Through this somewhat ridiculous near-month long road trip in France and surrounding borders, we share the sheer diversity of travel during summer in France and the nearby region, from the scorching sand dunes of the Vendee to the snow-capped mountains over Chamonix. From the Pink Flamingos of the wet and wild Camargue to the purple lavender of picturesque Provence. I could really keep going with these contrasts, for a long time, but instead I will move on with some simple road trip basics to help start the ultimate road trip in France.
Road Trip Basics
- Driving is on the right side of the road, which is ridiculously easy by just following the flow of traffic, and it takes around an hour or so to feel comfortable.
- Petrol prices will vary throughout France, although the lower prices are almost always found at larger supermarkets, like E.Leclerc, Carrefour and Hyper U.
- Diesel is called Gasoline (Black Pump) while unleaded is SP or Sans Plomb (Green Pump).
- Cheap hotels (£30-£50) and campsites (£10+) are found almost everywhere in France. But hotels will always be more comfortable for sleep on a road trip in France.
- For accommodation we booked cheap hotels in advance, with free cancellation (booking.com), so we could easily change the route along the way.
- Toll Roads are fast, but expensive, and the local roads are ten times more scenic.
The Boat to Normandy
We travelled from Northern Ireland in our own car, crossing by boat from Rosslare in Ireland, to arrive at Cherbourg in Normandy to begin our road trip in France (Oscar Wilde Irish Ferries). We arrived in the pier just after 11:00AM with little more planned than to drive south as soon as possible, away from the rather miserable weather given we are still not so far from the U.K. in this region. But we do make one important stop at Mont Saint Michel, a medieval monastery which seemingly floats on the horizon of the shoreline, on the road towards Saint Malo. But the weather is otherwise miserable, as expected, so we don’t stay long. However, had we arrived later in the day, then we would have considered Saint-Malo as our first overnight destination, but for now we were just wanting to push south as soon as possible. I have also covered much of this region many times before, including Mont Saint Michel, following the coast to Saint-Malo, through Nantes, and over the Saint-Nazaire Bridge etc. It is a nice enough region, but we just have further plans south in the French Vendee. (Here for hotels in Saint-Malo).
The Vendee and La Rochelle
Our first-day itinerary was originally to visit Mont Saint Michel, then to spend the night in Saint Jean de Mont, following my own nostalgia from so many summers of my yesteryears. As each summer we would escape Northern Ireland to spent our holidays in the various campsites dotted throughout this sandy coastal region. It’s a family-friendly part of France in the Vendee. But for this visit we continue further to La Rochelle (5 hours) aka “the Jewel in the Bay of Biscay”, where we spent our first sunset at the Old Harbour (Vieux Port) which is the central focus of this seaport city. It really is a beautiful harbour. So it isn’t until the next morning when we finally find the beaches at Châtelaillon-Plage (15km south), which has a beautiful beachfront promenade, and pristine sands. However it isn’t until a short stop for a breakfast of bread and croissants in the town market, that we feel like we were truly in France. Sat next to the church tower, where the bell rings, and the birds chirp, and there are surroundings of rose gardens, baguettes and bicycles, and there is just that somewhat cliché bustle of French village life. People also like to whistle here, and I don’t blame them. It is an almost idyllic scene. (Here for hotels in La Rochelle).
After a relaxed and peaceful morning, we would soon be on the road again to travel inland, and away from the beaches to the Midi Pyrenees. This would be our next base for travel, near Rocamadour, which is found a good 4-hour drive on toll roads, or 5 hours via the scenic rural routes. And we will forever go with the scenic rural roads on almost every route for this road trip in France. As the French countryside is just so ridiculously beautiful at this time of the year, with the wheat fields and vineyards, the rustic brick houses, with their wavy terracotta roofing. There are lots of roses and houses are decorated with plant pots. The beauty seems almost effortless at times. Then along the way we pass through the wine regions of Cognac (Cognac) and Pineau des Charentes (an aperitif), as well as the “Route au Foie Gras”. Not to forget all the quaint and picturesque towns and villages along the way (e.g. Mairie and Martel and Souillac). We also pass through the somewhat central city commune of Limoges. And it is at this point that we realise just how much scenery (and food) we will be passing, in the peripheral, on this rather extensive road trip in France.
