'Go to Calais and stick out a thumb'

So began a challenge to recapture the glory days of hitch-hiking round Europe. Is it still possible? Is it safe? Is it more satisfying than just hopping on a no-frills flight? Kevin Connolly hits the road to find out

Remember budget travel before budget airlines? We've grown accustomed to arriving at converted military airfields 100km from the town we're visiting after three hours bolt upright in seating arranged like a toast rack. And to spending the flight hoping they're low-cost because they economised on cocktail snacks and soft drinks, not pilot training and engine maintenance.

Remember budget travel before budget airlines? We've grown accustomed to arriving at converted military airfields 100km from the town we're visiting after three hours bolt upright in seating arranged like a toast rack. And to spending the flight hoping they're low-cost because they economised on cocktail snacks and soft drinks, not pilot training and engine maintenance.

Twenty years ago the challenge of travelling as cheaply as possible brought a very different mixture of risks and rewards. Inter-rail holidays left you wondering why all overnight trains are timetabled so that they arrive at their destinations between six and seven in the morning. Hitch-hiking meant long hours in the cabs of commercial vehicles wondering if the driver was planning to beat you to death, while the driver wondered much the same about you. But both methods shared a cardinal virtue: you were not wafted over the Continent in a matter of hours, you toiled through it, earning whatever pleasures came your way. If a city was endowed with fine cathedrals and art galleries, then you laboured through the budget furniture warehouses in its suburbs to reach them. You were hearing, feeling and smelling the country through which you were travelling – and if your budget didn't stretch to overnight stays in hotels, then it was smelling you in return.

Hitch-hiking is incredibly cheap: my only outlay for what was planned to be a journey across Europe was the price of a foot-passenger's ticket on a P&O ferry from Dover to Calais. And it does provide you with a kind of rolling masterclass in small talk. An embassy cocktail party won't bother you once you've navigated 45 minutes in pidgin Spanish on David Beckham's sexuality. The downside? Well, it's uncomfortable, slow and unpredictable. It is also, possibly, slightly dangerous, which brings me to the point of my travels for the Radio 4 series, The Last Hitchhiker.

I wanted to write a kind of lament for a lost world of innocence in which we gave each other lifts and talked to strangers. Surely the world is less dangerous than we think, I reasoned, even if it's more dangerous than it was.

I appreciate, as my 13-year-old son Christopher pointed out, that this argument would have looked rather ridiculous if I had happened to be murdered, but that is the kind of risk we hitch-hikers have to take. And anyway, as it turns out, I wasn't.

Programme proposals at the BBC sometimes run to several pages of dense, closely typed argument. The outline of The Last Hitchhiker, couldn't have been shorter or simpler – just go to Calais, stick out a thumb, and see what happens. And so I did. It turned out to be an interesting experience, in a miserable, hair-raising, not-to-be-repeated sort of way. I survived a car crash and a train fire, and lived through a sudden blast of arctic weather on the motorway system. I encountered a priest who wanted to know if my journey was a metaphor for a spiritual quest ("No, Father") and a slobbering Rottweiler that spent two hours humping my leg in the cab of its master's truck. I had no set itinerary for my journey and was resolved simply to head off in the direction of anyone who was prepared to offer me a lift.

My dreams of reaching either the Bosphorus or the Mediterranean coast of Spain turned out to be over-optimistic. But I did discover some parts of France, and re-discovered others, which made my time on the road a pleasure. Well, mostly.

From Calais I made a series of slow, haphazard lurches through Lille, Valenciennes, Reims, Dijon, Nuits St George, Villefranche, Chalons, and any number of smaller places in between before finally grinding to a complete halt in Lyon.

I can't honestly claim to have uncovered hidden jewels in Calais or Lille which, regardless of ingenious promotions by their local tourist boards, still look as though they were designed and built in Poland. Valenciennes, too: a clapped-out coal-mining centre, it feels like a small town in a country that has lost a war within the last few years. If France ever holds an "ugly northern town" contest, Lille will play Calais in one of the semis, but neither of them will stand a chance against Valenciennes in the final.

Yet even the grimmest towns in France offer a particular type of pleasure that you don't find in other countries. In the Place de la Gare in Valenciennes, for example, there is a restaurant called La Coupole, all belle époque lamp shades, brass railings and dark wood panelling. I only stopped for a coffee and a glass of marc to get out of the cold but it was an island of decadent comfort in a town which, in the depths of winter, has something of a post-holocaust feel to it. I imagine the Germans have a word for the concept of radiating luxury in the midst of misery but since I can't speak German you'll just have to take what you can from my description.

