Seeing France’s Wild Mountains Through a Clouded, Classic Windshield

In 1878, on something of a whim, the novelist and travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson crossed southern France’s Cévennes mountains, one of the wildest and most sparsely populated parts of the country, in the company of a slow-moving donkey named Modestine. In May, also on something of a whim, my wife and I crossed the Cévennes mountains, still one of the wildest and most sparsely populated parts of the country, in the company of a slow-moving automobile called a Citroën 2CV.

Stevenson described Modestine as recalcitrant and moody, as well as “cheap and small and hardy, and of a stolid and peaceful temper.” This also happens to be a pretty accurate description of our car, which was mint green, shaped like an umbrella and equipped with flip-up windows, tube-frame bench seats, a canvas sunroof canopy, a squeaky single-spoke steering wheel, and stalk-mounted headlights that reminded me of the eyes of an overeager dog. The car’s noisy two-cylinder engine could, with a tailwind, comfortably achieve a top speed of around 60 miles an hour on the open highway.

As it happens, there are no open highways in the Cévennes, and really not many more roads than there were in Stevenson’s day. Which I suppose is to be expected in a stupefyingly stark and lush landscape rived by deep river gorges and narrow valleys butting up against 5,000-foot granite mountains and wind-scoured limestone plateaus. The fact that all of these striking natural features, each worthy of its own coffee table book, are packed cheek-by-jowl inside a single 360-square-mile national park just a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Lyon convinced me that the Cévennes — an area I’d scarcely heard of until recently, despite years of traveling in France and the fact that it’s a Unesco World Heritage Site — would be an inspired choice for a weeklong road trip with my wife, Michele.

And, I thought, why not do it in a Deux Chevaux — as the model is universally known — the beloved “people’s car” of postwar France, a vehicle famously referred to by the British automotive journalist L.J.K. Setright as “the most intelligent application of minimalism ever to succeed as a car.” A road trip in a vintage 2CV would be the fulfillment of a long-held dream of mine, and thus when I found out you could rent one on — basically an Airbnb for cars — my plan was hatched. I clicked around and located an owner in Lyon who’d rent me his fully rehabbed 1976 2CV-6 Club for $70 a day, including supplemental insurance and 24/7 roadside assistance.

Shortly after our arrival in Lyon, Michele and I met the owner, a soft-spoken retiree, at his house, signed some papers in his cluttered den, took a five-minute test-drive and were off. Before we pulled away, he solemnly handed me a binder of laminated laser-printed pages that he referred to as the “Bible” — a hefty list of dos and don’ts for operating the vehicle — and then bade us bonne route.

As is the case with many plans based more on a dream than, well, planning, mine was sorely tested on the first day of our five-day journey. Some of our inconveniences, to be fair, were not my fault. For one thing, it rained the entire day — not just drizzled, but “rained ropes,” to borrow the French idiom — causing full-on rivers to form across dips in the roadway, since all that water had nowhere else to go after sluicing across the impermeable granite, limestone and schist rising invisibly in the mist around us.

What’s more, our car’s wipers had just one speed — let’s call it medium-slow — which made visibility an on-and-off affair, as did the absence of a defogger, a circumstance the car’s Bible failed to mention and which required Michele to wipe the windshield repeatedly with a Kleenex to keep my view of the roadway clear. This would have been stressful enough, but I must also note that even the most detailed maps of the Cévennes fail to give an adequate idea of just how challenging it is to drive through this ancient massif. Our route was a more or less relentless succession of blind curves, preposterously steep switchbacks and single-lane bridges over water-carved chasms — all of it beautiful to behold, I had no doubt, if we’d been able to see anything.

But the moment that really exposed the creaky foundations of my grand plan occurred just as night was falling. I’d eased the car onto a muddy pullout and killed the engine so that I could rest for a minute — my arms ached from wrestling with the manual steering and the balky L-shaped gearstick — and so that we could study the map to find the best route back to our hotel, a charming if slightly gone-to-seed establishment outside the village of Anduze.