Dordogne River Valley
Before reaching Beynac-et-Cazenac, where we would ultimately spend our second night, we first detour slightly to Rocamadour, which is just the most magnificent medieval village found towering over the Dore River below. It’s just a spectacular scene to peer down on from above (pic above). The drive as well is rather adventurous through winding roads and tight tunnels to reach the car parks beneath the village before walking up to tour its cobbled streets. It’s sincerely beautiful, albeit slightly touristy these days, as it features in “Les plus beaux villages de France” (the most beautiful villages in France) which is most definitely a list to be considered before any road trip in France. Although I don’t know how Beynac-et-Cazenac doesn’t make it, as it too is just stunning, set on a cliff top over a Dordogne River tributary and gorge. Anyway, I’d love to spend a week or two eating and drinking through these unassuming regions of France, but the next morning we are on the road again early, when we would travel south to Biarritz (5 hours). (Here for hotels in the Dordogne Valley).
To be honest I don’t remember much of the drive after the Dordogne Valley, as it just wasn’t overly exciting (although the Toll Road is only an hour faster). But I do remember pulling off to the small town of Villeréal, one of the many signposted Village Etapes in France, which make the perfect snack and rest stop off of the lesser motorways. So it is around midday when we arrive to Biarritz and La Cote des Basques, which is a bit like the Côte Dazur only the rich people have been replaced with surfers, bikers and maniacs. And this would be our first camping experience, where we would blow up the air mattress, and set up the pop-up tent, in what really was the wrong decision. And while the evening was relatively enjoyable, with barbecues and beers under the shade of towering trees. Come night time the motorbikes are out rumbling non-stop, and it was a bit unnerving to see one of the bikers opposite run in circles while wielding a chainsaw. So camping did ruin Biarritz for us. Although we were still up for sunrise, and into Biarritz, where we parked at a small seafront fishing village, to catch the early morning scenes around Rocher de la Vierge (Virgin’s Rock). Biarritz really is a stunning seafront town. (Here for hotels in Biarritz).
The Spanish Pyrenees
We are already crossing the borders after leaving Biarritz, as we continue south through the Spanish Pyrenees towards our stay for the night in Alquezar in Huesca province (5 hours). And this follows a rollercoaster of scenery that we really hadn’t expected, where the roads start out, up and down, through lush and green mountains. But after the city of Pamplona (famous for the Running of the Bulls), the roads become almost entirely empty, and I could drive a good 10 minutes and see no other vehicle on my side. The green mountains become dry and arid rock structures, which tower over surreal bright blue lakes, and we are surrounded by the loud drone of crickets, lizards and cicadas. Not to forget the passing donkeys and dead snakes, and I feel like I’m more likely in Mexico. Yet we can still see snowy peaks of mountains in the backdrop. As the contrasts really are fascinating and unexpected. So we stop at a random abandoned village called Esco along the way, and climb a cascading waterfall, before winding through olive groves, as we twist and turn to the cobbled streets of Alquezar. And this is where we made the most of cheap Spanish prices, with a fancy hotel over terracotta tiled roofs, and a slap up meal at the best restaurant in town. It really was an unforgettable experience and which I shared here. (Here for hotels in Spanish Pyrenees)
Andorra and Catalonia
Our time in Spain is otherwise short-lived (although it is now firmly on our to-do list) as we travelled back across the borders en route to Carcassonne (6 hours). This would be one of the longest journeys that we would cover on any road trip, but we also cover an entire country along the way, as we travel up through Catalonia and through the tiny landlocked nation of Andorra. Again the scenery is relatively similar to before, only not quite near as beautiful to be honest, and there’s more traffic, and lesser opportunities to stop (I already miss the drive from the day before). And we are now in Catalonian country, the Basque District, where nationalist flags fly from houses and hilltops, until we cross the border into Andorra. Which is the only country in the world to speak Catalan as its primary language. But Andorra is very different to Spain, or France, and it is definitely distinct in its houses and architecture, where rustic terracotta tiled fincas have been replaced with slate roofed chalets. Now Fanfan is relieved to escape the heat, as it’s fairly nippy up in the mountains of Andorra, although the heavy snowfalls are still months away, meaning the ski resorts are a bit like ghost towns, with empty parking lots, abandoned ski lifts, and lingering mountain mists. It’s a bit eerie up there. (Here for hotels in Andorra).
