One night last February, while sleet whipped my windshield as I drove through Normandy’s early winter darkness into the port of Honfleur, my GPS sent me the wrong way down a one-way alley between two medieval walls. Alone, phone dead, with both side mirrors crushed like beer cans, I wanted to conjure up a companion, specifically my husband. For a panicked moment, I longed for a simpler time, when he drove while I traced the route on a Michelin map from the passenger side and, out of the corner of my eye, spied cafes where we might stop for a languorous lunch. The following day was Valentine’s Day, and I felt a little sorry for myself. But this trip across the north of France was like most of my recent travels: alone. And even here, wedged in a 15th-century cul-de-sac with no obvious way out but total demolition, I had to confess: I liked it that way.
Much as I love my family and crave the company of my friends, companionship on the road is often not worth the trouble. One of the great moments in travel literature takes place in A Moveable Feast, when Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald meet up in Lyon, France, and hijinks worthy of a road-trip movie starring John Candy and Steve Martin (albeit a tad more highbrow) ensue. Fitzgerald believes he is dying, and boosted by plenty of wine and roasted Bresse chicken, Hemingway assures him that he is not. Upon returning to his wife in Paris, Hemingway offers this assessment: “Never go on trips with anyone you do not love.”
I tend to carry this advice even further. If possible, never go on a trip with anyone at all. It’s easier to get absorbed in an unfamiliar landscape when solo, reliant on no one and vice versa. Travel is stressful, and nothing is more conflict-prone than discussions around food, particularly dinner venues. So my idea of bliss is to reach the end of a day and crack open a bottle of mini-bar Côtes du Rhône with a box of nuts in my hotel room, all by my sweet lonesome. But when I started forth to research a book on France, the foundation of my lone-warrior stance seemed to crumble like a stale macaron.
France is, after all, the most romantic country in the world. Its sweeping vistas, buttery pastries, sultry beaches, ganache-filled chocolate hearts and history of love affairs that changed destiny stir – for both men and women – the deepest reaches of our sensual selves. For couples, France and its abundant beauty provide an ideal metaphoric backdrop for the newly lovestruck or the long married. The country’s light, architecture, and insistence on savouring life’s comforts – both elemental and voluptuous – blow sweet oxygen into a relationship, imbue it with vitality and meaning. Memories, including mine, are created here, under bursts of stars and over Champagne brut. Twenty-five years ago, I moved to France with a man; a couple of years later, I married him in Paris’s 3rd arrondissement, and we stayed on for a few more. These were heady times in my young romantic life, and my own histoire d’amour lingers like a ghost on the quais of Paris and at tables in the sun along the Côte d’Azur.
I encountered some of these memories when I embarked on four extended solitary road-trips through France, with my only partners a trusty fuel-efficient rental car and a fickle GPS. My first leg was along the Riviera, through Languedoc and then over to Bordeaux. In Mougins, a few miles inland from Cannes, I opened the door to a stunning hotel room that overlooked a valley and the grey-green maquis of Provence. Had I been with my husband, I would have grabbed him and tumbled onto the bed, for the sheer sensate joy of the sheets under our road-weary selves. Instead I explored the roomy closets, sampled the complimentary coffee, put on heels and went to dinner. The chef set up a table for one in the corner of the kitchen, and I feasted on foie gras, truffled vermicelli and scallops.
“This is incredible,” I said again and again, and I wondered if he thought it was strange for a woman to be alone in such a glorious place. “I mean, incredible,” I repeated, smiling confidently, as if to telegraph that yes, I’m unaccompanied and yes, I’m really all right. Okay, mostly all right. Few meals ever tasted better, yet it was strange to wander back alone to the room and that lovely bed, drunk only on rosé.
Pangs of loneliness stung me in Arles. At night, the Roman amphitheatre glowed with the masculine swagger of imperial might, and I had to swallow my expressions of awe rather than gasp them to my husband, whose absence I felt as palpably as I would have his presence. When I entered the dreamy courtyard of my hotel in Nîmes, again, I had to effuse in silence. But the total anonymity of my solitude began to course through me, as agreeable a sensation as slow-melting sunshine on the back of the neck. It was distinctly comforting to feel free to contemplate and not to converse. To run a bath and pad around in the nude without the prospect – neither desire nor dread – for an obligatory but exhausted romp. At 53, there are darker things than a short spell in a sexual vacuum.
Later as I took in Norman Foster’s Musée d’Art Contemporain, which mirrors the Maison Carrée – an unsullied Roman temple – beside it, I knew my husband would have circled both buildings, multiple times, with the excitement of the artist he is, and photographed every perfect angle. He would have a history lesson hanging loosely in his head to impart, about 1st-century Augustinian architecture, or Thomas Jefferson who admired the temple’s beauty so much he modelled the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond after it. I respect my husband’s curiosity and knowledge, and the image of him made me cognizant of the best qualities of this man, things that vanish in the hustle and drone of the day-to-day. This thought of him as a patient and curious voyager forced my hand, to delve deep, to read the plaques, to slow down and just gaze at the blinding white stone columns.
