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FIND MORE: Great Drives

Conde Nast Traveler Magazine
by Stephan Wilkinson

THERE ARE FEW things more daunting than being dispatched onto English roads in a $125,000 sports car--a new Aston Martin DB7 coupe with wide, smooth-flanked, painfully vulnerable bodywork, in this case--and trying to remember to drive on the left, look right and navigate traffic circles clockwise. But there is one greater challenge: emerging from the Chunnel half an hour later, blinking in the warm French sunlight, and suddenly finding yourself driving on the right again...but in a righthand-drive car. Which puts the driver's seat approximately in the gutter and your terrified passenger eyeball-to-eyeball with oncoming traffic.

It was a dyslexic's bad dream, but ahead lay Normandy, a bit of Brittany and a side trip to Le Mans, where Aston Martin stunned Ferrari and Porsche by winning the 24-hour race and then the world sports-car championship in 1959. That victory, alas, was a brief moment of glory that ultimately did far less to make the marque a household name than did a toff named Bond. James Bond.

Day one, from England to Rouen via the Channel Tunnel (181 miles, 24 of them underwater)

The Chunnel carries two kinds of passenger trains. The Eurostar travels between London and Paris or Brussels in about three hours, competing with the inter-city airlines. Its workaday partner is Le Shuttle, a string of fancy boxcars that carry automobiles and buses between Dover and Calais, where the Chunnel actually surfaces. If you don't have wheels, don't bother showing up for Le Shuttle: no seats, no walk-ons, no riders except those already aboard autos or coaches.

What's it like to travel through the world's longest underwater rabbithole? (Actually, Japan's Seikan Tunnel, between Honshu and Hokkaido, is 33.46 miles overall to the Chunnel's 31.35 miles, but only 14.3 miles are under the sea; the Chunnel worms 24 miles with the Channel as its roof.) Well, imagine parking inside a seatless subway car and you've about got it. Fewer windows, less noise and no crowding, but there's the same trapped-in-space feeling.

"When they were building it, I said, 'You'll never get me into that thing,'" said the Shuttle agent who tended our five-car compartment. "And now here I am working on it. I worked for a ferry company for 16 years, but the hours here are so much better." Her Motorola squawked with the voice of another agent, who warned, "There's a vehicle in number six with a flammable-cargo sign on it. I think it's propane."

"Well, what do you want me to do about it now?" the engineer of the train radioed back heartily. We were 240-odd feet under the mud of La Manche, doing just under 90 mph, running through an England-to-France layer of chalk marl that Chunnel geologists are delighted to describe as "having the consistency of very hard cheese." That makes it impervious to water, although I'd hoped for something having the consistency of steel.

Day two, Rouen to Audrieu via the Bayeux Tapestry (143 miles)

Is this a voyage of discovery? Hardly. Normandy is the perfect place to do all the Typical Tourist Things and not feel embarrassed about it. After all, this is a country that comes with its own official checklist--the Guide Michelin.

Our first three-star "Worth a Journey" sight is the Abbey of Jumieges, an enormous, roofless ruin on the Seine, parts of which date back to the 10th century. It's a ruin because no country has a monopoly on barbarians: by 1802, the few remaining monks of Jumieges had dispersed, their furniture had been auctioned off, and the once-splendid monastery was sold to a building-materials contractor who blew much of it up for its limestone blocks. Black pigeons wheel and bank through its once-vaulted chambers and galleries, squawking and arguing like old ladies, and the dazzling September sky makes a roof more vivid than the architects of Jumieges ever imagined.

But it is at Caen, 55 miles west, that one begins to discover what today's Normandy is really about. It is not the cathedrals and abbeys and four-square half-timbered Norman stone homes but the memories of the grandest single battle humankind has ever fought--the Normandy Invasion and allied breakout of summer 1944, when Festung Europa was finally breached.

