The next morning we collected the Renault Espaces at Bordeaux airport without any problems but, because of the gazole shortage Renault Eurodrive would give us just ten litres of fuel in each van. It was 100 km to the farmhouses we have rented near Riberac in the Dordogne valley, so what should we do?
We will go of course!
Full of excitement, we packed all the luggage in and set off for the medieval village of St Emilion. Within 10km of leaving Bordeaux, we were lost, going around and around various roundabouts looking for the sign to Libourne. A major hurdle for us tourists to overcome is the way French direction signs point to the roads, there is one sign on the left and another on the right and we found out by trial and error that this indicates that straight ahead is the way to go, NOT to go right or left. Fifteen minutes into our journey and I am feeling really stressed. My brain keeps shrieking … You’re on the wrong side of the road … get over to the left and my heart is thumping in my chest, my palms beginning to sweat. To my dismay, I see that we are heading down the same street we’d been on just a few minutes earlier. Suddenly, Ed shouted F**k and hit his fist on the side of the steering wheel. With a skid of brakes, we screeched to a smoky halt and mounted the footpath, Olwyn jumped from the other Renault and headed in my direction for the first of many roadside conferences. We decided the turnoff just had to be further up the road, so we made for the roundabout for the fourth time. Suddenly, there it was — Bergerac-Libourne Est-St Emilion-N89, how on earth did I miss it before? It had to be the right road because we were driving east. It was a brilliant day, clear blue sky, warm and a slight breeze to cool my fevered brow. To the left and right, vineyards stretched as far as the eye could see, interspersed with maize fields. The engine was purring, the silver van was right behind us and I could see that Ian, the driver was smiling. The muscle in the side of Ed’s jaw had stopped twitching and his hands had relaxed on the steering wheel. Life was good … for now.
The turnoff for St Emilion was one kilometre ahead on our left and I found it easily. The village looked enchanting, the Eglise Monolithe carved from the steep limestone cliff, and the small honey-coloured houses had red-tiled roofs. One look at the narrow street winding up the hill and we made the wise decision to park the vans in the shade of the giant plane trees in the Place Maréchal Leclerc and walk up to the village. It would save some of our precious gazole as well. St Emilion was a truly breathtaking spot with magnificent hillside views of the Dordorgne valley, a medieval monastery village with a church high on a hill, sunlight and shadow accentuating different aspects of the architecture. We devoured our lunch of freshly-baked baguettes spread with soft, delicate blue cheese, tomatoes and lettuce, then delicious macarons, thin crispy biscuits made from egg whites, sugar and ground almonds from a recipe developed in the 17th century by local Ursuline nuns.
St Emilion was so lovely that we later regretted that we did not spend more time there, but the fuel gauge and the rapidly declining level had everyone feeling decidedly nervous.
I had abandoned our earlier plan to drive to Riberac along the beautiful back roads and small villages for the safer option of the larger “D” roads … At least we will able to flag down a passing motorist if we run out of gazole I confidently told the others. So we headed south from St Emilion to pick up the D936, then the D9 north through Montpon-Ménestérol and then the D708 to Riberac. We were bowling happily along through the green countryside when a huge, bright-yellow icon of a petrol-pump appeared on the dashboard. Surely it couldn’t be nearly empty, we had at least 60km to drive. My stomach began fluttering widely, all the service-stations we have seen have been closed …Fermé – en panne d’essence. Another roundabout looms and we swing into the left lane, Wrong Way! comes a strangled shout from the back of the Renault. We are heading left around the large roundabout with a flowerbed in the centre with the silver van in our wake. Heading straight for us in the southbound lane is a huge road van. Its bristling chrome klaxons on the roof are blaring and the driver is gesticulating out the window, hand waving up and down, fingers waggling, mouth wide-open … probably shouting French swear words at us. Both vans cross the south-bound entrance of the roundabout seconds before the truck arrives. What to do? If we keep going around we will end up meeting the truck head-on. Ed grips the wheel, stares straight ahead and drives over the beds of petunias and into a nearby parking lot. We come to a sudden halt on the baking bitumen with the others right behind us. Whew, that was close
We drive through the area of the Dordogne known as the Perigord Vert but we have no inclination to admire the lovely rolling hills and lush farmlands that are so different to our native Australia. Everyone is mesmerised by the luminous yellow sign on the dashboard and we are free-wheeling down hills to try and save fuel … my ears straining for the first sound of a spluttering engine that will herald the end of our journey. However, cruel Fate had another trick up her sleeve for just around the corner, and about fifteen km from Riberac, we found the road blocked by farm vehicles. F**k what now! yelled Ed, I don’t bee-leeeeve it! We shuddered to a standstill and all of us gaped at a farm worker perched precariously on the tines of a raised bail-stacker. He was tying the ends of a white banner to the electricity wires strung across the road.
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We piled out of the vans to stand in the shade and we women clucked sympathetically, we had to show working-class solidarity after all. The males were transfixed by the sight of a woman worker in a skimpy green top and even briefer white shorts that gave increasingly larger glimpses of nut-brown, tanned buttocks. Paul was deep in fractured Franglaise with a smiling farmer who told him the delay would be short and they chatted haltingly about gazole, Australia, and evil taxes. There was a feeling of resigned good humour even though cars and trucks were queueing up on both sides of the blockade. Suddenly there was a commotion ahead with the sound of raised voices and staccato French. A young, very agitated woman in a tiny rattling Renault with two kids crammed in the back was weaving through the queue, screaming abuse at the picket line. She had a doctor’s appointment; the kids were ill; she’d left the gas on; her husband would beat her if she was late; her gazole was running low and much, much more. She was voluble, and very, very angry. She made a mad dash for the gap left by the bail-stacker but she was too late. A shout of fury went up from the gathered farmers and the stacker, with lowered tines like some angry bull headed for the gap while other farmers rushed to block her way. We all thought that the car and the woman and the kids would be skewered and the fact that they weren’t was pure luck. It was like being caught up in some Pixar film.
The furious woman promptly burst into tears while the farmers yelled abuse at her.
Doesn’t she know never to challenge a French farmer’s blockade? If she gets through, what’s to stop all these bloody tourists from following? Is she trying to make them look foolish? Who does she think she is? Where the hell has she been all these years? … bloody Australia?
Well, that was Paul’s translation anyway.