The joy of driving through France

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Make the most of driving through the wide open spaces of France as Paul Lamarra recommends the best stopovers in our comprehensive motoring guide

Over time the relentless driving gave way to a more relaxed approach. Often we stopped on a whim and for me it became the best part of the holiday. It was in the arcaded main square of Pont-à-Mousson in Lorraine that I ate my first proper French meal and in Reims that I drank my first glass of champagne, out of a bottle purloined from a minibar in the Hôtel du Nord. It was an adventure and the spontaneity caught us all off guard.

The ideal point to break your French journey is two-thirds of the way to the final destination. My recommended southbound stops are within two or three hours of the Mediterranean coast, Alps or Pyrénées; the northbound stops are a similar distance from the Channel ports.

Going south

Poitiers, Poitou-Charentes – heading for the Dordogne, Bordeaux or Biarritz

Poitiers has all the trappings of a regional capital and leaving the A10 autoroute at junction 29 to head for the town centre is relatively straightforward. On the large main square is the ornate Romanesque Église Notre-Dame la Grande (pictured above). The carvings over the front door include a medieval guess at what an elephant might look like.

The medieval core is a mix of shops and buildings that evoke the time when Poitiers was capital of France during the Hundred Years War; Joan of Arc was interrogated here. La Serrurerie in Rue des Grandes Écoles, complete with zinc bar and quirky interior, is the most atmospheric eatery (www.laserrurerie.com). For a refreshing stroll there is the Parc de Blossac, although families would probably want to travel the short distance out of town to the Futuroscope theme park (www.en.futuroscope.com).

www.ot-poitiers.frVichy, Auvergne – heading for Provence or Languedoc

The old spa resort of Vichy (pictured above, right) is 30 kilometres from junction 13 of the A89 autoroute, but it is worth going the extra distance. It is a town with attitude, so don’t be surprised if the proprietors of the many antique shops are a little offhand. Antique shops aside, Vichy reeks of the Belle Époque when the great and the good came to take the waters. Follow the cast-iron-covered promenade that snakes across the town centre and glug the healing waters in the Hall of Springs.

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It was to Vichy that the French government decamped in June 1940 when the Germans seized Paris. Maréchal Pétain’s infamous collaborationist regime was established in the unusually grand provincial opera house.

www.vichy-tourisme.comColombey-les-Deux-Églises, Lorraine – heading for the Alps or the Jura

This typical village in the Haute-Marne département (which incidentally has only one church) owes its fame to former resident Charles de Gaulle. The wartime leader of the Free French and future President loved its bleak outlook over the windswept Lorraine plateau. The modern museum dedicated to his life makes the most of views over the countryside in which he loved to walk. The museum displays the car involved in the assassination attempt on de Gaulle at Petit-Clamart in Paris in 1962 (en.memorial-charlesdegaulle.fr).

De Gaulle spent most weekends here while he was President and part of his home, where he lived a Spartan life, is now open to the public. His simple grave is in the churchyard. Such is the general’s renown that the village can support the Michelin-starred restaurant Hostellerie La Montagne (www.hostellerielamontagne.com). Leave the A5 at junction 23 and go in the direction of the huge white Croix de Lorraine.

www.colombey-les-deux-eglises.comGoing north

Fougères – heading for Saint-Malo, Cherbourg, Caen or Le Havre

One of the fortified towns that defended Brittany’s eastern marches with France, Fougères is dominated by its muscular château (pictured below) and the medieval town of half-timbered townhouses gathered along its moat. After you have spent hours behind the wheel, the chance to walk up and down the steps and ramps that connect this town built at the top and bottom of a cliff will provide an exacting workout for stiff limbs.

Possibly the best hotel and restaurant, with fine views of the château, is the Hôtel des Voyageurs (www.hotel-fougeres.fr). To reach the town, leave the unusually toll-free A84 autoroute at junction 29 and head east on the N12.

www.ot-fougeres.frAlençon, Normandy – heading for Caen, Le Havre and Cherbourg

Often overlooked, this historic lace centre is easily reached from junction 19 of the A28, an autoroute that connects the Loire château country with the Channel ports. Alençon has a compact medieval core centred on the 15th-century Basilique Notre Dame which has a great Gothic doorway. Many of the pedestrianised streets are lined with medieval townhouses and the Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle includes a fine collection of lace.

The town is also the gateway to the optimistically named Alpes Mancelles. Within a few minutes from the town centre you can be in glorious Norman countryside. The small but perfectly formed Château Carrouges and the Plus Beau Village of Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei require only a small detour.

www.paysdalencontourisme.comPierrefonds, Picardy – heading for Dieppe, Calais or Dunkirk

Pierrefonds’ immense fairy-tale château (pictured left) on the edge of the Compiègne forest made a convincing Camelot in the BBC TV series Merlin and remains an essential stop-off for fans (www.pierrefonds.monuments-nationaux.fr). Aside from its TV fame, Pierrefonds is a chic weekend retreat where Parisians come to take the fresh forest air. Such a genteel clientele ensures there is a good range of pâtisseries, restaurants and salons de thé.

