Gallic motoring - Driving to the South of France
Of course, the South of France remains a tremendous attraction to British travellers and, in tackling routes that drive through the heart of rural France, avoiding the péage toll-roads, it is one that I have driven on many occasions. There is a great sense of relaxed pleasure attached to enjoying the French countryside, until it arrives at the foothills of the Alpes Maritime and the infamous Route Napoleon, with its natural rock tunnels, passes and spectacular views. As you reach journey’s end, La Croisette extends its Mediterranean splendour across the horizon.
Planning is the key. My advice would be to pick one of the the ‘route-finder’ services that you might locate on Google (I normally use the ViaMichelin service). Take a map book with you, even if your car features in-built ‘sat-nav’. Driving from Calais to Nice might cost you Euros95.40, or just over £77.00, using (péage) toll-roads.
Crossing the Channel
While TML is speedier, unless I were heading directly to Paris or Brussels for a business meeting, I would take a ferry every time. P&O operates some great deals throughout the year, from as little as £19 each way, including a car with up to nine passengers. Book the Priorité service and you can take advantage of the £12 per car Club Lounge (book on-board the ferry and it will cost you £14 per head), which provides free beverages, free newspapers and good quality seating. An excellent restaurant is nearby.
Disembarking at Calais, just over an hour later, it is usually a breeze to follow the signs, past French Customs, out of the Port and onto the E402 to Boulognesur-Mer, which becomes the D901. The département roads are run by the local authorities and not by the national government.
About an hour, or 60 miles into your drive, you will reach the town of Abbeville, which is on the D1001. A delightful place possessing a mixed history, it sits on the River Somme, about 12 miles inland from the English Channel.
The tourist attractions are varied, from prehistoric settlements, a museum of local life at Boucher de Perthes and both artistic and gothic architecture. There is a moderate choice of hotels in the town, if you want to use Abbeville as a base to visit the War Graves, the location of the Somme battlefield and any of the beaches south of Le Touquet.
Continue for Rouen in the morning. As it is only around 70 miles distant, it is either manageable in one hop, or you might have considered it as a better overnighter than Abbeville. Regardless, follow the D928 down the Route de Rouen and try to avoid any half-baked humour about ‘the road to ruin’. Close to Neufchâtel-en-Bray, take the E402/E44 towards Rouen/Le Havre and you are around 33 miles away from the historic city.
Rouen is also a major freight terminal, yet there is a good selection of city hotels, ranging from the costeffective Hotel Rouen St-Sever featuring rooms from Euros39pn, which sits adjacent to a shopping complex and is in the heart of the old town. Moving up the scale slightly is the Best Western Hôtel du Vieux March from Euros63pn. Alternatively, at Euros73pn, the Mercure Rouen Centre Cathedral is right next door to Notre Dame and offers air-conditioned comfort, good views and a fine dining restaurant.
Head south to Le Mans. Driving out of Rouen along the Avenue des Canadiens gives a great view of the city but you need to check the road signs and search for the D938, to Orival and then Elbeuf, where you take the second exit on the roundabout at Place François Mitterrand for the D840. Driving through French farming countryside, you will pass through several charming little villages, like Haut Vitot, Le Neubourg and Conches-en-Ouche, which has a beautiful 11th Century castle, an abbey, an arboretum and several chateaux worth exploring.
The spectacular tower of the St Madeleine church is visible from up to 50 miles away from the naturally attractive town of Verneuil-sur-Avre, which is at the N12 junction for Alençon, and this peaceful location (today, as it was once at the hub of the 100 Years War between England and France) is packed with elegant buildings, beautiful gardens and an array of restaurants and
welcoming places to stay. Regarded as one of the most beautiful towns in France, it is well worth the detour.
Continuing towards Alençon, when you spot the signs for Mortagne-au-Perche, turn off the N12 and look out for the next turn left onto the D938. If you want to linger for a little while here, Mortagne is renowned for its sundials, of which there are almost thirty in the town and it is also the home of the boudin noir, or black pudding, which is best consumed with a glass of local cider.
