One of the pleasures of motorway driving in France is the chance to have a sustained break in one of the aires, or service areas. Not the run-of-the-mill petrol station plus eatery and shop. They have those too. As in England, they offer the chance to eat indifferent food at over-the-odds prices, and to spend a small fortune if you’ve been unlucky enough to need to tank up there.
No, in France, roughly every other service area is all but unserviced. There are parking spaces, toilets, a telephone, and not much else: nowhere to spend money, in any case. There may be a children’s play space set among trees, and perhaps picnic benches. And that is their charm. They’re generously sized areas, set well away from traffic noise, and offer a real chance to get away from the stress of a long drive with a relaxing walk in the woods or a picnic in the shade.
Perhaps my favourite is on the southbound carriageway of the A20 in the Limousin. I first stopped by chance at L’Aire de la Coulerouze when I was driving down alone to Laroque a few years ago.
Earlier that day, I had picked up the makings of a picnic at the market at Levroux. I’d got bread, and a young goats’ cheese. I’d bought fresh apple juice from some nuns who had a stall, and an apricot producer had sold me a couple each of every apricot variety he grew so I could have my own personal taste-test session.
At Coulerouze, I found picnic tables and was about to settle myself down when I noticed wooden steps leading downwards. There at the bottom was a bridge over a small river all but encircling a small wooded glade, with a single bench under an apple tree. The only sounds were the birds singing, and the river tumbling along its path. I spread out my lunch and relaxed. Afterwards, I found there was a path.
It took me first of all along the river, and then along fields and hedgerows. The walk wasn’t a long one, but it was all I needed to forget the many miles I’d already driven that day, and the four or five hours driving that still awaited.
Not all these aires are quite so special. There are some horrors near Rouen. But find a good one, and it’ll become a treasured destination, somewhere to aim for with pleasure on a long day’s driving.