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Car trip a Tour Armstrong can’t win

For anyone watching the Tour de France bike race on television, the images of mountain pastures, village spires and monuments are often as good as the race itself.
Travel Trip Car Tour De France
The Roman Pont du Gard in the south of France.Raf Casert / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For anyone watching the Tour de France bike race on television, the images of mountain pastures, village spires and monuments are often as good as the race itself.

So with all due respect to Lance Armstrong and his fellow slaves of the road, my wife and I decided to pack our kids in the car and make our own Tour de France — one that Armstrong can't have.

For three weeks in high summer, we made a huge loop through France, from the east on down to Burgundy and beyond, south along the Rhone wine valley before crossing through the Midi, as southern France is called. Slowly we then made our way up the Atlantic side to our final destination in Fontevraud, among the opulent Loire castles of France's kings.

We never missed the cities or traffic jams. We craved neither overpriced parking tickets, nor the surly city waiters serving meals where the only thing resembling a Michelin-starred restaurant is the bill.

Yet sidestepping places like Paris and Bordeaux robbed our trip of nothing French whatsoever — au contraire.

One evening, for example, we finished a four-course meal around the inner courtyard of the medieval Abbaye de Fontevraud priory-turned-hotel, then went for a midnight stroll. Outside, a light beckoned through an abbey door and we stepped inside. Suddenly we found ourselves among actors rehearsing a church play, and otherwise had the vast Romanesque treasure to ourselves. Soon we were roving around towering pillars and the tombs of Plantagenets Henry II, Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Other days, we traveled pleasant tree-lined roads to hotels or farm rentals in the villages of Provence, and leisurely chose the best spot on a terrace to catch the evening sun with a cloudy pastis, rose, or Orangina in hand.

No Louvre museum here, but canoeing beneath the 160-foot-high Pont du Gard aqueduct, built by the Romans some 2,000 years ago, was at least as memorable as Mona Lisa's smile.

We made our first major stop in Burgundy, home of the world's best white wines. The priciest Chardonnays were well outside our range, but the Saint Veran and Maconnais whites made a welcome, affordable substitute. And winding from one village to the next through the vineyards was lovely.

You'll find medieval art here too. But instead of crowds at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, in the village of Chapaize you'll likely have the tiny 11th-century church all to yourself.

Near the religious center of Cluny is the medieval walled village of Brancion, with a castle tower and a 12th-century church. Park the car outside and walk centuries back in time along cobblestone streets without a single reminder of our hurried times.

From there we went south, crossing the border where butter turns to olive oil and steep roofs flatten, giving way to sun-parched, ochre tiles. Castillon-du-Gard was our base. Here, old men play petanque under the church spire, and the golden bows of the Pont du Gard can be seen on a clear evening.

Nearby, the 2,000-year-old amphitheater in Nimes, where bullfights are still held, and the Maison Carree, considered one of the best-preserved Roman temples anywhere, provide more evidence of the Roman Empire's legacy across this part of Europe.

Roman ruins can also be seen in St. Remy de Provence, a day trip away, but St. Remy is perhaps best-known as the place where Vincent van Gogh painted "Starry Night" and other masterpieces during a stay at the village hospital.

The picture-pretty town of Minerve with its stone houses and narrow alleys is part of the "Plus Beaux Villages de France," a group of the country's most picturesque villages. But the castle ruins and turrets that mark the landscape of this Midi Languedoc region also tell a terrible tale from the layers of history here — a crusade by the Catholic church against a sect called the Cathars, some 800 years ago, that resulted in repeated massacres and butchery.

Farther west, in Gascony and the Perigord, the Hundred Years' War with England was fought. The tiny "bastides" — fortified villages huddled around their gabled central squares — show it was good to be close and protected.

This is also the part of France soaked in duck fat, where fields of yellow sunflowers are as rich in color as the dishes are in calories. No better way to visit than to rent a farmhouse and travel from one morning market to the next, procuring fresh goose liver, breast of fowl, sweet Lectoure melons and golden chasselas de Moissac grapes.

Just about any traveler can become a passable cook with ingredients like those. And a good home cook can easily produce a feast every day.

Also running through the area are the abbeys and churches on the roads to Compostela, the cathedral in Spain beyond the Pyrenees that was a destination for medieval (and some modern) pilgrims.

By the time we made our way north again to Fontevraud, we were steeped in the history, food and scenery of the French countryside.

And yet one could keep going — to the beaches of Normandy, Monet's Giverny gardens, the wild coasts of Brittany or the sparkling Champagne region.

It could be the start of a whole new Tour de France. No wonder Lance Armstrong keeps coming back.