Touring abroad is nothing new, but, as an amusement for the masses, it has reached gigantic proportions. The introduction of the railroad gave it its greatest impetus, and then came the bicycle and the automobile.
With the railway as the sole means of getting about one was more or less confined to the beaten track of travel in Continental Europe, but the automobile has changed all this.
To-day, the Cote d'Azur, from St. Raphael to Menton, as well as the strip of Norman coast-line around Trouville, in summer, is scarcely more than a boulevard where the automobile tourist strolls for an hour as he does in the Bois. The country lying back and between these two widely separated points is becoming known, and even modern taste prefers the idyllic countryside to a round of the same dizzy conventions that one gets in season at Paris, London, or New York.
France is the land par excellence for automobile touring, not only from its splendid roads, but from the wide diversity of its sights and scenes, and manners and customs, and, last but not least, its most excellent hotels strung along its highways and byways like pearls in a collarette.
This is not saying that travel by automobile is not delightful elsewhere; certainly it is equally so in many places along the Rhine, in Northern Italy, and in England, where the chief drawback is the really incompetent catering of the English country hotel-keeper to the demands of the traveller who would dine off of something more attractive than a cut from a cold joint of ham, and eggs washed down with stodgy, bitter beer.
The bibliography of travel books is long, and includes many famous names in literature. Marco Polo, Froissart, Mme. de Sévigné, Taine, Bayard Taylor, Willis, Stevenson, and Sterne, all had opportunities for observation and made the most of them. If they had lived in the days of the automobile they might have sung a song of speed which would have been the most melodious chord in the whole gamut.
A modern writer must be more modest, however. He can hardly hope to attract attention to himself or his work by describing the usual sights and scenes. The most he can do is to set down his method of travel, his approach, and his departure, and, for example, to tell those who may come after that the great double spires of Notre Dame de Chartres are a beacon by land for nearly twenty kilometers in any direction, as he approaches them by road across the great plain of La Beauce, the granary of France, rather than give a repetition of the well-worn guidebook facts concerning them.
Chartres is taken as an example because it is one of those "stock" sights, before mentioned, which any itinerary coming within the scope of the grand tour is bound to include.
Almost the same phenomenon is true of Antwerp's lacelike spire, the great Gothic wonder of Cologne and, to a lesser extent, that of Canterbury in England; thus the automobilist en route has his beacons and landmarks as has the sailor on the seas.
Man is an animal essentially mobile. He moves readily from place to place and is not tied down by anything but ways and means and, perhaps, confinement at laborious affairs. Even in the latter case he occasionally breaks away for a more or less extended period, and either goes fishing in Canada, shooting in Scotland, or automobiling in France, with perhaps a rush over a Swiss pass or two, and a dash around the Italian lakes, and back down the Rhine for a little tour in Great Britain.
This is as delightful a holiday as one could imagine, and the foreign tour – which has often been made merely as a succession of nights of travel in stuffy sleeping-cars or a round of overfeeding orgies at Parisian hotels and restaurants – has added charms of which the generation before the advent of automobiles knew nought.
The question of comfortable travel is a never-ending one. The palanquin, the sedan-chair, the rickshaw, even the humble horse-drawn buggy have had their devotees, but the modern touring automobile has left them all far behind, whether for long-distance travel or promenades at Fontainebleau, in the New Forest or the Ardennes.
There is no question but that, when touring in an automobile, one has an affection for his steel-and-iron horse that he never felt for any other conveyance. The horse had some endearing qualities, no doubt, and we were bound to regard his every want; but he was only a part of the show, whereas the automobile, although it is nought but an inanimate combination of wheels and things, has to be humoured and talked to, and even cursed at times, in order to keep it going. But it works faithfully nevertheless, and never balks, at least not with the same crankiness as the horse, and always runs better toward night (this is curious, but it is a fact), which a horse seldom does. All the same an automobile is like David Balfour's Scotch advocate: hard at times to ken rightly – most of the time, one may say without undue exaggeration. Often an automobile is as fickle as a stage fairy, or appears to be, but it may be that only your own blind stupidity accounts for the lack of efficiency. Once in awhile an automobile gets uproariously full of spirits and runs away with itself, and almost runs away with you, too, simply for the reason that the carburetion is good and everything is pulling well. Again it is as silent and immovable as a sphinx and gives no hint of its present or expected ailments. It is most curious, but an automobile invents some new real or fancied complaint with each fresh internal upheaval, and requires, in each and every instance, an entirely new and original diagnosis.
With all its caprices, however, the automobile is the most efficient and satisfactory contrivance for getting about from place to place, for business or pleasure, that was ever devised.
Comparatively speaking, the railway is not to be thought of for a moment. It has all the disadvantages of the automobile (for indeed there are a few, such as dust and more or less cramped quarters, and, if one chooses, a nerve-racking speed) and none of its advantages, and, whether you are a mere man or a millionaire, you are tied down to rails and a strict itinerary, whereas you may turn the bonnet of your automobile down any by-road that pleases your fancy, and arrive ultimately at your destination, having made an enjoyable detour which would not otherwise have been possible.
