The morning after we arrived in Rouen, my friend and I did as all tourists should, by going cathedral spotting.
Yes, it is generally something only individuals with dour adenoids and a penchant for hideous cardigans find appealing, but it is a rite of passage in a city caked with religious structures.
Rouen is a French city that I covert more than most. As the capital of Normandy, it offers both the utilitarian hustle of a modern, commercial metropolis, and exquisite medieval artefacts, headlined by the magnificent Notre Dame cathedral.
Locals are neat and attractive, in that rakish, stand-offish way that is a trademark of northern France. Twingos and mopeds line the streets, but so do timber-framed cottages and the renowned astrological clock – the Gros Horloge.
I’m beginning to go off on one, but you get the idea. It’s pretty. You should go.
After downing an espresso beside yet another church, we chucked our belongings into the back of the Punto and nosed our way onto the A roads.
The Gold Beach Hotel was our next port of call. As the name ever so subtly suggests, it backed onto Gold Beach.
This stretch of sand earned its prominence as one of the battlefields for the British Army during the most shattering– and deadly – military armada in history. The D-Day Landings.
Spectacularly poignant, of course, but not a relaxing holiday destination. We picked the right weather for it, mind, with a billowing mist and throbbing rain suffocating the horizon.
Every well-chosen metaphor and turn of phrase has rightfully been exhausted over the years, so I’m not going to attempt some deep, zany line about the place. The magnitude of events speak for themselves.
Having roamed Normandy as vividly as we could manage within our modest timescale (including a visit to the pleasant and historically significant town of Bayeux), French tourism’s most preposterous duo headed for the sunnier south.
It would be churlish to overlook this section of the journey, but rural Gaul was flying past our increasingly mucky windows with such velocity that we had little opportunity to get our teeth into anything substantial.
Le Mans was typically glorious, but our experience was condensed to a rapid intake of caffeine and a jog around the cathedral. We managed to eat McDonalds next to the Mulsanne Straight, mind.
A defining part of the French leg for me was the accommodation. In fact, as the trip unfolded, it became a major factor in how we came to experience each and every town, lake or country.
This is the reality of the road trip on a budget. Believe me, when I saw the state of my debit card after the opening few days, I was all open to cheap hotels. It was the distinct lack of cheerfulness that pissed me off.
Without wishing to name names – for frankly all dishevelled hotels and hostels are the same – it became increasingly wearisome to leave the room in the morning feeling less fresh than we went in, and with clothes reeking of antiseptic and damp. Call me a snob all you like, but I was driving eight hours a day, so these details matter.
It is grossly unfair to pay little for a room but demand perfect service and stunning quality, but the truth is I was still shelling out good money for the privilege (or lack of it, as it transpired).
If you’re sitting behind your desk on Google Maps, planning out the perfect road trip, I urge you to bear this unavoidable aspect in mind.
Put it this way. Attempting to stroll peacefully and thoughtfully around the grounds of a medieval ruin or to bask in the awe of a mountain range having just unblocked a German tourist’s pubic hair from the shower is like dating the vicar’s daughter, only to find she’s in possession of a love egg. Sort of spoils the occasion somewhat.
Nevertheless, we reached Pau (our first motorsport-related stop off) in relatively fine spirits. Finding the hotel proved a challenge – mainly due to the humungous bout of rain that greeted us upon arrival.
Given that the Punto is sans heater switch, this led to vast swathes of windscreen being clouded in condensation. Not ideal when the Sat Nav is better suited to a career in the circus than as a map, and with my phone service provider refusing me any 4G reception.
We made it to the hotel eventually, and having concluded that Pau is the most hopelessly complicated city in the world, dumped our bags down and fell asleep. By the time we had risen the following morning, we realised that we’d lurched back in time – to the 1970s.
The room, seemingly modelled on a chalet from a Roger Moore Bond film, was also reeking of cigarettes. My friend decided to counter the stench by conjuring biblical amounts of soapy froth, and smothering himself in it.
Looking back, I don’t know whether this was a cry for help, or if this pleased a primeval, repressed gene within him. Either way, it didn’t make much difference.