A magical day in a Deux-Chevaux

Many years ago, on a backpacking trip through Europe with a boyfriend, I was introduced to the Citroën 2CV or two horses. On a six week tour of various countries and historical sites, he took 90 photos of the cars and 10 of me, I think you can guess where the relationship ended.

History aside, I thought my husband would have a lot of fun driving a vintage car around Provence for a day. The answer was simple, there is a Dutch/French company called 2CV Experience that rents carefully restored “two horsepower” cars for the day. It couldn’t have been easier, being minutes from Aix-en Provence. They currently have 12 cars and are expanding their inventory to 15 shortly. These pristine cars have been completely hand-restored, meticulously painted, and are ready to go when you arrive. All the cars are called: Tournesol, Olivier, St-Tropez, Menthe, Sahara… we were given the keys to Lavende for the day.

The Citroën 2CV was produced between 1948 and 1990. The car was technically well built and designed, affordable and literally designed to move the French rural population from dependence on animals (horses and carts) to the automobile. The car is still iconic. It is minimalist in design, lightweight, offers easy maintenance and consistent reliability. In 42 years of production, more than 3.8 million cars were produced.

I couldn’t have dreamed of a more perfect day in mid-March. It was a brilliantly sunny day, cloudless and warm. At 10am we were given instructions on how to “roll back” the canvas convertible top, from then on it was a “topless day” until 7pm.

We had a vague idea for our day trip. It looked something like this; Head to the coast and then “discuss” whether to go left or right. This would be followed by a friendlier chat about where to have lunch, and finally a quieter ride back to home base. Fortunately, 2CV Experience saved the day by providing a detailed map, route instructions and tourist notes for a 145km tour of Etang de Berre. There are actually seven lakes, but Etang de Berre is the largest. The area was formed during the last ice age. This inland body of water is fed by freshwater sources. The entire area is more than 20 km long and 16 km wide. There are numerous small towns and cities to visit along the way.

The first stop was Chateau La Barben, just outside of La Barben. There has been a structure on site since 1064. Day tourists, overnight B&B guests, and special function receptions. Unfortunately we arrived early in the season and too early in the day so we couldn’t see the interior. Certainly the exterior is well restored and the location is a beautiful cool oasis, surrounded by water features.

The next towns were Pelissane, Salon de Provence, Grans and Saint Chamas. Each city has some unique sites and photo opportunities. Without a doubt, the town of Grans was our favorite stop. The town is small and maintains a real Provençal atmosphere with a mix of residences, restaurants and cafes. This small town has a permanent population of about 3800 inhabitants.

The other towns weren’t very remarkable although each one has some unique features and offers some photo opportunities at the most unexpected moments. Although the rental company provides all the tools for a picnic, you still need to spend a few minutes shopping for ingredients. We ended up in Istres at a restaurant for lunch. This is an ancient city that has some remaining Roman sites surrounded by a bustling city. A quick tour of the area and it’s clear you shouldn’t venture too far from your car and keep your valuables close at hand. That said, we stumbled upon Pinch of Salt for lunch on the high street and it was excellent.

Post-lunch stops included the village of Saint Miter les Remparts, this village should NO to be missed The ancient city was surrounded by high defensive walls, dating back to the 14th century. There are two main entrances to the old town, the north and south gates. Do not miss the residences built on the old walls of the town. This small town is a charming and relatively quiet stop on the tourist circuit. Unfortunately, time was running out and the sun was heading in the wrong direction, so the following cities were literally on their way for another time.

My husband, the willing driver, was warned about some of the car’s idiosyncrasies. First it was where the emergency lights were in case something unforeseen happened. Important details included the fact that there is NO power steering, NO power brakes, and the transmission is out of sync. Translated all that means that one needs to use a little force to drive the car and must think ahead. With a non-synchronized clutch, if you need to downshift to first gear, the car must come to a complete stop before engaging the gear. The gear lever is interesting in that it’s on the dash, with a unique shift pattern. Lavendre was fun to drive, the corners required a bit of effort to missteer, and a rolling stop in second was the name of the game, avoid full stops if possible. The car accelerated well. The car seems to work best at 90 km/h or less; all the better for taking in the sights and sounds of the small towns, natural sights, and historic monuments along the route.

At the end of the day, it was truly a “magical” experience in an old classic. The small team at this company is well organized, professional, helpful, and provides excellent trail notes! Otherwise, we could still be “discussing” the instructions.

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