trees, volleyball-size white lights suspended below the limbs. The feeling was of a quiet park in Paris.
The rooms at l'Ouysse were full, and a tad pricey anyway, so on Stéphane's quick advice (lesson: Don't ask a chef during the dinner hour for in-depth travel suggestions) we snagged a simple room in the nearby medieval town of Rocamadour and rested up for another big drive. When I had asked the chef about the one place everyone who visited France must go-you'd be surprised how people can get uncomfortable when you ask for directives—he went the opposite of definitive and said, as if asking me an obvious question, "Provence?"
But this was the deal, to resist the temptation to enter the Google vortex. Even if the chef's tip was pretty thin. For most of that 210-mile-long haul with no confirmed hotel, I worried, and it turned out I was right to. We got stuck with maybe the last room inside a city crowded with tourists. After coughing up the 130 euros ($186) for our underwhelming night's stay, we ate chorizo pizza for dinner, upon the suggestion of seven university students crowded in front of a place with a red awning that read Pizza Capri (1 rue Fabrot, 13100 Aix-en-Provence, pizza-capri.fr, slices from $3). Even though I was ashamed to eat pizza in Provence, the slices smoked every New York City piece I've ever consumed.
After a good rain during the night, we hit the streets on Thursday, happening on to the place de Verdun, where we watched an outdoor market explode with vendors. (We found this on our own. Wandering can be a source, can't it?) On the southern section, china dealers, painters, booksellers, and relic merchants rigged up a flea market in 20 minutes. Beyond them, a parking lot morphed into a pop-up chef's paradise with the fattest tomatoes I've ever seen. We befriended a cheese-truck driver named Luke with oil paint under his nails and talked about the contemporary art scene. (Only in France do artists moonlight as truckers.)
Turns out, Aix-en-Provence is known for two things: painters and fountains. We ate a billowing spring salad at La Fontaine, recommended by Luke, and the waiter shared a cigarette and a lesson on how more than 100 fountains flowed in Aix (40 rue de la Verrerie, 13100 Aix-en-Provence, 011-33/4-42-27-53-35, La Fontaine salad, $18). He then pointed me to the gallery Carré d'artistes on rue de la Glacière (20 rue de la Glacière, 13100 Aix-en-Provence, carredartistes.com, paintings from $85).
Crowds in Aix go to Cézanne's workshop, but I was more in the mood for contemporaries, especially work done by local painters. Carré d'artistes was exactly the place. Ten years old this fall, the gallery carries 30 artists at a time. And best, every piece comes in four sizes of paintings, the smallest originals selling for about $85. Anne-Laure Hoaro, one of the gallery clerks, provided us with two travel tips: One was to drive route de Cézanne, an hour-long loop east of Aix, where the painter often worked plein air. Second, she mentioned an oil painter from Marseille named Liisa Corbière, whose work I liked most and who regularly hosts gallery patrons in her home studio.
After looping around Cézanne's famous ridge, Montagne Sainte-Victoire, and chickening out on asking to join the seven retired men who were tossing bocce balls on a village square, I decided to cold-call Liisa, the painter, the next day. I figured the worst-case scenario was she wouldn't see us, but maybe she'd have some killer travel secret to share.
The following morning, after checking out of the overpriced inn in Aix and returning to the place de Verdun for espressos, I drove the half hour to Marseille's thousand-mast Vieux Port harbor, as clusters of tourists walked about. When I met Liisa—briefly, since she was headed to a big show in Paris—I mentioned her paintings of a blue-green inlet with pale yellow cliffs. She called the dreamy fjord a calanque and said the actual spot was near Cassis, 10 miles up the Mediterranean. So off to the calanque we went.
The 10 miles between Marseille and Cassis was mostly undeveloped limestone ruggedness, as if the wine hills were trying to fight off, rather wickedly, the Mediterranean submersion. Thankfully, for preservation's sake, the calanques require what many tourists lack: patience and energy. After getting directions from a gray-haired gas-station attendant, we parked the car near Port Miou, a slender fjord operating as a sailboat marina, and started the 90-minute trek. We weren't alone, but the solitude wasn't bothered. Viewing our calanque, En Vau, honestly made me forget about everything I'd experienced in France. The movie stars can have the Riviera. Odysseus would have anchored here.
Looking back, we should have stilled ourselves in the crystal waters of Cassis. My gut was begging me to find a cheap room and just relax. But standing on En Vau's smooth stones put us a 10-hour drive from Charles de Gaulle, where we were to fly out the next afternoon. Back in Paris when all this began at the wine shop, Johan had handed us sage advice. Suivez vos sentiments. "Follow your feelings." Everything in me wanted those calanques, a mom-and-pop motel, some pan-seared octopus. Maybe the drive cracked the door, maybe this was why we lost our edge, maybe. Because we did. After living off the kindness and travel savvy of strangers for four days, we turned on our Wi-Fi. The risk of botching our last night in France consumed us like a storm cloud. A voice crept into our heads: There has to be some cobbly town just over those hills, some dreamy inn with complimentary Côtes du Rhône. Don't waste this.
So instead of searching by back roads, I searched with Google. I found what I wanted in a town between Aix and Lyon. Pulling up to Vaison-la-Romaine, a picture-perfect Bronze Age hamlet on the northern edge of Provence; checking into La Fête en Provence, the exact boutique hotel you wish sold $110 rooms in every French village (Place Vieux Marché, 84110 Vaison-la-Romaine, hotellafete-provence.com, rooms from $106); buying cherries and watching the sunset—somehow, it all felt false. Some of that, unsurprisingly, came from simply breaking the five-day tradition. Holding fast makes for a better bar story. Some of the bummer also came from my Google choice: Vaison's old town was stone quiet after sundown, when we were in the mood for a clinking-glass cafe. But the main source of remorse, I decided, was that once I took the trip back into my own hands, I felt like I'd stepped back onto a metaphysical tour bus, tinted windows, American DVDs, and all. To put it bluntly, the decision I made myself brought along a slightly plastic, unreal feeling. Hollow even.
Don't get me wrong, my rebellion from all things guidebook didn't convert me. I do believe in scheduling the roof over your head, only because the Web allows for amazing in-home deals, especially in less populated regions. I'm also not against mapping driving routes to save time and toll costs. But what I learned with no reservations was that having zero plan is almost as valuable as speaking the language. The result is a feast of neighborly interactions, impromptu conversation, and hospitality just when you need it. Which, no matter where we travel, is always what we remember most.
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