I arrived in Reims courtesy of a lift from a teenager driving his father's Mercedes. He drove me through a blizzard of gathering intensity before finally losing control of the vehicle and skidding across a dual-carriageway.

"My dad will kill me if I scratch his car," he said, allowing me to point out that if he didn't drive more carefully his father would be able to kill him by switching off his life-support machine in intensive care.

The onward trip from Reims was less successful still since the roads were so badly frozen that the only vehicles on the move were local authority emergency service trucks. I ended up catching the train to Dijon, but it caught fire, leaving me and my fellow passengers to help each other to safety.

"Like Dunkirk," I said to one old man.

"What?" he replied, "Are you English going to abandon us again?"

Reims and Dijon are much more the kind of places that belong in the travel pages. Both, by quirks of history, are former capital cities (although admittedly not recently). Both are served by modern regional airports and excellent road and rail links. And both have the kind of gastronomic heritage that lures the British. In Reims it's based on champagne production, in Dijon it's crème de cassis, mustard, and all things Burgundian.

At first I was just grateful to be in a part of France that didn't look like a Cold War theme park. But after a few days in the two cities I began to feel that they too were not quite what I would look for as a weekend destination. This sense was best summed up in Reims (rhyme it with "dance" if you want to make the locals think you speak good French, rhyme it with "dreams" if, like me, you've given up). It is simply that, by gearing themselves too much to the tastes and interests of tourists, they have to some extent destroyed the very French provincial-ness that tourists seek.

Dijon at least has a stock of handsome old buildings, but it mars the effect by having mustard-related souvenirs for sale in practically every shop. Reims has a pedestrianised street consisting almost entirely of bars and restaurants, and at least one English pub – about as appealing a cultural export as a Russian dentist.

The discovery I want to share with you is the town of Chalons-sur-Saone. The locals were a little niggardly when it came to giving lifts to strangers but otherwise it's a model of small-town French appeal. I recommend it for the food, wine and sense of history we want from French weekend breaks without the thronging company of thousands of other seekers after solitude. It is close enough to the great production areas of Burgundy, if that is what you want, but lies in the heart of the Côte Chalonnaise, which produces perfectly drinkable lesser wines of its own.

The restaurant of the Hôtel St George is a model of its type, offering slightly old-fashioned cuisine bourgeoise served with a pompous hauteur that waiting staff wouldn't dare to affect anywhere else on earth. The gratin dauphinois was so good that I've spent every Sunday since I returned attempting to recreate it in my own kitchen with butter, potatoes and cream. I'll have to be buried in a piano case.

There is history woven into the fabric of the city. I was staggered by the number of names on the First World War memorial at the railway station, and then realised it lists just the local railway workers who died. The many others are listed elsewhere. A statue commemorates the German invasion of 1870 and the local boys who died in the fighting. It is a history lesson written in stone, an archaeological clue to the roots of the French attitude towards Europe. I will be going back, with my family (if only so they can see what these endless bloody gratins dauphinois are actually meant to taste like). It may be that as a result of this article the place will be thronged with British tourists, but at least since we all read the same paper we will all be like-minded. And at least your journey home will probably be cheaper than mine.

There are plenty of budget flights from Lyon to airports all over the UK these days, but turning up without prior notice and demanding immediate departure continues to bring out the worst in the aviation industry. My one-way ticket to Belfast cost £400.

I pointed out to the stewardess that this was practically more than the whole of the rest of my journey including hotels, meals and outbound flight had cost.

She was sympathetic.

"Try and make it up on the free beers and peanuts," she suggested.

And so I did.

Kevin Connolly is the BBC's Ireland correspondent. The first programme in his series, 'The Last Hitchhiker', begins on BBC Radio 4 at 5.40pm on April 20

Traveller's guide

A foot-passenger ticket from Dover to Calais on P&O Ferries (08705 20 20 20, www.poferries.com) costs £28. If you prefer not to hitch, Reims is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) from Stansted, starting 1 May.

The French Travel Centre, 178 Piccadilly, London W1J 9AL (09068 244 123, 60p per min; www.franceguide.com).

Longest lift: Calais-Lille 110km (also the first lift).

Shortest lift: 600 metres, from the middle of the tiny village of Nuits-St-George to edge of the middle.

Total distance in just over a week: more than 1,000km, adding in all the accidental meandering.

Distance as crow flies: 761km.

Toughest question: "Why did the BBC lose the only recording of de Gaulle's address to the French nation in 1940?"

Most frequently asked question: "So, is that David Beckham gay, then?"

Hospitality given: A Mars Bar to the slobbering Rottweiler.

Hospitality received: None.

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