Now, as any horror-movie screenwriter will attest, was the moment to write in the rasp of a car failing to start. When our 2CV’s engine refused to turn over after repeated turns of the key, I instinctively got out my phone to call Drivy’s roadside assistance number, but couldn’t get a signal. I bit my lower lip and looked at Michele, as if she might somehow have a suggestion for getting us out of this unpleasant situation, but she was simply looking back at me with the same lip-biting expression.

And so I did what one does in times of need: I consulted the Bible. A distinct smell of gasoline suggested I’d flooded the engine — “drowned,” in the more blame-y French locution — and apparently we merely had to let the car rest “a short while.” Michele and I debated the meaning of that phrase, then decided to wait 10 minutes, during which we sat without saying much, listening to rain drum on the car’s canopy. Finally, I took a deep breath and turned the key. The engine coughed to life. We had heeded the Bible’s words and, lo, its prophecy had come to pass.

The next morning brought dry weather and a stiff wind that herded the clouds across the sky so fast I felt like I was watching a sped-up film. The landscape that had emerged from last night’s frightful darkness was every bit as beautiful as I’d imagined: terraced foothills backed by craggy, sun-dappled mountains, with residual pockets of mist nestling in between, wisps of it being teased away by eddying currents of air.

If the sight of this didn’t fully redeem my decision to take a road trip in a superannuated automobile across the Cévennes’ forbidding topography, it at least put Michele and me in a bright enough mood that we could chuckle over breakfast at the half dozen French tourists so laden with expensive-looking trekking gear as to give the impression they’d stepped out of a Patagonia ad. They were likely hiking the Chemin de Stevenson, a popular 170-mile trail that retraces the footsteps of the Scotsman and his donkey.

Maybe it was because I’d taken to reading the chronicle of Stevenson’s journey — which he rather prosaically titled “Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes” — before bed, but increasingly I found myself thinking of our temperamental 2CV as an animate being. Reflexively, I’d check on it as soon as I got up, peeking out at the hotel parking lot to make sure our mint-green friend had not suffered some ill fate during the night. And each morning before getting back on the road, I’d pat the dashboard with a mixture of relief and something akin to love when the engine commenced its reassuring rattle.

In fact, as we got to know our car’s quirks and peccadilloes, the parallels between it and Modestine began to seem somehow foreordained. Stevenson devoted many pages to his struggles to goad his “she-ass,” using the parlance of the day, to walk faster. “God forbid, thought I, that I should brutalise this innocent creature; let her go at her own pace, and let me patiently follow,” he wrote. Eventually, though, he resorted to whipping the animal, only to be wracked with guilt afterward.

Over the next several days of driving over and through the Cévennes’ ravines, mountain passes, and tablelands — known here as causses — I similarly feared I was pushing our beast of burden beyond its operational limits. The Citroën struggled noisily during steep climbs and descents, invariably acquiring a tail of impatient drivers unable to pass us on the twisting, narrow roads. Occasionally it produced burning smells and grinding sounds whose source I couldn’t pinpoint. Clutch? Brakes? Motor? And yet our ride did not fail us, delivering us safely to our destination each night.

What’s more, the car provided us with moments of joy and conviviality that we’d never have experienced in, say, a BMW. For one thing, the 2CV is a natural conversation starter. On our second day, while driving the Corniche des Cévennes — a jaw-dropping 34-mile ridgeline route that was used by the troops of Louis XIV to suppress the bloody protestant revolt known as the War of the Camisards (by far the most famous thing that’s ever happened in the Cévennes) — we pulled over to snap a few photos and were approached by a gray-haired fellow in a fleece jacket.

As we stood at the cliff’s edge, buffeted by ferocious winds, he explained that he’d been an engineer for Citroën, and he held forth for some time on the various features of our particular model. Then he congratulated us on the timing of our trip, pointing out that 2019 is the centenary of the company. When I asked him about the car’s suspicious smells and noises, he gave a Gallic shrug and said, “I wouldn’t worry about them.” As he sped off, I couldn’t help but notice he was driving a Peugeot.

