Driving in France: the Corniche of the North

Starting from the Loire estuary, Paul Lamarra seeks a coastal road to rival those along the Côte d’Azur

There is something compelling about a coast-hugging road. Driving the Côte d’Azur’s corniche routes is akin to sailing before the wind like a coastal clipper in full sail. In our imagination the boundary is blurred and the sea presents a wild infinity as the wheels flirt with oblivion. Indeed Hollywood film-makers have made much of it.

Few parts of the French coastline have the height and profile of the Côte d’Azur corniches between Nice and Monaco; however, in a determined effort to find a northern equivalent I settled on the coastline either side of La Baule, at the mouth of the River Loire, and north to La Roche-Bernard on the River Vilaine.

It may have had little prospect of providing the consistently precipitous drama of the Côte d’Azur, but I reckoned I was halfway there because, after all, the seaside resort of La Baule is often described as the Cannes of the north.

From the port of Nantes, I had a choice between the north and south banks of the River Loire. I opted for the south as the northern route looked too mundane and I relished the prospect of crossing the high, arching bridge over the River Loire at Saint-Nazaire to begin my corniche run.

Once free of the Nantes ring-road I headed west via the old shipbuilding town of Paimboeuf until I emerged at the promisingly named Saint-Brevin-les-Pins, a beach resort with a slightly faded air now that the inhabitants of Saint-Nazaire and Nantes holiday further afield.

The drama was in the view. In a strange way the bridge and the smoking stacks of the refinery at Donges add rather than detract from the scene. After crossing the bridge and looking down on the World War II submarine pens and vast dry dock at Saint-Nazaire, I followed the signs to Saint-Marc, where the road finally began to resemble a coastal corniche as it wriggled with the coast along the soft red cliffs. Unfortunately, the sea appeared only in glimpses between the villas and pines that hold the coast together.

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Saint-Marc came to represent the essence of a French seaside holiday after Jacques Tati chose it as the location for his 1951 comedy Les Vacances de M. Hulot. The link is honoured with a bronze statue of the character surveying the sandy, rock-flanked beach.

Pornichet and La Baule brought a sudden change. The road was flat and just slightly above the coastline as it faithfully followed the golden crescent of what is, at 12 kilometres, Europe’s longest beach. This was more a strip than a corniche, an opportunity to pose either in the car or on foot on the elegant promenade. On one side was the beach and on the other the high-rise apartment blocks that underline the popularity of this section of coastline with the mega-rich. Property prices are so expensive that the shops and restaurants lie inland away from the seafront and to explore further it was best to walk.

Marking the end of the seafront at La Baule are the grand Belle Époque hotels of the Hermitage Barrière and the Royal Thalasso Barrière. With their perfect lawns and pages in pillbox hats, they set the tone in La Baule.

Following tight, narrow roads and signs for La Grande Côte, I came first to the much more relaxed beach resort of Le Pouliguen and then to a stretch of wilder coastline. Close to Batz-sur-Mer the road is reduced to one-way traffic and a cycle path. The coastline is rocky and the Atlantic Ocean close enough to feel the spray. Beyond the sheltered bay of La Baule, the sea and the wind can give full vent to its fury and sand collects in drifts by the side of the road. Yet there are many sandy bays exploited by locals who know the best places to go.

A narrow isthmus links Batz-sur-Mer with the fishing port of Le Croisic and, with water on both sides, it was easy to become confused. Using the coast as my guide I continued west and rounded the point to double-back into Le Croisic. It is well worth stopping to wander the narrow backstreets, inspect the fishing fleet from the quayside and gorge on fresh oysters and mussels in one of the many harbour restaurants.

All roads now lead to the medieval citadel of Guérande, which lies among the area’s valuable salt pans. Parking and negotiating the one-way system can be difficult, but is worth the effort because this walled and moated old town is completely intact. On Saturdays an excellent market fills the square around the church and the alleys between the old stone townhouses.

Crossing the salt pans took concentration, for the road is narrow and edges frequently unguarded; a local speciality, the salt is still harvested by people known as paludiers wielding large rake-like implements.

To return to the coast I headed for La Turballe, a modern fishing port with a steeply shelving pebbly beach. Beyond lies Piriac-sur-Mer, which retains the atmosphere of a medieval port that prospered from wine and salt trades. In the 19th century it drew literary luminaries such as Émile Zola and Gustave Flaubert.

At Piriac I left the crowds behind and did my best to keep to the coast as I crossed into the Breton département of Morbihan to arrive at the beach of La Mine d’Or and the village of Pénestin. Then it was time to turn inland up the River Vilaine to the barrage and marina at Arzal and journey’s end at the impressive suspension bridge at La Roche-Bernard.

After my day-long trip, it was clear that if there is such a thing as a northern coastal corniche to rival those in the Côte d’Azur it is likely to have only a slow lane.