Driving in France

Carolyn Boyd on why driving to France is a great way to go

Ask yourself this – when does your holiday really start?

Is it when you’re queuing for the fourth time at the airport; arguing over the weight limit of your suitcase; feeding your shoes, belt, mobile, spare change, laptop and children through security, only to find your flight is delayed by two hours when you reach duty free? Or maybe it’s when you drive away from your house, all you could possibly need packed in the back, with only a simple ferry crossing between you and the best holiday destination in the world.

For me, there’s no comparison, when you drive to France your holiday starts as soon as you leave your front door. Granted, your journey on this side of the Channel might not be as much fun, but in France you’ll find wide open roads, traffic-free motorways, and so much to see and do en route, you may never get to your destination. Little wonder, then, that in a recent survey our readers voted motoring as their number one favourite activity in France.

But for those unfamiliar with driving on the continent, it can be a daunting experience, as one of our writers David Whitley (http://www.grumpytraveller.com) can attest: “My abiding memory of driving in France is from childhood. On the return journey from a day trip to Barcelona, my parents filled up at a petrol station with the wrong sort of petrol and as we crossed the French border the car was jumping around like an epileptic kangaroo. We limped back to Perpignan amidst a blazing in-car argument and the odd horn indicating that my dad's erratic driving wasn't appreciated. I've not driven in France since.”

And it isn’t just petrol stations that can cause confusion; there’s the mysterious priorit� � droite’ rule, strange road signs you don’t see in Britain and all the equipment you must now carry in your car by law (have you got your warning triangle and fluorescent gilet yet?). And so, inspired by the countless questions we are asked by our readers about rules, regulations and the best routes through France, we recently published Driving In France. It brings together all the information you need for a trip, along with 10 regional drives and the most beautiful route from the north to south avoiding all the motorways. It also includes all French phrases you would need should you have a run-in with the law – something it seems, that can happen quite frequently.

Writer, comedian and musician Tony Hawks (http://www.tony-hawks.com) wasn’t quite so lucky and was fined €90 for going through a red light just as it turned from amber. “There were two policemen waiting for me who were so well-dressed in their uniforms – LA shades, shiny leather boots and pristine white trousers that looked more like tights - it felt like I was walking towards performers’ from a porn movie rather than two officers from the law,” he says. “I was summoned over for a prolonged and tedious interrogation during which I had to produce every piece of documentation relating to me short of bank statements and shopping bills,” (you can read the full story in his great book – A Piano in the Pyrenees).

Meanwhile, our regular writer Jon Bryant relied on good old British charm when he moved to France five years ago. “I was driving around a roundabout, lost, and accidentally went through some red lights. A policeman pulled me over and said to me Vous �tes doux’. I'd only just arrived in France and thought it slightly odd that a policeman was saying I looked nice/sweet. I just replied, merci’. ’Non,’ he said angrily, Vous etes d'ou?....vous etes d'ou? Where are you from?’ Oh, Angleterre!’ I replied. He tutted and waved me on.”

While you may not be grateful for your own meeting with a gendarme, it seems their hard-line attitude has made a difference to French drivers’ reputation for erratic driving. Brittany Ferries’ (http://www.brittanyferries.com/) Stephen Tuckwell claims that the French are changing their ways: “The French have changed their driving habits from one of reckless disregard of any speed limit to one of disciplined adherence. It is rare to witness a French car speeding. This means that the roads are a lot safer than they used to be so, together with the low density of traffic in western France, this makes driving and discovering hidden places in Normandy and Brittany a delight.”

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And if you only have a few days spare, don’t give up on a driving holiday over the Channel, follow Radio 2’s Sally Traffic’ Boazman’s (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/presenters/sally-boazman/) example.

“If I am feeling a bit France-deprived, I will drive down to Dover, get on a boat and I will drive from Calais down to St-Omer. I will just go to the market and have lunch and come back or I will stay in a chateau for the weekend. The drive is quite lovely in places and I always have this feeling of Gosh, I am back here and it’s so lovely’.” And if that’s not enough to tempt you, Jeremy Clarkson, the king of driving himself, admitted in an article on the Times Online (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/driving/jeremy_clarkson/article5902399.ece) that “France has everything anyone could ever want from a holiday destination and, of course, it’s right next door.“ Bonne route!

France Magazine’s Driving in France book (�7.99) is available from www.francemag.com/drivingbook, WHSmiths and Amazon. It includes information on planning your trip, the rules and regulations you need to know and the prettiest route from north to south.