The Harrowing Road to Sarlot
My wife and I recently spent a week in France’s beautiful Dordogne region, including its prodigious prehistoric paintings. Replicas at Lascaux, but originals elsewhere, for example in the caves of Rouffignac.
Our airplane landed in Bordeaux at 7:00 PM. I had reserved a hotel room in Sarlat, about a two-hour ride from Bordeaux. So I expected to reach our hotel by 9:30 PM. Not great, but do-able.
Lately, we have been using GPS in Europe. They call it Tom Tom over there. We begin our two-hour drive thinking that we are in good hands (foolishly, as you will see shortly). Of course, we also have a map as back-up.
I plug the Tom Tom into the car. It’s a Citroen Picasso. When the Hertz woman gave me the key, I joked that I would prefer a Toulouse-Lautrec, in whose home region we now are. She didn’t laugh.
We take the Autoroute and leave Bordeaux as the sun sets over the Gironde - the immense estuary of the Garonne River. Soon we are driving across Aquitaine/Gascony. These two names refer to nearly coterminous areas of Southwestern France. “Aquitaine” has generally been used as the name of an ancient Roman province, and later with reference to Eleanor, her husband Henry II and the Hundred Years War.
On the other hand, “Gascony,” evokes images of the 17th century cloak-and-dagger sagas immortalized by Dumas in the Three Musketeers and Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Recently, Robert Merle has written a priceless series of 13 novels, Fortune de France (written in Rabelaisian French!) in which his chief protagonist Pierre de Siorac experiences all the fascinating adventures of that turbulent era.
So this is the region through which we are now racing, as night falls. Signs indicating towns such as Bergerac, Cadillac, Cognac, and Siorac-de-Riberac give us a clue that we are, indeed, in Musketeer territory.
There is hardly any traffic. Alas, we hit our first obstacle: a tollbooth. These can be hellish things. You see, tollbooths in France are rarely manned by real people. But woe unto you if you have difficulty navigating one of these!
The first tollbooth is no problem. The machine just spits out an entry ticket. The problem is usually at the other end, when you have to pay to exit.
An hour later, we approach the exit booths. I choose the lane/booth that says “credit card,” because I don’t have much change. Our entry ticket says that we owe 13.60 Euros.
I try to pay. I insert my credit card 4 different ways, exhausting all possible permutations. It doesn’t work. It keeps spitting it out. Ah, there is a help button.
A French voice answers: “Oui?”
“My credit card doesn’t work.”
“You must punch in ze peen numburr.”
“I don’t have a peen number. This is a credit card requiring a signature.”
“Oh, Monsieur, I am sorry, ve do not use zat in Franhce anymore...”
How stupid of me to bring a quaint old American credit card without a pin number!
“Monsieur, you must go to ze cash lane and put ze cash in ze machine.”
I don’t have enough change, and I don’t see any slot for bills. I get out of the car, walk around the machine, in the dark. I finally detect a slot for bills and insert a 20 Euro bill. I figure, it’s better to overpay than be the prisoner of the autoroute. Ha! The gate opens up. We are free to go.
Half an hour later, we hit another toll booth. What the hell? We never went through a booth to get an ENTRY ticket, so how can we pay to EXIT now? I don’t even know how much we owe?
I shove another 20 Euro bill into the machine. Surely that should cover half an hour driving, no? Thank God, the gate opens.
It’s after 10:00 PM. We are still on the autoroute. Madame Tom Tom keeps “recalculating.” She commands me to take a right to get off the tollway and get on the secondary road to Sarlat. But there are no exits! Her digital brain sees the roads we are overpassing but to which the turnpike doesn’t connect, and she thinks that we can fly onto them. She screams, “Turn right!”
I suddenly see the BACK of road signs, signs that are apparently meant to be read by ONCOMING traffic! Am I driving in the OPPOSITE lanes of the turnpike?
My God, we are going to die! The toll booth snafu must have so confused me that I somehow ended up on the wrong side!
I move to the right as far as possible, driving on the shoulder and trying to avoid the first oncoming car, which will surely crash into us head-on.
A few kilometers further, signs make me realize that I am not, after all, on the wrong side of the autoroute, driving suicidally into oncoming traffic. I just had a panic attack.
Madame Tom Tom keeps ordering us to go back. The dumbass doesn’t know that you can’t make a U-turn on a superhighway. We need to find an exit. But none is in sight.
Finally, almost 30 kilometers further, we find an exit and we decide to ignore Madame Tom Tom.
And right after we get off the turnpike, a stroke of luck: A road sign says “Sarlat.” Hurray!
We are now driving on dark, desolate, zigzagging mountain roads, occasionally coming by a farmhouse or a hamlet. Madame Tom Tom babbles, “turn left, turn left!” But I no longer listen to her. I just go by the road signs. After 15 kilometers, there is another Sarlat sign, straight ahead. And she wants me to take a left! She must have it in for us!
I finally disconnect Madame Tom Tom, execution style. She deserves it. She was trying to kill us.
We reach Sarlat after midnight - 5 hours after landing in Bordeaux. The hotel night clerk lets us in. We tell him our adventure. What a guy: he goes to the kitchen, prepares an entire meal and brings it to our room! Who says Frenchmen can’t be classy?
The rest of our sojourn in the
Dordogne was delightful.
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