Driving to the South of France from the UK or Northern Europe is very doable, even pleasurable, particularly if you make the journey part of the fun and take your time. Many of the guests at Lou Messugo drive from the UK, Paris, Belgium and Germany and while there are plenty of dedicated websites all about driving in France I’ve done this journey so many times I thought I’d share some tips.
Firstly, the legal stuff!
All cars driving in France must carry a kit de securité which is composed of a warning triangle and a high visibility vest for the driver. This vest must be kept in the car not the boot. Right-hand drive cars must also use headlamp converters. If stopped by the police you must be able to show proof of ownership, ie the car’s registration certificate “carte grise” in French, V5C certificate in UK and proof of insurance, the “green card”.
It is illegal to use a mobile phone while driving even hands-free with headphones. However, hands-free using the car’s speakers via Bluetooth is permitted. Speed camera detectors are illegal, even those on GPS systems. And finally, the blood alcohol limit is lower in France than in UK at 0.5 mg/ml.
Tips to make driving to the South of France enjoyable
OK, so that’s over with, now let’s talk the 12 hour drive from Calais to the Côte d’Azur. It’s long but it doesn’t have to be a nightmare! Motorways in France are way less crowded than in Britain with about the same population but double the amount of space.
Summer Saturdays can be pretty awful but the trick is to know where to avoid at what times. Throughout July and August but particularly between the two public holidays of 14 July and 15 August Saturdays become “changeover” days with what seems like most of northern Europe heading south or heading back home again. If you can, try and avoid having to spend too long on the motorway on Saturday.
The two worst black spots are usually around Paris and just south of Lyon in the Rhône Valley. Leave early or late but plan carefully to avoid these areas around 8–11 in the morning heading south or the end of the afternoon heading north.
Best of all take your time, make the journey part of the holiday and spend a night or two on the way. Out of the summer season however, weekends are the best time to be on the motorways as trucks are not allowed.
French motorways have pretty good service areas with fuel, food and toilets. And they also have aire de repos (picnic areas) between the service stations, every 25 kms or so. These have basic toilets and picnic tables and can be a nicer place to escape the crowds of travellers. There are often children’s play areas, sprinklers to cool off under and even tourist attractions at some service or rest areas.
One of the best for children that I know of is the “Aire de Jugy” at approximately km 350 on the A6 heading south. It has a wonderful play area with all sorts of creatures and objects to climb on. A great place to break the journey and stretch your legs!
Service areas can get very crowded at lunchtime so try to time your stop before 11.30 am or after 2 pm.
Places to stay when driving to the South of France
For overnight stops there are plenty of hotels just off motorway junctions in each sizeable town, ideal if it is just a bed you’re after. These tend to be the chain hotels Ibis, Etap, Formule 1 etc. On busy summer weekends it’s best to book ahead online though during the rest of the year you can just turn up. For a more enjoyable experience, particularly if you’re making a “road trip” out of the journey, here are some of my favourite stopover places:
Troyes – formerly the capital of Champagne, a gem of a town with pretty half-timbered houses.
Abbaye de Reigny – a gorgeous B&B/boutique hotel (and gîte) in a Cistercian abbey near Chablis in Burgundy. An affordable little bit of luxury – book well ahead!
Beaune – in the heart of the Burgundy wine area, a lovely town famous for its beautiful 15th century hospital, l’Hôtel-Dieu, now a museum.
Chantier Médiéval de Guédelon – a medieval building site! This phenomenal place is a must-do for all families and history buffs driving to the South of France. Guédelon is a castle being built exactly as it would have been in the 13th century using all local materials and methods from the era, including blacksmiths, masons, basket weavers, carpenters, rope makers and everyone else needed for such a big project. Even the food in the restaurant is from the middle ages (you know what I mean!) The project started in 1997 and is expected to take about 25 years.
Lyon – France’s second biggest city, centre of gastronomy, UNESCO world heritage site, need I say more? Don’t be put off by the vast petrol refinery on the southern edge; it really is a fabulous town!
Some last tips for driving to the South of France
Fuel is much cheaper off the motorway than on, particularly at supermarket pumps where you can use credit cards 24/7. There are usually supermarkets to be found just off the exits for most sizeable towns, look out for signs “Centre Cial” or “ZI…” (Shopping centre and Industrial Zone).
Péage (toll): big queues build up on busy changeover days at the toll barriers. Most foreigners head for the manned booths but the un-manned credit card lanes are far quicker. Follow the overhead markers in Blue, with a blue rectangle or CB sign (Carte Bleue = credit card). Most operate with a contactless system nowadays (“sans contact“). If you drive frequently in France using motorways it may be worth getting a badge for the péage. There are many different options, most of which involve a very small monthly fee (1-2€), find out more here. The queues are always considerably shorter or even non-existent.
And lastly, the speed limit on the motorway in the Alpes-Maritimes is 110 km/h (not the usual 130 km/h).
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This post was originally published in May 2012 and has been updated