Rid your mind of the idea – suggested by the ordinary title – that this is an ordinary book for first-time excursionists into French territory. It could indeed be taken with advantage in the backpack of almost anyone wandering round Europe’s largest, most varied and beautiful country, but essentially it is written as a corrective to the Napoleon-and-after, Third Republican standpoint to which we (and the French) have become so accustomed. For the last two hundred years we have been insistently offered the image of one France, unique and indivisible, with a centralised administration in Paris to which all roads lead, and a homogenised system strong on national directives which manage to percolate through even to the tiniest Mairie in the remotest district (‘flags will be flown to celebrate the Day of Patrimony’). In reality, as Graham Robb, specialist in nineteenth-century French literature and dedicated cyclist, makes abundantly clear, till very recent times much of France has been far odder than this. It has been a land of warring tribes, a number of languages, hundreds of dialects, different prejudices and habits, and a remarkable ignorance of the neighbours in the next valley, let alone those in other regions.
Eighteenth-century British travellers, accustomed to a good network of post-roads over most of their own realm, were initially pleased with the road, say, from Calais to Paris or from Paris to Lyon: Arthur Young, the passionate agriculturalist who toured France just before the Revolution, enthused over the Routes Royales but