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Burgundy Without a Map

On a driving tour through wine country, a lost and hungry man learns to take directions from his sexy navigator. Too bad she isn't real.

Her BBC accent could melt concrete. her voice is throaty and melodic. Her tone is matter-of-fact, patient, even when she tells me, "You have missed your turn."

Though she'd warned me of the turn's approach, twice, I suspect this mistake is somehow her fault. But before I can lunge for the map, she has found the fix. "Proceed 500 meters and prepare to make a left turn," she chirps.

I look from the road, a dual carriageway in Burgundy's Côte d'Or, to the dashboard and remind myself that in the future I must trust my navigator. Too bad she costs twenty-two hundred bucks. Because, with its nifty global-positioning software, satellite downlink and full-color road maps on the dashboard monitor, the navigation system in this new X-Type Jaguar is not standard equipment.

"Prepare to make a left turn in 450 meters," she reminds me. Without nagging.

I picked up the car just outside Dijon early this morning. The plan: Armed with a list provided by HQ, I am to visit three of the finest routiers (truck-stop diners, really) in a region known for some of the most expensive wines in the world. These divey, roadside joints are not much to look at, but they're said to offer some of the country's best cheap food. There are travelers, I suppose, who would avoid any place where the funky perfume of Reblochon and onion in a tartiflette mingles with the aromas of baking macadam and petrol. But not me. And what better car to chase down these bargain establishments than the first even remotely affordable Jaguar, the one with the thirtysomething sticker price?

The only wrinkle in the plan is that tomorrow is May Day, when all of France shutters. But my pit crew back in New York City has phoned the routiers and extracted promises that all three will be open for business today. Now all I have to do is listen to my car.

Driving in a foreign country is stressful. Second only to my fear that I am breaking traffic laws specific to France, for which the punishment is probably death, is my throbbing suspicion (often correct) that I am hopelessly lost. There's not much to be done about the first phobia, but the X-Type takes care of the second quite handily. No sooner have I merged onto the autoroute than I have just about completely ceded the responsibility of navigation to my sexy new friend inside the dashboard. Blithely ignoring even the most important-looking highway signage, I bomb south, pushing the car's 146 mph ceiling, until The Girl in the Dash notifies me that we have arrived in the tiny town of Comblanchien. The Auberge du Guidon, where I plan to have lunch, is sheathed in gray stucco and ringed by umbrella tables advertising Ricard and Kronenbourg. It is everything you'd want in an old-world roadhouse.

It is also closed up tight. Two tours of the grounds fail to turn up someone I can practice my pantomimic French on. This setback doesn't bother me as much as you might think, though, because the routier whose address I now key into the dash is called Le Relais des Grands Crus, in Morey-St-Denis. For God's sake, it has grand cru built right into its name. Imagine the American truck stop that would dare to make such a promise. What's more, this leg of the journey takes me out of the flatlands and up into hill country. While the Plain of Saône produces pretty good wines, the real action is in the sun-soaked hills. I have to rein in the car so as not to blur the outlines of these revered hillsides that Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Albert Morot, Joseph Roty and other leading operators favor over the hilltops (too rocky) and the gullies (too fertile).

French truckers who ply this road are said to have a tradition of donating cargo--a carton of artichokes, a bushel of tomatoes--to favorite routiers, keeping prices low for what can be, on occasion, quite phenomenal regional dishes. With no lunch in me and the sun dropping in the sky, I start a mental catalog of Burgundian classics: coq au vin, the chicken bathed in the harvest of the surrounding acres, taken with, say, a half bottle of Chambertin; or maybe a steaming bowl of pauchouse, the bream and eel set off by a bold accent of garlic. For this, I'd ask the waiter to bring a white Burgundy--a Raveneau Chablis, perhaps.

"You have arrived at your destination," says The Girl in the Dash as I pull off the gravel road that winds among the Clos de la Roche and Clos St-Denis vineyards. But the lights are off at the relais named after these grands crus. The door is bolted.

Ravenous now, I try to calculate the distance to Le Relais des Peupliers in Til-Châtel. Again I program the computer, confident that The Girl in the Dash will get me there. And again she exceeds my expectations. "The distance to your destination is 45 kilometers," she says as I reach under the Connolly leather seats for a Mars bar that fell there early this morning, when the day seemed to promise so many eating opportunities.

Downshifting off the exit ramp, I can see the sign. I pull into the parking lot, spraying gravel across the fueling area. Inside, a woman calmly examines her fingernails. On the counter is an ashtray. Ominously, it is clean.

Taped to the doorjamb is a typed notice in French that even I can read: CLOSED FOR THE HOLIDAY. Although I never apply it to myself, the American work ethic runs strong in me, and this country's unannounced decision to start the holiday a day early offends it gravely. It's no use. Even the X-Type, the smartest car I've ever driven, can't help when the French want an afternoon off.

It is dark now. I am dizzy from hunger. I pull out of Til-Châtel and give The Girl in the Dash my hotel address. She sets our course: A few lefts, some rights, then a suspiciously long journey down a dirt track abutting yet another vineyard. Something doesn't feel right.

Has The Girl in the Dash forsaken me?

There's a dim light a thousand yards out. The car climbs an embankment to a paved surface, and there in front of me is La Toute Petite Auberge. It's not on my list, but through the windows I see people eating. I stare at the monitor map, where, next to the town of Vosne-Romanée, a red circle flashes--blinking. Maybe even winking.

Dinner is served.

Manny Howard is a freelance writer. Back home, in Brooklyn, hedrives a 1987 Chevy Blazer.

Published November 2001
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