There are forest walks and a small boating pond. A nearby landmark is the Clairière de l’Armistice where the Germans effectively surrendered in November 1918 and Hitler accepted the French capitulation in June 1940. To reach Pierrefonds without going through Compiègne leave the A1 at junction 9.

www.pierrefonds-tourisme.netPéronne, Picardy – heading for Calais or Dunkirk

Péronne is a popular stop with caravanners, as the pleasant campsite of Port de Plaisance is well-placed for junction 13 of the A1. A bustling market fills Péronne’s narrow streets on a Saturday morning, which is a perfect way to get a final flavour of France before crossing the Channel. The town lies on the banks of the River Somme and was at the centre of the eponymous battle of 1916. The old château is home to the Historial de la Grande Guerre (en.historial.org), a museum with a collection of anti-war art by German Otto Dix.

www.visit-somme.comTHE COST OF MOTORING - DRIVING FROM CALAIS TO CANNES

Anyone planning a car journey through France will find the viamichelin website (www.viamichelin.co.uk) a useful tool for calculating the cost. According to the site, drivers travelling from Calais to Cannes using the most efficient toll-motorways (péages) will pay €102.40 in tolls and an estimated €132 in fuel for the 1,200-kilometre journey.

It is possible to avoid the péages by sticking to the route nationale (the N7 for example) and reduce the tolls to zero. However, on this trip the journey time would increase from 11½ hours to almost 20 hours, which would mean an overnight stop. A very basic hotel such as Formule 1 can cost as little as €19 per night. Fuel costs and the distance driven would be about the same.

Diesel is around 40 cents a litre cheaperin France than in the UK, whereas unleaded petrol tends to be around the same price. Motorway refuelling is inevitably more expensive, but the prices offered by competing companies and service areas are regularly advertised many kilometres in advance.

The most affordable fuel is from large supermarkets such as Carrefour, Auchan and Intermarché. These are often found on the outskirts of towns close to major junctions and can be accessed easily. Expect to pay around 30 cents less per litre than a motorway service area; a potential saving of around €25 on a journey from Calais to Cannes.

THE ART OF DRIVING IN FRANCE

Headlamp deflectors in the door pocket ready to fit at the ferry terminal, his and hers yellow safety vests draped over the front seats, a warning triangle and a spare set of bulbs stashed in the boot that you have no idea how to fit – and you are all set to go.

Such necessary preparations can trigger thoughts about what could go wrong on your car journey, but like any adventure the excitement is a mixture of preparation, last-minute decision-making and visiting new places.

Sometimes my approach is to get a fix on the sun, take a cursory look at the map and pick a destination where I would like to have lunch.

Over the years I have developed an instinct for picking out the best roads.Generally, I avoid routes nationales (the N1 etc), which tend to be dual-carriageways used increasingly by lorries, and the pricey autoroutes. Instead, I favour departmental roads. These vary enormously so the trick is to pick the right one. My preference is to look for one that has a high number, as these are usually quieter, so I would favour the D775 over the D1.

This is not foolproof, so my second criterion would be to avoid roads that are coloured yellow or red on the map. Both IGN (the French equivalent of the Ordnance Survey) and Michelin maps utilise more or less the same key. In my experience, the coloured departmental roads tend to be busier than the colourless ones.

Follow anything smaller than a D-road – that is a road unnumbered on the map – and you will get hopelessly lost. These communal roads connect villages and hamlets, wander all over the place, change road number frequently and often deliver you to unsigned crossroads.

Sticking to quiet D-roads will obviously make the journey longer, but stopping is easy and you increase your chances of encountering a forgotten château, a village bistro serving only a menu du jour, a church decked out in frescoes or a plaque describing some act of heroism.

The biggest bonus is that these roads have the best and most peaceful picnic spots. Indeed, it becomes a relaxed journey of small pleasures. Michelin maps have an added feature to help pick the most suitable choice of road. Careful inspection will reveal the sporadic use of green shading along the edge of a road, which means Michelin considers it to be a scenic route.

Roads designated in this way include a tour of the Gulf de Morbihan in Brittany, the Loire between Angers and Saumur and much of the Corniche des Cévennes in Languedoc. It is a fragmented network, but like Michelin’s stars for dining excellence, the scenic route designation is used sparingly and only when merited. So when you see somewhere appealing pictured on one of the big brown signs beside the autoroute, take the plunge and go off to find it. PL