TRAVEL : Autoroutes to enjoyment

French motorways are not just roads to rush down. Even the service stations are inviting
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The Independent Culture
DRIVING east down the A5, you are spoilt for choice when it comes to service stations. The first boasts children's play area, garage and fax ; the second is full of sculpture and so tasteful that even the loos and phone boxes are discreetly camouflaged.

Fax? Good taste? This A5 leads not out of Bangor but away from Paris and the services in question are known as Les Jonchets and Les Rasets. They are featured in Bonne Route: Discovering French Motorways by Anna Fitter (Anthony Nelson, £7), which sounds like one of those duff titles along the lines of "1001 Things to Do Just Off the M25". The author admits her research raised eyebrows: "Driving thousands of miles along every motorway in France, looking at service stations, may seem an odd way to spend the summer."

Fortunately for her, there is no real comparison between the service stations of the British motorways and the "aires" of the French autoroutes. For a start, autoroutes are not quite the same as our motorways: with an 81mph speed limit (69mph if wet) they are mostly two-lane and they are mainly toll roads. Our service stations are spaced out, built only on sites that seem carefully chosen by the Ministry of Transport because there are rare flora and fauna to be wiped out there; in France they come thick and fast, practically within walking distance. And unlike our Identikit services, French facilities vary enormously. They differ even on opposite sides of the auto-route; there might not even be anything over the road, and not so much as a footbridge.

Aire means simply "area" or "spot". The aire at Port Lauragais on the A61 near the Spanish border boasts skateboarding, sailing and boat trips along the canal; by contrast its little brother at Fontcouverte 50 miles down the road is listed as having just a telephone.

Some are run by the big chains like Relais or Arche while others are family businesses. Some offer "hostesses" who feed and change your baby. Others provide only a petrol pump and a swing. Bellevue, on the A10 from Paris to Tours, is listed as having absolutely nothing at all, not even - despite its name - a view.

Most can lay claim to some special attraction. At Nabrigas on the A9 from Orange to Montpellier, "the noise of the cicadas here almost drowned the sound of the traffic," which is not often said about the lorry park on the Watford Gap services.

Curney on the A38 from Dijon to Chalon displays a memorial to road traffic victims, a grim reminder that French motorists may leave their sanity at home. Yet they do not abandon their intellect. Readers of Le Grand Meaulnes will screech to a halt, when tootling along the A71 from St Amand to Clermont, at the literary aire named after Alain-Fournier's haunting novel. At Le Rossignol on the A6 from Dijon to Chalon not just the nightingale can be heard in spring but also, in summer, what Ms Fitter describes as "taped ancient music" - Aire on a G String, no doubt.

Agen Porte d'Aquitaine has its own rugby museum. This site near Bordeaux also boasts a prune museum, which leads to the thought that stained-glass windows grace the WC block of Hyombre (on the A36 heading for Beaune). At the museum in Le Lac near Macon you may study exhibits on the construction of the nearby autoroute and at Le Village Catalan on the A9 near the Spanish border there's a statue dedicated to the Unknown Motorway Worker.

Yet it is not for intriguing details like that Anna Fitter awards her stars for quality but for the highly important picnic area. Le Village Catalan and Port Lauragais each receive the coveted trois etoilles. Thanks to the climate which makes eating outdoors a pleasure instead of an endurance, al fresco facilities are taken very seriously on the autoroutes. But she does warn that the loos on picnic sites tend to be of the "squattoir" variety.

Her warning about the actual restaurants or "Grills" is that they will probably not be open for all 24 hours or even, out of season, in the evening. Oddly enough, bearing in mind that the Relais group is connected with Trust House Forte, those also-rans of British service stations, she praises the imagination of its regional dishes. The self-service "Cafeterias" serve meals all day, occasionally all night. They cost much the same as their UK counterparts but are often better.

To work off the surplus flesh put on in the restarants, make use of a Parcours de Sant or fitness trail. After that, freshen up on a hot day at a brumisateur, which is an open-air misty shower; you can stand under its fine spray in shorts and top without ending up like a competitor in a Miss France Wet T-shirt competition.

Other words in Anna Fitter's Teach-Yourself-Aire vocabulary hint at the way the natural world impinges on the man-made environment of the autoroute. Renard means "fox", as you probably knew. Cerf is "stag", buzes means "buzzards" and sanglier is "wild boar". And Bonne Route means "Have a Good Journey".