I wasn’t looking forward particularly to my next challenge but I surprised myself and today I managed to make a much better job of getting the hire car out of the garage and was relieved to get out onto the street without ripping off a bumper or putting a crease down the side and we waved goodbye to the patron and set off on our sixty kilometre journey to Castres.
For the first twenty-five kilometres there was nothing very special about the journey as we motored across unremarkable landscape puntuated with a few untidy villages under a disappointing leaden grey sky but then the situation began to improve as we started to approach the Languedoc National Park and we drove through vineyards with leaves curling and turning to brown, their job completed for this year and then we started to climb and the road swooped through forests of deciduous trees which at this altitude were adorned with golden and russet leaves and we climbed still further to over a thousand metres and left the deciduous trees behind and entered the conifer forests of the higher elevations, the cloud gave way to brilliant sunshine and blue sky and it all became very picturesque.
At the top of the climb we went through the charming town of St Pons-de-Thomieres and as we sat in the mid morning traffic we drove past the Hôtel de Ville and in the courtyard there was a magnificent statue of Madame Liberty, the traditional female embodiment of the French Republic with her ample thrusting bosom unashamedly thrusting out and exposed to all. Madame Liberty represents the spirit of the French Revolution (various revolutions actually, 1789, 1830, 1848, 1968) and I have always thought how magnificent it would be if England could have a big breasted busty national symbol instead of the frumpy Britannia! It’s an interesting fact however that when the French built the Statue of Liberty for the USA they made sure that she was more discreetly attired! The French are proud of Madame Liberty who can be found in most French towns alongside the inevitable Place de la Revolution and the Place de la Republique an interesting contrast to the UK where I am yet to find a ‘Constitutional Monarchy Square’!
We didn’t stop in St Pons-de-Thomieres but carried on towards Mazamet where a by-pass took us around the centre and through the ubiquitous edge of town shopping malls which are a disagreeable feature of most French urbanisations as everywhere it is almost certain that the approach to any historic town or city must now pass through a collection of supermarkets and fast food restaurants. And this is another curious feature of France because every town we drove through had countdown signposts and specific directions to the nearest McDonalds restaurant as though the French need the constant reassurance that somewhere nearby is a set of Golden Arches. The poor French. There they were, with their low-rent bistros serving brie-filled crepes, soupe a l’oignon and coq au vin when all the populace really wanted was rectangular food-like objects that taste vaguely of chicken, and a side of dipping sauce
Well, actually it turns out to be not so curious because even though they maintain that they despise the concept of the fast food chain an awful lot of French people do eat there. Across France there are nearly twelve hundred restaurants (restaurants?)and in Paris alone there are almost seventy, with even more dotted around the outer suburbs. That’s much the same as London, but with only a third of the population. McDonald’s, or “macdoh” as it is known, is France’s guilty secret. In 2007 the chain’s French revenues increased by eleven per cent to €3 billion. That’s more than it generates in Britain and in terms of profit, France is second only to the United States itself. It is now so firmly a part of French culture that the menu includes McBaguette and Croque McDo and in 2009 McDonald’s reached a deal with the French museum, the Louvre, to open a McDonald’s restaurant and McCafé on its premises by their underground entrance.
It didn’t take long to drive the last few kilometres into Castres and we found the Hotel de L’Europe without any difficulty at all and after we had checked in and deposited our bags we set out to walk around and discover the city.