AFTER driving some of the world’s greatest highways and byways in a wondrous assortment of brazen, souped-up and suitably ostentatious automobiles, James May reveals how he discovered what he unapologetically refers to as one of his favourite roads – in the south of France.
The 49-year-old motoring broadcaster had joined wine writer Oz Clarke to tour France in the aptly titled BBC series, Oz and James’ Big Wine Adventure and said: “Not only was the Basse Corniche my preferred route on the trip with Oz, I think it could be one of my all-time favourite bits of road, which is saying a great deal.
“It’s one of those roads that’s heavy with romantic and style imagery as it sweeps towards the Côte d’Azur. It’s the perfect blend of beauty, drivability and relaxation.
“It won my heart and I’m planning to do it again, but this time with the car that was named after it.
“I have an old Rolls-Royce Corniche but I’ve never driven it in that area of France, which slightly annoys me, so I’m going to have to get it over there so that it can be reunited with its own special piece of road. It’ll be a marvellous trip...too poetic for words!”
But aren’t the Côte d’Azur roads a little treacherous for the rather bulky Corniche?
“No, I think it would be very well suited to those byways. They’re more than wide enough and I think the Corniche would cope admirably in the rest of rural France, too.
“In Britain, we forget it’s such a massive and relatively empty country. A lot of rural roads in France are like British B roads, and most of the population congregate around the urban centres, so there’s so much to cover, and the Corniche would do that splendidly.
“So a great British car that’s quite comfortable and soft with nice space to it, where you could cruise through the country taking in the scenery and stopping at a few cafes on the way – ah yes, that’d be perfect!”
So how does the Basse Corniche measure up to the Route des Grand Crus (or Roads of the Great Wines) that he drove with Oz?
“Well, it’s so difficult to compare. Winding from Dijon to Santenay, taking in the vineyards of the Côte de Beaune... I mean, it’s spectacular. The terrain and the wine slopes play out in front of you like a painting coming to life, but I still personally favour the Corniche.
“I do adore the Grand Crus, although it’s not quite the same experience when you have Oz sat next to you blabbering on about every vineyard and grape he has ever encountered. Eventually you make your way to some beautiful chateau and you’re given some interesting wine, although by that point you know the entire history and legacy of the place!”
May, a beer and bitter devotee, admits the trip opened his eyes to the intricacies of French wine, and explains why it left a lasting Francophile impression.
“Since then, I can confidently say I’ve picked up a new, improved appreciation for French wine. Before, I had trouble because it’s a complicated subject that can be difficult to understand – so much more than New World wines – and, usually, I’d simply buy a sauvignon from New Zealand.
“The New Worlds are something consistent; you know what to buy at a reasonable price. But French wines can get difficult.
“After the trip, I feel like I understood the story and the process behind the operation. I know what to look out for, the significance of the year... and honestly, I’d probably rarely stray from French now.
“But you know, Oz has spent his whole life on this and he doesn’t still quite get it yet, if he’s honest.
“In fact, there’s never a point where anyone completely ‘gets’ French wines, because they continuously evolve. It’s an unending enigma; one that I will continue to enjoy.”
But back to the open road, and seeing as he is probably the preeminent sage on the subject, how does May feel driving in France compares to the same task in England?
“Along with my appreciation for wine, I’ve got a pretty good steer on how the French are quite good at deciding their own rules on the road. They’re good at that!
“I think too that, as a foreign driver, the understanding is that you can drive slightly faster than you normally would and not much will be said or done about it – after all, France does not have the same number of speed cameras as the UK, so the drive is always going to be nicer!
“There’s space and it’s open, the roads are clear, and the scenery’s great. So what I don’t understand is why, in such a big country, where the roads are virtually empty, you’ll soon enough encounter a native driver who’ll stay three inches behind your bumper. I never understood that about the French!”
Perhaps he should have tested it out when examining the science of motoring and stunts for his DVD with Top Gear comrade in arms Richard Hammond, Top Gear at the Movies.
They recreated some of the greatest chase stunts performed by Bond’s Aston Martin, Bourne’s dilapidated Mini and Bullitt’s Mustang.
James said: “We looked at all aspects of cars in movies: examined and recreated some of the best showdowns, looked at how to make a car chase, what might be the best cars to do it in, and celebrated the role of our trusty four-wheeled friends throughout the history of film.
“Honestly, I’m surprised we haven’t done it before, because we quickly realised that cars have played such an incredibly big part in the film industry.”
So tell us, are there any moments from French cinema you admire?
“Erm, not sure… you might have to watch to find out. I am sure there’s a Citroën in there somewhere... probably!”