Plain sailing

Ferry travellers can enjoy the full flavour of France within a short drive of the Channel ports, says Paul Lamarra

Travelling by ferry with your own car is a convenient way of getting to France, with services operating between six Channel ports on the English side and eight on the French. The ferries usually have enough capacity to keep costs competitive, even if you organise a trip at the last minute. After disembarking, you don’t have to drive far to get your French fix, so here are some ideas for tours through the hinterland of four of the ports.

Roscoff

Brittany Ferries, from Plymouth (Feb-Nov), www.brittany-ferries.co.ukTaking the ferry to Roscoff in Finistère delivers you within reach of Brittany’s wildest and remotest headlands, beaches and islands. Go further west from Roscoff and you will be in an ancient land of churches, narrow estuaries, towering lighthouses and empty beaches.

At first the coast is soft and sandy, and shallow bays are fringed with sea pink flowers. However, by the time you reach the fishing hamlet at Meneham, the granite tors dwarf the thatched cottages. Look out for the Phare de l’Île Vierge – at 82.5 metres high it is purportedly the tallest traditional stone lighthouse in the world. Push west as far as it is possible to go, then follow the coast south to the fishing village of Le Conquet. Get out and search for the square Kermorvan lighthouse and the Plage des Blancs-Sablons, both of which lie a short distance beyond the footbridge over the estuary. At the port of Brest, cross the Pont de l’Iroise to visit the Abbaye de Daoulas and its Romanesque cloisters before heading inland over the Monts d’Arrée – a landscape overflowing with Breton myths and legends – before returning to Roscoff via Morlaix. Distance: 265km, driving time: 5hr

Saint-Malo

Brittany Ferries, from Portsmouth (Jan-Oct), and from Plymouth (Feb & Oct) www.brittany-ferries.co.u Condor Ferries, from Poole (Apr-Oct) and Weymouth, www.condorferries.co.uk

First-timers arriving by ferry are always in awe of Saint-Malo’s maritime citadel and many may be tempted to go no further. However, seasoned visitors, looking for more formidable Breton defences, should head east into the Brittany marches where the region borders the rest of France.

Make a brief stop in the village of Dol-de-Bretagne to climb Mont-Dol and get a view of the nearby island of Le Mont-Saint-Michel before heading for Fougères and its formidable frontier fortress. This is exactly how the Bretons liked their castles – intimidating. Complete with moat, bulging towers and turrets, the château makes the most of the precipitous cliffs.

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Less than 30 kilometres to the south, the château at Vitré is the fairy-tale antithesis of Fougères. Linger a while to explore the streets lined with half-timbered townhouses and, on Mondays, visit the market. Further on, in La Guerche-de-Bretagne, a market dating from the 12th century is held on Tuesdays. Complete the tour with visits to Châteaubriant, the old monastic centre of Redon, and one of the regular photographic exhibitions at Yves Rocher’s botanical gardens in La Gacilly before heading north to medieval Dinan and back to Saint-Malo.

Distance: 370km, driving time: 6hr

Le Havre

Brittany Ferries, Thur-Sun from Portsmouth (May-Sept) www.brittany-ferries.co.uk DFDS Seaways, daily from Portsmouth www.dfdsseaways.co.uk Le Havre can be seen as the birthplace of Impressionism, since it is where Claude Monet painted Impression, Soleil Levant, which gave its name to the artistic movement. Make the art gallery at the Musée Malraux your first stop and then see how many scenes in the paintings you can spot once you are on the road north-east along the Côte d’Albâtre through Étretat, Yport and Fécamp. Monet painted the sea-arches at Étretat in all lights and weathers, Armand Charnay painted a beach party at Yport and Pierre-Auguste Renoir captured the scene at low tide. At many of the locations, boards show the paintings so visitors can compare them with the real-life scene that inspired the artists.

From Dieppe, follow the valley of the Bray through the Forêt d’Eawy on the Route de Paris and travel via Gisors to Monet’s home and gardens at Giverny. This popular attraction is the high point of Impressionism and is likely to be very busy. However, returning beside the River Seine as it flows west to Le Havre will reveal less well-known sights and landscapes such as La Bouille, near Rouen, where Alfred Sisley, Robert Antoine Pinchon and Paul Gauguin painted the village, the cliffs and the ferry. Remain on the south side of the river until you reach the Pont du Normandie and then visit Honfleur, one of the Impressionists’ favourite haunts, before crossing the estuary to Le Havre.

Distance: 395km, driving time: 6hr

Calais

DFDS Seaways, regular daily crossings www.dfdsseaways.co.uk

MyFerryLink, regular daily crossings www.myferrylink.com P&O Ferries, regular daily crossings www.poferries.com For a millennium at least, the flatlands of northern France have been the scene of violent conflicts and you would have to be very determined to avoid battlefields altogether. So why not embrace them? You will see visible signs of World War II in the Forêt d’Éperlecques, between Calais and Saint-Omer, where the Nazis built a huge concrete bunker. At Helfaut, south of the town, is the museum of La Coupole, situated in another bunker, from which the Nazis planned to launch V2 rockets on London.

From Saint-Omer follow the D928 towards Hesdin and once you reach Fruges look out for signs for Azincourt and the location of the Battle of Agincourt, where Henry V’s archers struck a blow against the French during the Hundred Years War. There is a small museum and events are being organised in the build-up to the 600th anniversary of the battle in 2015.

Head in the direction of Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise and continue to Arras. The distinctive gables and arcades that surround its squares – rebuilt after World War I – evoke the period in the 17th century when it was part of the Spanish Netherlands. The French laid siege to the town and with the aid of the real-life Cyrano de Bergerac it was captured and, in 1659, returned to France.

Fast forwarding to World War II once again, stop at the citadel designed by the 17th-century engineer Vauban and visit the memorial to 218 Resistance fighters executed by the Nazis in the deep trench that surrounds the fort.

From Arras head north and aim to the west of Lille on the D937 towards Armentières. This is more or less the line of the Western Front in World War I. The British cemetery and memorial of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette at the village of Ablain-Saint-Nazaire lies next to the route, but also make the short detour to Vimy Ridge (see page 48 for Paul’s feature on cycling along the Western Front).

Return to the coast at Dunkerque, where the cheerful seaside atmosphere at Malo-les-Bains is in sharp contrast to the scenes here in June 1940, when tens of thousands of Allied troops were rescued from advancing German forces.

Distance: 330km, driving time: 5hr