Follow the signs to Le Mans, along the D938, but contemplate dropping into the aptly-named Bellême, which is not classified as one of France’s beauty spots but truly ought to be. The town was actually fortified and perched upon one of the high-spots of the area. Bustling, it has a great street café scene.
Le Mans does provide a great respite and it is well served by French national hotel chains, a couple of International hotels and innumerable villas and chateaux in the vicinity of the town. Famous for its racing circuit, which does use several of the local roads, and its racing museum, it is actually a more interesting place than many visitors appreciate. Its Roman walls are among the
best preserved and complete in Europe and finding accommodation to suit most budgets is fairly easy.
Hotel Premiere Classe Le Mans Centre, at the Palais de Congrés, has rooms starting from £28pn, as indeed does Mister Bed, however, the four-star Mercure Hotel Batignolles is around £49pn. The ivy-covered Best Western La Foresterie promises more character and a fine dining experience from £78pn.
The city of Tours hoves into view, having driven down the D338, past Chateau-du-Loir and on the beautiful tree-lined avenues for which this part of France is renowned. Of course, Tours is famous for its Loire Valley wines and a history that pre-dates the Roman
settlers. Its flamboyant, twin-towered, 15th Century St Gatien Cathedral is a ‘must-see’, as indeed is the Woodrow Wilson bridge that crosses the River Loire in the centre of the university town and is a memorial to the US garrison that held Tours during the First World War.
Our journey continues on the D943 and N143, past Loches and Buzanais, to Chateauroux. If you wish to destress, then this is the ideal place to do so, with its lakes, meadows, hiking paths and restful riverside accommodation, in farmhouses, old churches, villas and chateaux of the region.
Remaining on the D943, you will find the road signs for Clermont-Ferrand, a city that I believe to be one of the most lovely in France. Its sinuous back streets are worth exploring on foot, delving into its rich history, which goes back to Greek times, its
architecture and its volcanoes, the most famous of which is the dormant Puy-de-Dôme, around ten kilometres out of the city centre. Two famous churches, Notre Dame du Port (11th Century) and Notre Dame de l’Assomption (13th Century) are visible for miles around and are focal points for tourists.
Our route continues into the foothills of The Alps, following the D1089 to the town of Thiers, followed by the larger towns of St Etienne and, after crossing the River Rhone, Valence. An area worthy of a specific holiday in its own right, it would be worth topping up your wine cellar on the return journey. Keep heading south through the town, taking the D111 along the Drôme Valley, until you turn left at the village of Crest and commence driving on the D93, which takes you up into the Alps.
At Aspres, the road turns right towards Serres and continues on the D1075 into Sisteron. After 17 miles, turn left to join the N85, also known as the Route Napoleon. Reputed to follow the original 325kms travelled by Napoleon in 1815, upon his return from
Elba, the road actually runs north from Cannes, to Grenoble. We join it to travel through parts of Haute- Provence that are eye-wateringly beautiful, on a road that offers some spectacular views and some outstanding driving thrills. The best time is daylight and, almost exactly 100 miles away from Nice, it would be worth allowing a good three hours from the spa-town of Digneles- Bains, which is on the N85, to enjoy it properly.
The Alpes Maritime is a wonderfully picturesque area, thinly populated, yet surprisingly practical, with plenty of pubs and cafes all the way south to Nice. A lot of the famous perfumeries are located along this route and the closer you get to the warmth of the
Mediterranean, the magnificent floral fields and colours of the region make it quite obvious. The town of Grasse, which nestles in the hills above coastal Nice, is as enchanting as Vence, located just a few kilometres due east, both places offering a wide selection of guest accommodation, as well as some of the finest hotels in the South of France.
It is always worth booking your accommodation ahead of making the journey.
It can be useful to check the official tourist organisations for the different French départmente, as they can provide travel information and many other useful snippets.
Some useful web-sites:
All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you visit the South of France.