That breach is represented by the sundered exterior wall of the Normandy Memorial Museum, on the northern outskirts of Caen. The museum is a superb introduction to a battle that in fact is incomprehensible in its enormity, when six armies (American, British, Canadian, French, Polish and German) clashed. Exactly how enormous was the invasion? Hard to say, but a friend who flew a P-47 fighter-bomber across the 100 miles of open water on D-Day once told me that he had no fear of his single engine stopping. "I figured I'd just ditch right next to a ship, if I could find room between them. I looked down and the Channel was solid with vessels, literally paved with steel hulls."

Inside the museum, one corkscrew path of exhibits winds downward from 1918 into the darkness of conflict, almost making plain the descent into a second world war from the cruelly mishandled victory of the first. The ramp passes through the years of economic ruin, of League of Nation leaders playing clumsy golf while they ignore the world's problems, of worldwide financial collapse, of Hitler's rise and, in a starkly honest statement--this is a French museum, after all--a painful description of the fall of France. "For the first time in recent history," the exhibit caption reads, "an imperial power of the highest rank collapses without resistance. A solidly constituted state crumbles, leaving a totally defenseless people facing the invader, without civil or military authority to turn to."

Westbound again toward Bayeux, I keep finding roads that move me to think, "This is what this car was designed for." First it was the splendid Routes Nationale 1 and 28 south toward Rouen, the 330-horsepower, supercharged Aston Martin loping along behind a blue Ferrari 456GT at a steady 110 mph. It recalled the days when such superb grand touring cars made the run from Paris to Nice to beat the Blue Train. Now the road is a lane-and-a-half Norman farm-to-market road, while we shun the highways. I say to the navigator, "There are people who would kill to have this car on this road on this day." She agrees, from her seat astride the oncoming lane, but opines that perhaps I should come back by myself some other time, so that I wouldn't have to slow to Wife Speed.

We're headed for the Bayeux Tapestry, which turns out to be the Bayeux Crewel. Boor that I am, I'd expected a woven wallhanging and instead find an 11th century Doonesbury--a 230-foot-long comic strip recounting the unfortunate adventures of one Harold Godwinson, briefly to be the King of England. Harold as a consequence annoyed William, Duke of Normandy, sufficiently to turn him into William the Conquerer. The tapestry's prime attributes are length and age rather than beauty, for it was in fact contracted out to a group of English monks of minimal skill as figurative embroiderers. Still, nothing so...well, so long has survived from times medieval.

The Chateau d'Audrieu, a magnificent 18th century country manor a few miles east of Bayeux, now a Relais & Chateau hostelry, provides yet another of those sensory experiences for which the Aston Martin was created: the crunch of fine, white, quartzy gravel under the still-warm tires of a fast car idling through the iron gates toward a splendid dinner and a night in a cozy, expensive, richly furnished room.

Day three, Audrieu to Cancale (149 miles)

Everywhere in Normandy there are museums, monuments and memorials of the Invasion--gate-guardian Sherman tanks, rusted gun emplacements, endless displays filled with stiff waxwork figures of Yanks and Tommies in ill-fitting uniforms, dioramas and sand-table modelings of thrusting legions, and of course the cemeteries.

At Arromanche, however, the scene is absolutely unique. At this tiny fishing village, the Allies tried to build an enormous artificial harbor where they could offload the millions of tons of ammunition, vehicles, stores and fuel that they needed. We had yet to capture a real harbor--Cherbourg was the nearest--but the armies that had come ashore largely on foot, hand over hand up the cliffs and dunes, wouldn't last long without the tools of their trade.

So the English had been committing since 1942 (what confidence!) an obscure feat of civil engineering: building an enormous series of caissons, floating docks, moorable platforms and articulating connectors that were towed across 100 miles of open water and pieced together in an attempt to create not only a huge lagoon and breakwater but an entire working port. It never really worked and was dashed apart by a terrible storm less than two weeks after D-Day, but by then the Americans had taken Cherbourg.

