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FRANCE'S BEST KEPT SECRET

29-08-2007

The Stirrer's been collecting your best and worst holiday destinations over the summer. David Nicholl nominates a favourite.

How do you recreate the road trip of a lifetime when you are married and lumbered down with kids?

In 1994, I had just finished working in a hospital in Cape Town, on the eve of the first free elections, when I went on a three month trip through South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe in a Land Rover with my then girlfriend, now wife, on the trip of our lives.

En route to Rourke's Drift near Kwazulu, we drove our Land Rover as several thousand Zulus were going the opposite direction to attend a political rally complete with spears. I felt like Michael Caine in "Zulu".

We camped next to the Zambesi river and watched the sunset - that night a lion visited our camp-site as we trembled in our roof-top tent above.

We drove across Mozambique only months after the UN had stopped providing armed escorts, and decided to do what, in retrospect is the stupidest thing I've ever done - take a short cut down a Mozambique ‘B' road which had recently been a mine-field judging by the craters and burnt-out vehicle at the side of the road.

Interesting times indeed in 1994 when South Africa seemed like it was on the brink of civil war and Zimbabwe under Mugabe seemed a stable place - how things can change?

So 13 years later, weighed down with married life, some stinky nappies, career and a mortgage, how does one capture that sense of adventure again? Yes, go camping in France, I kid you not.

Earlier this year, we bought a motor home, and a friend had introduced me to a scheme called Passion France which seemed too good to be true as well as appealing to my sense of adventure. For the cost of 28 euros (16) annual membership, we could stay the night in our motorhome in any one of 840 farms or vineyards for nothing - yep, no charge.

In return, we could, under no obligation, taste the wine or produce and buy it.

There is something truly marvellous about meeting the local farmers whether in France or South Africa and chewing the cud over politics, sport or whatever - it is the best way to really see a country.

Given that France is a country obsessed with food, where the boulangerie is a daily devotion and a long lunch obligatory, this was the way to see it.

We travelled the length of France in 2 weeks from a Normandy cider farm to the Lot river valley in the South with visits to the Loire and Dordogne in between before finishing in the Ardennes and Champagne regions.

But, you may say, France isn't exactly known for its minefields like post-civil war Mozambique - yet on our last day we had a thought-provoking visit to the Somme Valley, the site of the biggest British military disaster when 60,000 were killed or injured on the first day of the ‘Big Push' in July 1916. Over 90 years later, the craters and scars are still there.

My question is, given the problems of British farming, what with the recent foot and mouth crisis and the Bernard Matthews bird flu outbreak, isn't it time we tried to reconnect with the farmers, in the same way the French are so passionate about farming and food.

Shouldn't there be a "Passion Britain" scheme? This would be one great way for British farmers to bond with a wider public as well as market their produce.

Somehow, I just can't see British farmers grasping this one - the idea of a scheme where people can turn up without booking or paying just would seem too incredible.

Well it can work in France, so why not? I'll raise my (many) glasses of Sauvignon Blanc to that one - bon appetit!

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