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July 01, 2014, France

Exploring France

Despite a railway workers’ strike, Dave Fox still finds adventure on the road in the ancient provinces.

Dave Fox

FRANCE was in the throes of a crippling train strike two weeks ago. Somehow, my wife Kattina and I had just spent five days in the country, oblivious to the transport chaos until the night before our rail journey was scheduled to begin.

Earlier that week, Kattina’s German uncle had driven us, with her mother, over the border into Beaune, a village in France’s Burgundy region. In the morning, my wife and I hoped to head off on our own — by train — on a journey we had been planning for months.

“Could it be resolved by morning?” I asked our hotel receptionist.

He laughed. “Not a chance.”

That night in our hotel room, while I was trying to decipher a rapid-fire debate about the strike on French television, Kattina tapped quietly on her iPad.

“Hey,” she said. “I found a car rental that’s cheaper than the train.”

If we could get to Dijon, 40km away, we could rent a car with unlimited mileage for a week for 156 euros (S$265). Local trains between Dijon and Beaune were disrupted, but not as badly as longer routes.

Change of plans

The next morning, we waited out one cancellation before finding a train that was still running. We chugged to Dijon, picked up our car, and hit the road with a fresh plan, which was to plan as little as possible.

We drove west, avoiding highways and sticking instead to smaller roads that took us through rolling farmland. We marvelled at ancient stone houses in tiny villages — places that would have blurred by in seconds had we been sitting in one of France’s highspeed TGV trains.

Ninety kilometres later, we chose a random town and stopped for a coffee.

Autun, we discovered, was a walled city founded in early Roman times. We strolled along the ramparts, craned our necks at 12th-century spires and visited an ancient amphitheatre.

As our 20-minute rest stop stretched into its fourth hour, we decided we were having too much fun to leave. We found a hotel and parked for the night.

The next day, we continued to Auvergne, a volcanic region in central France. We stayed for several nights in Orcival, a village in the region whose population in a 2007 census was estimated at 256.

Volcano ventures

The tiny settlement became our base to explore extinct volcanoes, the most recent of which erupted around 6,000 years ago.

One day, we drove 30 minutes to the base of the Puy Pariou volcano. A 45-minute hill climb led us through a forest of Alderwood trees, which gave way at the top to a 200m-wide crater.

A hiking trail spiralled down into the crater. We picnicked inside the volcano, then climbed out and hiked down along a different trail. After a couple of hours, we reached Puy de Dôme, Auvergne’s tallest volcano, which tops off at 1,465m.

Our second climb of the day was steep and tiring. At the Puy de Dôme summit, we watched paragliders take off. Then we found a simpler way down.

Puy de Dôme is the only volcano in Auvergne with a train service –– a privately run one that was not affected by the strike. It was well worth the 6-euro ticket to spare our knees from the steep descent.

The next day, Kattina tackled a more strenuous hike while I spent the day writing in an Orcival café. In the evening, the village threw a diminutive, midsummer music festival that featured two cover bands and drew around 80 spectators.

Pilgrimage route

After three nights in Orcival, we moved on to Le Puyen-Velay. With a population of around 21,000, Le Puy serves as one of the starting points of a centuries- old pilgrimage route that ends 1,600km away in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

Le Puy-en-Velay was bursting with colour, as if a giant palette of paints had been smooshed against the city’s facades. We wandered through a cobblestone labyrinth of streets, up a hill to a 12th-century cathedral.

A giant statue of the Virgin Mary, constructed in the 1850s from 213 melted Russian cannons, sat on a volcanic peak in town. A pinnacle supported the Chapel of St Michael d’Aiguilhe, a pilgrimage chapel dating from AD962.

On the sixth day of our journey, we learnt the train strike was winding down. We had friends to meet in Paris, so we drove four hours back to Dijon, dropped off our rental car and hopped on the TGV train to the French capital. Our rail journey was back on track.

I have always liked travelling without a lot of plans. Plans have a way of unravelling. But when your plans derail, you can panic — or you can get creative.

While thousands of travellers grumbled that the French rail strike was snarling their holidays, we found a way to benefit from the disruption. The strike set us off on tangents we had never imagined –– into a more adventurous journey.


- Emirates and Qantas Airways fly to Lyon, with stopovers in Dubai.

- With the exception of Britain and Ireland, Europeans drive on the right-hand side of the road. If you’re not used to this, take care when turning corners. - Cars with automatic transmissions are not always available in Europe, and when they are, they are often a lot more expensive. If you don’t normally drive a stick-shift vehicle, practising before you go will make for a smoother ride. - Renting a car in Europe is usually cheapest if you drop off the car in the same town where you pick it up.

- Visit for a directory of European road signs. - Visit for more information on the volcanoes and towns in France’s Auvergne region.

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