Too great a speed undoubtedly detracts from the joy of travel, but a hundred and fifty, two hundred and fifty, or three hundred kilometres a day on the fine roads of France, or a hundred or a hundred and fifty miles on the leafy lanes of England's southern counties will give the stranger more varied impressions and a clearer understanding of men and matters than the touring of a country from end to end in express-trains which serve your meals en route, and whisk you from London to Torquay between tea and dinner, or from Paris to the Cote d'Azur between breakfast and nightfall.
Just how much pleasure and edification one can absorb during an automobile tour depends largely upon the individual – and the mood. Once the craving for speed is felt, not all the historic monuments in the world would induce one to stop a sweetly running motor; but again the other mood comes on, and one lingers a full day among the charms of the lower Seine from Caudebec to Rouen, scarce thirty miles.
Les Andelys-sur-Seine, your guide-book tells you, is noted for its magnificent ruins of Richard Cœur de Lion's Château Gaillard, and for the culture of the sugar-beet, and so, often, merely on account of the banal mention of beet-roots, you ignore the attractions of Richard's castle and make the best time you can Parisward by the great Route Nationale on the other side of the Seine. This is wrong, of course, but the mood was on, and the song of speed was ringing in your ears and nothing would drive it out.
Our fathers and grandfathers made the grand tour, in a twelvemonth, as a sort of topping-off to their early education, before they settled down to a business or professional life.
They checked off in their guide-books Melrose Abbey, the Tower of London, the Cathedral of Canterbury, and those of Antwerp, Cologne, Rome, Venice, and Paris, as they did the Cheshire Cheese, Mont Blanc, and the ruins of Carnac. It was all a part of the general scheme of travel, to cover a lot of ground and see all they could, for it was likely that they would pass that way but once. Why, then, should one blame the automobilist – who really travels very leisurely in that he sees a lot of the countryside manners and customs off the beaten track – if he rushes over an intermediate stretch of country in order to arrive at one more to his liking?
One sees the thing every day on any of the great highroads in France leading from the Channel ports. One's destination may be the Pyrenees, the Cote d'Azur, Italy, or even Austria, and he does the intermediate steps at full speed. The same is true if he goes to Switzerland by the Rhine valley, or to Homburg by passing through Belgium or Holland. He might be just as well pleased with a fortnight in the Ardennes, or even in Holland or in Touraine, but, if his destination is Monte Carlo or Biarritz, he is not likely to linger longer by the way than the exigencies of food, drink, and lodging, and the care of his automobile demand.
When he has no objective point he loiters by the way and no doubt enjoys it the more, but it is not fair to put the automobilist down as a scorcher simply because he is pushing on. The best guide-books are caprice and fantasy, if you are hot pressed for time.
Mile-stones, or rather bornes kilométriques, line the roadways of Continental military Europe mercilessly, and it's a bad sign when the chauffeur begins to count them off. All the same, he knows his destination a great deal better than does some plodding tourist by rail who scorns him for rushing off again immediately after lunch.
One of the charms of travel, to the tried traveller, is, just as in the time of the Abbé Prévost, the ability to exchange remarks on one's itinerary with one's fellow travellers. In France it does not matter much whether they are automobilists or not. The commis-voyageur is a more numerous class here, apparently, than in any other country on the globe, and the detailed information which he can give one about the towns and hotels and sights and scenes en route, albeit he is more familiar with travel by rail than by road, is marvellous in quantity and valuable as to quality.
The automobile tourist, who may be an Englishman or an American, has hitherto been catered to with automobile novels, or love stories, or whatever one chooses to call them, or with more or less scrappy, incomplete, and badly edited accounts of tours made by some millionaire possessor of a motor-car, or the means to hire one. Some of the articles in the press, and an occasional book, have the merit of having been "good stuff," but often they have gone wrong in the making.
The writer of this book does not aspire to be classed with either of the above classes of able writers; the most he would like to claim is that he should be able to write a really good handbook on the subject, wherein such topographical, historical, and economic information as was presented should have the stamp of correctness. Perhaps four years of pretty constant automobile touring in Europe ought to count for something in the way of accumulated pertinent information concerning hotels and highways and by-ways.
Not all automobilists are millionaires. The man of moderate means is the real giver of impetus to the wheels of automobile progress. The manufacturers of motor-cars have not wholly waked up to this fact as yet, but the increasing number of tourists in small cars, both in England and in France, points to the fact that something besides the forty, sixty, or hundred horse-power monsters are being manufactured.
Efficiency and reliability is the great requisite of the touring automobile, and, for that matter, should be of any other. Efficiency and reliability cover ninety-nine per cent. of the requirements of the automobilist. Chance will step in at the most inopportune moments and upset all calculations, but, with due regard given to these two great and fundamental principles, the rest does not much matter.
It is a curious fact that the great mass of town folk, in France and probably elsewhere, still have a fear and dread of the mechanism of the automobile. "C'est beau la mécanique, mais c'est tout de même un peu compliqué," they say, as they regard your labours in posing a new valve or tightening up a joint here and there.