The péages in France are excellent. Empty, clean, quiet smooth motorways, no hold-ups. In England I would feel incensed having to pay to use 'the Queen's Highway' but somehow, away from home, it all seems a good idea.
Even going cross-country, covering the vast distances which represent an every-day experience in France but which are colossal to this 'little' Englander, the place is empty. We covered mile after mile, sometimes in regions where the farmhouses are clustered quite closely together, sometimes going through empty regions, with huge fields and forests, and no-one in sight. Compared to England, France is a void.
We had an excellent simple breakfast in the Etap in Tours, and headed off before 8.30 towards Poitiers. I had no idea what a treat was waiting for us.
It's a lovely, inspiring place. A collection of medieval houses, hotels, courtyards, squares - now largely occupied by the university, and well labelled for the casual tourist, makes any simple walk around the citadel a delight. Music shops everywhere. A waitress confirmed - lots and lots of English people live in or visit the city.
We watched a beggar-woman settle heavily into her accustomed spot on a pavement. Once plugged into her pitch, nothing was going to move her for the day. Very professional.
We had a coffee, went into two stupendous churches from the early medieval period - one being a fantastic marriage of Romanesque and Flamboyant, and the other even earlier and still ablaze with wallpaintings and decoration, such as no longer exists in England. I am too tired to remember their names now, but will add these in tomorrow.
Eventually, leaving the city, we had a bit of a struggle trying to extract diesel from an automatic pump in a Super-U garage - it should have been simple but apparently our debit card couldn't be accommodated. Eventually a very nice man (speaking perfect English) helped us - we used a different pump and all was well. He had been sent as a child to speak English every year since the age of 9 - his parents thought he should be bilingual.
Then we drove to stylish but louche Angouleme, where we had lunch in a Gallerie-Cafe: very English, very laid-back, very nice. Very hippy, in fact. The 'art' on display was pretty dismal but the atmosphere was accommodating and gentle. It was all in a stone building of superb quality and finish, now rather down in the world.
We set off into the unknown towards our destination near Toulouse - gradually finding vineyards, seeing really very few people, loving the light on the huge landscape. Unlike some of the territory further north, which we are more familiar with, here there are no empty houses waiting to be done up. It's all plush, green, well-cared for.
Hill and valley, huge rivers, bastide towns, forests, bridges, more hills and vallies... it's a lovely country. No wonder kings fought over it, back and forth.
I find I am very excited by maps and new country. It's the place-names which do it. I keep imagining love affairs, historic duels, tragic ends, love matches, jokes, hoaxes, puns, cunning tricks.... I want to be an EF Benson of these countrysides. (When will I get on with it?) For instance, I saw a place called something like Chef Boutonne. Chief Button?????!?!?!?! Wild.
We finally reached my sister's house just after 7pm - about 11 hours on the road, including meal breaks etc. A little old Gers farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, still a bit of a building site, with swimming pool installed but not fully tiled, and the garden all mud. Inside, lovely tall rooms, wooden stairs and beams, thick walls, uneven floors, packing cases, loose wires.... Outside, the lovely light but with a cold wind still blowing and treetops bashing about a bit.
Chris made us a supper, we ate and drank and did some catching up.
I am SO tired.
I wish my sister did not smoke. It's disgusting and poisonous and makes me want to retch. But her house is charming and she is a perfectionist about how she wants it arranged. We must find a compromise.
Tonight, now after 10pm, I am almost weeping with tiredness. I hope things will read more coherently tomorrow.