This immense Mulberry, as it was code-named, still lies in a huge, half-sunken arc off Arromanche like a fleet of enormous steel barges gone terribly wrong. Many sections were flung onto the beach, others breached and battered in shallow water. If humankind ever disappears and alien archaeologists land in Normandy, they will be baffled. Unless, of course, the Mulberry Museum is still standing in Arromanche, for it explains the whole project in fascinating detail.

Five miles to the west, at Longues sur Mer, the only surviving German coastal guns, a battery of four long-barreled naval rifles, still rust within pillboxes dug into the ground like half-buried Darth Vader helmets. Another seven and a half miles along the narrow coastal road, D514, brings us to Omaha Beach and the enormous U. S. military cemetery.

I have had friends reduced to tears simply by the sight, yet my feelings amid the mathematically precise rows of graves, 9,386 of them aligned to impossible distances in every direction you look, are far more commonplace. I know I have stepped from France onto a tiny sward of the United States, for everywhere there are signs telling me how to act and what the limits are. "Silence and respect." "Correct attire required." "One pamphlet per family." "Lock your car." "Hold back your tears." "No picnics." The only ones missing are, "Stand up straight" and "Don't chew with your mouth open."

No one can walk near the graves except next of kin, who are allowed an official photo opportunity and the temporary placement of approved flowers. The cemetery is more an exhibit than a memorial, stunning in its dimensions and military precision but dismaying in its inhumanity. Perhaps that's the point.

At the oystering port of Cancale, after a lazy drive south through St. Lo to the edge of Brittany--the eerie feeling of treading the same ground upon which my father-in-law had stepped half a century earlier--even the gleaming Aston Martin, ticking and creaking in the driveway as it throws off the heat of the journey, can't get us into the lovely six-room inn Les Rimains, on the edge of a bluff high above the harbor. (I later learn that reservations are customarily made two months in advance.) Usually the footloose, we-don't-need-no-stinkin'-reservations progress of the unplanning great driver is part of the appeal of such a journey. Occasionally, it leaves you wondering if you'll be sleeping in the car, though tonight we end up with a view of the kitchen ventilator of one of the many small tourist hotels down on the waterfront.

Day four, Cancale to Bagnole via Mont St. Michel (118 miles)

The small road from Cancale westward around the headland to St. Malo takes us along a tortured shoreline of wind-gnarled trees with an angry, green sea beyond, reefs of tall rocks just offshore. The land is at the same time stark and salty yet fertile, with great fields of mysterious vegetables everywhere amid the small, almost-Celtic stone manors.

Jacques Cartier set sail from here and bumped into Canada, the inevitable result of following the "W" on his compass: St. Malo and the mouth of the St. Lawrence are on virtually the same latitude. So are the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, a straight shot for centuries of St. Malo fishermen, so the ancient walled city grew fat on fur and fish.

It's a tight little town. A walk around the high, windswept ramparts takes less than half an hour. Hardly a stone's throw to seaward are two islets, on one of which is Chateaubriand's tomb. When the tide is out, people walk to them but risk being caught by the rapid tidal bore. A sign warns that they should retreat to the island rather than try to make it to shore if this happens. That's France. In the United States, the walk would be entirely forbidden and fenced off, for we require the Government to guarantee our welfare. ("I like a country where they let you fall in," my navigator had said earlier as we strolled along the 12-foot drop into the quayside harbor in a small fishing village. Me too.)

But always in the distance looms the hazy blue shiprock that is the real reason travelers come to this corner of Brittany: Mont St. Michel, that magnificent Benedictine abbey built atop a huge granitic spike that pokes up through the tideflats. Though he came from the other end of the spectrum of nobility, Mad King Ludwig--he of Bavaria's Neuschwanstein Castle--would have understood the monks' scramble for the height and their pursuit at the same time of airy elegance, massive stature and sheer flamboyance.