By the time I got to Bordeaux, the pangs had faded. This lightness began to buoy me and urge me, unfettered, along the highways of southwestern France. It was the opposite of loneliness: this was freedom itself, that familiar sensation from my travels elsewhere when I become not a wife or companion, but a traveller, afraid of nothing, surprised by how capable – and decisive – I can be. In the morning, I enjoyed café au lait and croissants while getting ready for the day, all at my own pace. I was deliciously unrushed as I slipped on a sweater and swiped my mascara, and felt equally relieved not to be hustling my husband out the door. My choices counted because they were mine alone, and that included my mistakes and missteps. I got an inexpensive, last-minute rate at a four-star hotel that certainly looked dreamy. Sadly, my room was far from it – cold, dim, and too close to the kitchen vents. I wanted to convey my dismay to someone, just for the sake of complaining, but it was hard to deny the obvious: I had got what I paid for. So I moved on with good cheer instead, celebrating my newfound mellowness with a box of canelés (traditional pastries of Bordeaux) at Baillardran. Which I didn’t have to share. I rented a bicycle near the Cathedral St André and whizzed along the Garonne River. My husband would have wanted to ride all day; a bracing one-hour spin was perfect for me.
It was winter when I returned to France again and icy storms raged along the English Channel. I walked the seaside paths in Dinard, dined on buckwheat crèpes and cider. I had seen the limestone cliffs at Étretat twice before, both times with my husband, under the summer’s hard sunshine. He loves this place, its rock formations and the choppy sea that changes by the hour. But I savoured my own vulnerability on the cliffs that were slick with rain, past the Notre Dame de la Garde chapel and down the ladder to the beach. It was dreamy weather for intimacy, with the gusts, the torrents and occasional glimpses of flinty light, but I was moving too fast, on my own timeline, detouring to small towns or a ruin or a lighthouse, no discussion needed. Normandy’s atmosphere in winter is thick with clouds and mist – in other words, romance, which does not necessarily have to equal passionate love.
There was a glimmer of regret when I finally got to Reims Cathedral, where there was no one with whom to marvel at the incredible story of Joan of Arc. But onward I went to Veuve Clicquot for a tour of the house and limestone crayères (cellars) followed by lunch. A server in white gloves poured glass after glass until I seemed to be floating under a veil of rosé, Dame Blanche, Cave Privée. I was giddy with the near perfection of this day, but also aware of its ironies. Here I was immersed in this temple to Champagne, the thirst for which is so permanently fused with the concept of romantic love that it risks cliché. And yet the clarity was startling: I was travelling alone but not a single thing was missing. My lunch companion and I raised our glass to friendship, to France, even to hard work, and finally to the singular beauty of a crystal flute of Champagne glowing from afternoon sun that poured through the window. In every way, it was a celebration.
In all, I made four trips in one little car or another, crisscrossing 5,150km of France’s roads and highways. I tooled through the moody dreamscape of Brittany and headed east to the bouchons (traditional restaurants) of Lyon, then through Basque Country, the Midi-Pyrénées, Poitou-Charentes, and our old stomping grounds of Burgundy, the Var and the Vaucluse. I set my GPS and chugged away, left when I wanted, stopped when I could, and collected matchbooks to light the fireplace in our Connecticut living room, in front of which my husband and I would drink the Cognac or Armagnac or rosé I had carried home.
“Love is rather inhibiting in my view,” said the travel writer Jan Morris about her frequent preference for the solitary voyage. “We are always thinking about what each other wants to do.” Of course, I kept a master list, amassed napkins from restaurants I wanted to remember, made notes of where we should return together, took photos to add depth to my retelling. But sharing these trips only with myself gave me keen eyes and the clarity to see with them.
If all voyages lead to self-discovery, Honfleur proved that point. With no one to blame but myself, and nothing to do but gun it through the narrow portal, I did just that.
“God, oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God,” I repeated, along with a string of profanities aimed at the alley, the walls, the blackness, the rain, the GPS, and mostly, myself. I could not see in reverse, so I took the only course that was proper: inhale, put it in drive, clutch the wheel, and give myself a rallying cry. “AHHHHH!” I exhaled through clenched teeth.
But for the mirrors, my car made it through almost unscratched. When I got to my hotel, I must have looked distraught because the duty clerk offered me a snifter of Calvados and a fluffy towel. Chocolate hearts, wrapped in red foil, tempted me from a dish on the counter so I grabbed a few. Cosy in my room, plunked on the warm bed, I called my husband and related the tale of my wrong turn and daring escape.
“Honey, are you okay?” he asked.
“I’m great,” I said, savouring a toasty swallow of apple brandy while sinking into plush European linens. I unwrapped a chocolate, felt it melt for a moment. “By the way,” I said, “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
Marcia DeSanctis is the author of 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go. An award-winning travel writer, she spent several years living and working in Paris. Her essays and articles have appeared in Vogue, Town & Country and The New York Times, among many other publications. Before becoming a writer, she spent 18 years as a television news producer.