Driving France’s Highway D943

A traveler’s compendium of 22 personal, offbeat dispatches from all over the country.

Edited by Julie Coe

The D943 snakes through the valleys of the Luberon like an asphalt stream. On summer days, under blue skies and green leaves, the road leads you past stalls selling plums and olive oil, through rows of exploding lavender, and into one perfect town after another: Lourmarin, Apt, Sault. One doesn’t so much have the sensation of driving or biking or walking as being carried. And all along the way are cherry trees. In much of this part of Provence, the trees are planted neatly in rows for the convenience of agriculture. But along the D943, they seem to have broken free. Cherries here are a kind of public good. On my first trip along this route, I often found myself pulling over, rolling down the window, and filling my hands with the cool red fruit. I had been a Provence skeptic, certain I would find the charms of the place overstated. But on the D943 my skepticism died a sweet, cherry-flavored death. What a way to go.

France is not, in the visitor’s mind, a “park and pick” sort of nation. If part of the American relationship with the country has been shaped by our 20th-century ties to it—the military obligations of two wars—well, then, a similar martial spirit sometimes creeps into our vacations there. Too often, I find, friends set off for the land of Lafayette as if they were embarking on an invasion: maps prepared in advance, egos pre-stressed for the inevitable tant pis artillery. One buddy of mine even packs his own MREs: a few PowerBars for when he needs to take a gastronomic break from butter and fat.

If we’re not careful, however, our expectations of France can kill our experience of the place. In the stately buildings, on the long avenues, we tend to find our feelings of alienation confirmed. The very things that draw us to France, its rich history and its grandeur, keep it at a certain distance. This sense of simply traveling past a life-size diorama certainly emerges in the immense gray reaches of Paris. But the same sensation occurs outside the capital as well. We see Lyon through the eyes of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Provence through Picasso. The images of Doisneau or books like Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast conjure a specific France that almost blinds us to the real one.

France without expectations requires a different approach. It demands, first, treating a French vacation not as a military campaign but as, well, a vacation. I learned this one dead-silent afternoon in the Provençal village of Bonnieux, finally done with my “to see” checklist for the day. Sitting in the town square, I discovered the real pleasures of the country embedded not in the ancient and permanent but in the ephemeral joy of fresh-churned ice cream.

The lesson of roads like the D943—and its cherries—is that what we should try to seek in France first is the present day, not the past. After all, under the influence of new ideas and immigration, a strange, lively modernity is emerging in the country—one never explored in our classic ideas. There’s really as much pleasure to be had in the smash-mouth sounds of French DJs C2C as in the torchy cries of Edith Piaf.

In your travels there, search not for the France of your imagination but for a place that exists only as you discover it in real time. Do you lose something in the process? Perhaps. Maybe it is a sacrilege to suggest that the matcha-flavored macarons of the Japanese-born French chef Sadaharu Aoki surpass the crème classics you expect (and get) at Ladurée. But we promise Classic France isn’t going anywhere. And the very particular, sometimes surprising France? Like those cherries, it’s best devoured fresh.