Many visitors are surprised by the open commerciality of the souvenir shops, food stalls, inns and wax museums that line the tiny alley leading steeply up to the abbey. Yet little has changed, for the tiny Norman village has always been there to separate pilgrims from their pennies. Admittedly, the overpriced Kurt Cobain t-shirts are new.

As we leave, an Armee de l'Air Mirage thunders across the bay and uses the golden archangel high atop the abbey as the pivot for a series of vertically banked 360s. The fighter's wingtips stream vapor as it circles above the glistening mudflats, and 1,300 years of French history are briefly spanned by its orbit.

Be warned that the French drive as though they too are Mirage pilots. Many are what racers call squirrels--fast, luck-trusting, competent yet often over their heads. In France, cars often are dented (as, admittedly, they are in the U. S.). In Germany, a dent is the blaze of incompetence. The French seem not to understand that passing--a frequent necessity on their two-lane roads--often is best done by accelerating from well behind the car being passed, nicely timing the actual pass so that you're already going 20 or more mph faster with energy in hand, thus minimizing your exposure time in the oncoming lane.

Instead, the French tuck themselves half a carlength behind your bumper and lunge, sometimes making it past, sometimes darting back to safety, but always a presence in the mirror. In one small town, I stop to avoid a car heedlessly pulling out of a side street, and sure enough, the next sound I hear is the brief wail of the skinny tires on the battered Renault behind me, its brakes locked. He hits the Aston with an enormous thump, square on the flexible rear bumper. Miraculously, there isn't a mark on either car.

Day five, Bagnole to Chartres via Le Mans (177 miles)

Most of the eight-and-a-half mile long racetrack at Le Mans reverts to being public roads after the annual 24-hour race, but it takes me 20 minutes to find my way onto it from the network of country roads and city streets that border it. It is an anticlimax, quite unlike the experience of driving its German equivalent, the forested, one-way, no-speed-limit Nurburgring, where a payment of 14 marks per lap allows you to make believe you're Michael Schumacher. The Aston is simply part of Saturday-morning traffic southbound on the N138 to Tours as we putter down the three-and-a-half mile long Mulsanne Straight, where the fastest cars during the race have maxed out at 240 mph. Hallowed ground, but only the unusually high guardrail and the red-and-white-striped apex curbing at the corners hint that for a brief time every year, this is one of the most famous pieces of paving on earth.

The run to Chartres is considerably more challenging. My passenger claws her armrest as we punch through light traffic on the backroads at 100. She is unaware that I am simply trying to avoid holding up the middle-aged Frenchwoman who looms large in my rear-view mirror, glued to the DB7's already tender rear bumper in her VW Passat sedan. The local lady continually edges out to pass as the lovely road weaves and billows past immense fields of corn and wheat and through occasional tiny forest enclaves, and I finally let her by.

It's Saturday in Chartres, of course one of the country's prime tourist destinations, so we've made an unaccustomed reservation, choosing a three-star "manoir" on the outskirts, based on a brochure photo of the ivy-covered 16th century main house. Big mistake: the photo unaccountably doesn't reveal the muddy children playing in the driveway puddles, the greasy gent fixing his Peugeot outside our miserable "annex" room (translation, "motel"; the tiny plot with a plastic chair outside its front door is styled a "private terrace"), or the clerk who suddenly turns nasty when we decline to fill in a tip on the credit-card receipt for our room bill the next morning.

Yet it's the only hint of French flick-your-chin surliness we'll experience--another cultural cliche brought to its knees. Les Normands all seem to appreciate my schoolboy French and even answer clearly enough that I can understand them. Perhaps my mistake was straying out of the province too close to Paris, barely 40 miles to the northeast. By the time we reach Monet's Gardens, at Giverny, we're back in Normandy, albeit surrounded by a buzz of Martha Stewart disciples all discussing what they'll plant when they get back to Greenwich. Or, in the case of the very first American conversation I overhear, two lawyers discussing depositions. It's time to go home.