We had similar encounters throughout our journey. In the remote and ancient mountain hamlet of Montbrun, access to which required one of the more gorgeous if harrowing thread-the-needle drives of the journey, we struck up a conversation with a trio of middle-aged French travelers. One of them reminisced at length about her childhood family excursions in a 2CV, during which her parents would remove the bench seats and use them for picnics — a scene evoked in old print advertisements for the car. Occasionally we exchanged honks with other Deux Chevaux going in the opposite direction. One of them, uncannily, was a 2CV-6 Club of the same pale green hue as ours. Michele and I grinned and waved maniacally as it cruised by. The occupants of the other car were doing the same.

The last leg of our journey took us across the beautifully bleak uplands of the Causse Méjean and into the Gorges du Tarn. This spectacular, cave-pocked river canyon is edged by a sinuous route hemmed in by soaring walls of karst on one side and a low stone parapet on the other. It’s a favorite of French motorcyclists, who roared past us in great numbers — most of them decked out, like the hikers, in a fortune’s worth of fancy gear — as we approached Sainte Enimie, the riverside village where we’d spend our final night.

Over a midday meal of grilled lamb at an auberge in the center of town, Michele and I made a decision: We’d give the 2CV the rest of the day off. We’d already demanded so much of it, and we didn’t want to push our luck. And so Michele and I drank wine freely with lunch and loosened our limbs by strolling alongside the gin-clear waters of the Tarn and then into the leafy heights above the village, pausing to admire the abundant wildflowers and other delicate things of the kind that you tend to miss when traveling by car, even one as slow-moving as a Deux Chevaux. We planned to get up the next morning and drive to Lyon, reunite car and owner, and then catch the fast train to Paris for our flight home.

We arose at dawn, and the owner of our hotel, a jocular man in his early 60s named Monsieur Lopez, helped us load our bags.

When the car failed to start, Michele and I were annoyed but not unduly concerned — giving the motor a 10-minute rest wasn’t going to dent our schedule fatally. When 10 minutes elapsed and the engine still wouldn’t turn over, Michele and I did our worried lip-biting thing. When I failed to reach the car’s owner at this early hour on a Sunday and was told by Drivy’s roadside assistance operator that they would try to locate the nearest garage and get back to me, Monsieur Lopez laughed, assuring me that we would have a long wait indeed, a full day at least, as every mechanic for miles around was asleep or getting ready for church. When a passer-by offered to push the car so we could pop the clutch, we made the discovery that this particular run of 2CVs had a centrifugal model that could not be engaged to revive a dead motor. And when, finally, this same stranger had no success trying to jump-start our engine using his own vintage automobile — a cherry red Renault 4 that, I have to say, looked really handsome next to our Citroën — I came to an unpalatable conclusion: We’d have to abandon the 2CV and very hastily revise our plans.

One cadged lift, a four-hour bus journey, and an interminably slow intercity train ride later, Michele and I were seated across from each other at a bistro in Paris’s 10th arrondissement making quick work of a carafe of Morgon. We’d managed to get a partial refund on our Lyon-to-Paris train tickets, and I’d finally reached the 2CV’s owner, who apologized for our troubles and told us not to worry; he would arrange to retrieve the car with a friend later that week. (Later, I learned that the culprit was an overheated ignition coil — “a classic problem” the car’s owner told me. )

Michele expressed relief when I told her the 2CV would soon be safely back in Lyon. “I just felt so bad leaving it there,” she said, her voice pinched with emotion. She could easily have been talking about a child or a beloved pet.

Stevenson evinced a similar sentimentality after he sold Modestine at the end of his walk and boarded a coach to begin his journey home. “It was not until I was fairly seated by the driver … that I became aware of my bereavement,” he wrote. “I had lost Modestine. Up to that moment I had thought I hated her; but now she was gone.”

David McAninch is the author of “Duck Season: Eating, Drinking and Other Misadventures in Gascony, France’s Last Best Place.”

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