Driving to the South of France from the UK or northern Europe is very doable, pleasurable even, 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 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. From 1 July 2012 all vehicles (including motorbikes) must also carry a BREATHALYSER.* These are readily available in supermarkets, pharmacies and garages for a minimal price, but be warned they have a Use By date of about 3 months so don’t stock up too early! 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 if you are holding it but alright if using the hands-free kit. 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.
* Update on the breathalyser situation (Feb 2013). This law has been postponed owing to manufacturers inability to produce enough kits in time for the deadlines which kept being put back. Technically the latest date for the law to come into effect is 1 March 2013 but it’s highly unlikely as the Minister of the Interior has announced an indefinite delay.
* FURTHER UPDATE (Feb 2014). Still delayed but best to carry the kits anyway incase you get stopped by an overly officious cop!
OK, so that’s over with, now let’s talk the 12 hour drive from Calais to Roquefort les Pins. 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 excellent Service Areas and “Aire de Repos” (picnic areas) every 25 kms or so. There are often children’s play areas, sprinklers to cool off under and even tourist attractions at some. 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!
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.
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.
Abbaye de Reigny – a gorgeous B&B/boutique hotel (and gîte) in a Cistercian abbey near Chablis. An affordable little bit of luxury – book well ahead!
Chantier Médiéval de Guédelon – a medieval building site! This phenomenal place is a must-do for all families en route to Lou Messugo. 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: fuel is much cheaper off the motorway than on, particularly at supermarket pumps where you can use credit cards 24/24. 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). And lastly, the speed limit on the motorway in the Alpes-Maritimes is 110 km/h (not the usual 130 km/h).