Drive: Berre L’Etang to Lourmarin and return, France (150km)
Could there be anything so stereotypically French than jaunting along the quiet back roads of Provence in a classic Citroen 2CV on an idyllic summer day?
Citroen 2CV – the name might not click with anyone other than a Euro car buff, but chances are you would have seen this quaint, little contrivance in many a French movie or advertisement.
It’s the home-grown Gallic equivalent of Italy’s original Fiat 500 Bambino, Germany’s Volkswagen Beetle and Britain’s Morris Mini.
The People’s Car, in any language.
With a roll-back canvas roof, the well-presented 1983 model (among the first to score inboard front disc brakes) at our disposal for the day provides the atmospheric wheels to experience the Provencal countryside at its best – heady aroma of lavender fields alongside; brilliant, blue sky overhead; and winding strip of grey bitumen unravelling beneath four skinny, black rubber hoops.
We’re off to Lourmarin, listed among the most beautiful villages in not just Provence, but all of France.
This is to where tourists the world over flock in their droves.
It was also home to the late British author Peter Mayle, who wrote the best-seller ‘A Year in Provence’.
Indeed, a film adapted from another of his titles, ‘A Good Year’, was shot in the area.
French writer, journalist, philosopher and Nobel Prize in Literature recipient Albert Camus also lived here and is buried in the local cemetery.
But, before setting off, there’s a bit to know about driving a 2CV – particularly the manual gearshift, which I’d heard and read was like nothing else on wheels.
While the layout is basically standard H-pattern with dogleg (1st gear down and to the left), the shifter needs to be pushed in and out of the dash, while twisting it, rather than simply forward, back and across as in a conventional car.
The man from Vintage Road Trips, our 2CV’s provider, explains:
Twist the lever to the left so it’s angled towards me, then pull out for 1st gear.
Let it spring across neutral to a two-three plane, then push inwards while twisting to the right (so the knob – an 8-ball, in this instance – is positioned straight up) to go into 2nd.
Pull it straight back for 3rd. Then, twist to the right – so the 8-ball is angled away – while pushing back, inwards, to slot it into 4th.
“Easy,” he says, with a smile. Or, is that a sly grin?
Waving through the open roof, we depart with all the speed of a startled tortoise, me far from convinced all will be well.
We’re deliberately (and, wisely) avoiding the motorway, instead using route instructions and signposts to show us the real Provence.
Our drive takes us north, through a succession of pretty villages with romantic names: Coudoux, Lambesc, Charleval, La Roque-d’Antheron and Cadenet.
We’re in no hurry, which is just as well, what with the 2CV’s tiny 600cc, air-cooled twin putting just 22kW to the ground through the front wheels.
Still, that’s hauling just 585kg.
The frugal kerb weight can be put down to a simple tube frame, crepe-thin steel body and only the barest of essentials.
We motor serenely through a valley that stretches between the stunningly scenic Grand and Petit Luberon mountains; then, over a medieval stone bridge spanning the Aigue Brun, a stream that sparkles on among olive and almond groves and lush vineyards.
In Lourmarin, we park the 2CV and set off on a leisurely stroll through the winding streets with their centuries-old stone buildings.
There’s no shortage of open-air cafes and restaurants serving the best of local cuisine at which to wine and dine, or artisan shops to browse at leisure. We do a bit of both.
However, it’s the Chateau de Lourmarin, part of which harks back to origins as a 12th century fortress, that is the must-see.
A medieval wing, called the Château-vieux (old castle), boasts Italian-style loggias (translation: a gallery or arcade open to the air on at least one side) while a regally-furnished Renaissance wing gives an insight to the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by the privileged of the 16th-19th century.
Just as impressive are the superb views across the village, able to be enjoyed from the beautifully-presented grounds.
Back on the road, and with the benefit of a morning behind the wheel, I’m keen to see what the 2CV can do when unencumbered, i.e., downhill, on a set of gentle, sweeping bends. Driven with err, vigour, what it does is understeer before tippy-toeing on its puny 135R15 Nanchang rubber.
Having broken into a liberal angle of lean, it then hikes the inside rear wheel well off the ground.
While this is pretty much the modus operandi for a 2CV (so I’m told, after the fact), rest assured that, thanks to the narrowness of the front tyres and long-travel suspension, it will always stop short of rolling.
What it does do is deliver a cossetting ride over just about any road surface.
So how did that gearshift work out, I hear you ask.
For the main part, we got along okay, the major exception was when meeting the most aggressively-driven vehicle you will find on a road – an anonymous, white private courier van – head-on on a one-way bridge.
Forced to back up, do you think I could find that recalcitrant reverse gear in a hurry? Not bloody likely.
Still, after a day out where the Deux Chevaux gave us all she had, and in her own inimitable way, we would forgive this little jigger for just about anything.
I do not know of a more honest motor vehicle.
Now I get it – whoever came up with saying, ‘Less is more’, had to be referring to the Citroen 2CV.