Deep in the Burgundian countryside is the commune of Ancy-le-Franc. Ancy, once in the domain of the Dukes of Burgundy, is anchored by an attractive chateau. Motorists whizzing by on the nearby Autoroute du Soleil might spot a brown tourist sign encouraging passersby to explore the town’s chateau.
The use of roadside brown signs to direct passing tourists to nearby attractions began in France in the 1970’s. Since then the practice has spread around the world. Nevertheless by our unofficial, unscientific, and quite likely incorrect survey, France leads the world in the number and variety of these signs. Perhaps this is because France has more interesting places to see. Or eat and drink, as many of the signs celebrate the food and wine that the region is known for. The French are fully committed to the brown tourist sign concept.
If a place in France is honored with a brown sign along the highway it is likely a good place to visit. In our experience, the quality of the tourist sign recommendations is high; there are few duds.
There is a high density of tourist signs. If you attempted to see every advertised destination while driving across France, your progress would slow to a crawl. And though the signs tell motorists that there is something worth seeing nearby, it is often difficult to figure out exactly where the attraction is. The signs often trigger a round of Google searches. Twenty kilometers further down the road we eventually figure out that the interesting place advertised was not very convenient to the autoroute anyway.
Other times, for example in the case of the brown signs that promote the regions’ famous wine, cheese, or food, the attraction advertised is everywhere but nowhere in particular. For example, along the A39 there are brown signs that tell the passing motorists that the region produces the famous Bresse Chicken. Chicken tourism. Who knew such thing existed.
In fact the chicken from Bresse is worth celebrating. Bresse Chicken is so highly prized that it often is more expensive per pound than beef in the markets. It is the only AOC or appellation d’origine contrôlée chicken in the world. Nevertheless, as a tourist, it is hard to imagine making a stop in Bresse to just to “see” the region’s poultry. How exactly would you do that? Drive through the countryside and look for chicken ranches? That does not seem particularly interesting or informative. And you can eat Bresse chicken pretty much anywhere. Though it becomes more exclusive the further away from the source, the famous poultry is widely exported. It is possible to experience Poulet de Bresse thousands of miles from Bresse.
At least in Bresse the brown tourist sign is anchored by a motorway service stop, Aire du Poulet de Bresse. Motorists passing by can pause at this rest area to top their fuel tank and experience Bresse chicken at the cafeteria. And a lot of motorists do stop. The Aire du Poulet de Bresse is reportedly is the biggest retailer of Bresse chicken in the world. This situation is not typical. When a brown sign along the motorway promotes Burgundy wines, wine tasting will usually not be possible at the next rest area. Those who stop at the next service area will typically be able to buy some bottles and have a cheap glass of the local wine with lunch. Just don’t expect a full suite of premium wine tasting at the next rest area. That’s probably a good thing.
One way to avoid the dilemma of quick decisions on whether to stop in at the nearest tourist sign destination in France is to travel via the inland waterways. There are few if any brown signs along the canals and rivers. That simplifies things. Further, when you are averaging a slug-like three kilometers per hour there’s plenty of time to see any brown sign attraction that appears. There’s no need to snap your neck back to get a glimpse of a sight in the distance and in the process swerve into the adjacent lane at 135 kilometers per hour. If need be, you can even stop the boat on the canal and back up the canal to get a better view angle. I do not recommend using a similar approach driving a car on the autoroutes.