I actually ended my last road trip in France in the French Pyrenees, 10 years ago, when the engine of my car exploded because I forgot to put oil in the engine (to be fair there was oil in the car – just not in the engine yet). My car at the time was then towed to a mechanic in the small village of Il-Sur-Tet, where I had to pay £150 to have it towed again to be scrapped in the city of Perpignan (I’d really have been better off doing a runner). So, descending the French Pyrenees, we find ourselves back to vineyards and tree arches, but the weather is still a bit lousy following our toasty climates over the border in Spain. So it is hard to get excited. But the rain at least washes the dead bugs from the windscreen. Otherwise our next destination is Carcassonne, where we spend the night before exploring the next morning. And this is probably the most touristic destination so far, at least when it comes to touring the old citadel, which is pretty much pedestrian only within the old city walls. But we are fortunately in early before the big bus tours had arrived, only we are also too early for the restaurants to open, and I missed out on eating Cassoulet Maison, a famous regional dish found on near every menu. With tasty Toulouse Sausages. (Here for hotels in Carcassonne).
From Carcassonne we then drive up towards Parc national des Cévennes, and, to be honest, this route was probably the least memorable of the road trip for me, as we were still coming down from the summer high of Spain, and really it offered little more than what we had covered in France so far. It reminded me a bit of the Midi-Pyrenees, only more hilly and cavernous in parts, and without the same excitement as before. But the weather is still cloudy and dull, and I do find the weather really reflects my enthusiasm for destinations. Otherwise there were some fascinating and rustic old towns, the most memorable being the fortified medieval village of Minerve. Then there was the Arles River which appears to be popular with kayaking and adventurous stuff. At least the roads are relatively empty, and it’s easy to pull in at points along the route for photos and whatnot. But otherwise this was a detour, a loop up and down again, where after reaching Clermont-Herault we turn back down towards the Côte d’Azur and the southern coast. As our final stop was in the Camargue region. But due to slight misdirection on the GPS (I took a wrong turn), we ended up stuck in traffic when accidentally travelling through Montpellier. But soon we were out the southern end of the city, and again onto unobstructed and empty roads, to explore the seemingly untouched and wild landscapes of the Camargue National Park. (Here for hotels in Herault).
This would be our second-night camping, and ultimately our last night camping, as it doesn’t get much better than before. Because campsites are generally noisy, with music, and mingling and occasional parties, while tents are just crap at noise reduction. And this went on until the early hours, which isn’t ideal when travelling on such tight itineraries. It is important to sleep well. And we also waste a lot of time setting up, and then taking down, the tents each time. So we never managed to break even on the cost of camping equipment, which was all kind of cheap anyway. Anyway, the Camargue National Park is a rather fascinating and wild region with white horses and Camargue bulls dotted across the landscapes. But the main attraction would undoubtedly be the pink Flamingos, which can be found throughout the nearby wetlands, but are pretty much concentrated to the ‘Pont de Gau’ Ornithological Park and UNESCO reserve. Sometimes in their thousands (normally between April – September) along with a whole load of other birds and wildlife, such as egrets, herons, and what I am guessing was a beaver (full write up on the Camargue here). (Here for hotels in the Camargue).
From the southern borders we would then travel north again, this time to the Ardeche region, named after the river which runs through it. But we start this journey with a pass through Arles, which is a bigger city than I had expected, with tight, but beautiful, stone cobbled backstreets surrounding the central Amphitheatre. Next up is Les-Baux-De-Provence, which I kind of expected to be a far-flung medieval town with quaint local charm, but it is now a well-established tourist attraction, where you pay 5 euros parking out front, to explore the cobbled streets, maybe see the museum, or just stop for a bite and to browse the souvenirs. Then leave again. It is similar to Carcassone and, I’m guessing, many of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France”. They are more tourist stops, but they no doubt are beautiful tourist stops. But the highlight of this region is undoubtedly the cliff scenes over the Gorges de Ardeche, and riverside villages along the way, like Labeaume and Balazuc. Also the Pont d’Arc bridge. We then spent the night in a random petit village called Uzer, with local wines and beers over balcony views of the surrounding Ardeche. Hotels may be twice the price of tents in a campsite, but they’re infinitely more comfortable. (Here for hotels in the Ardeche).
Normally we avoid cities on road trips completely, leaving them instead for fly-in city breaks, but if one city was worth battling city centre traffic for, it would have to be Avignon. And this is where we stop for a short break, and to join family who had rented a city centre “Gite” (holiday home), which they were using a base for travel to see Northern Ireland play in the Euro 2016 Football matches (it took near 2 years to come back to this post). So Avignon was like a half-way point for us, a respite from travel, when I could finally park the car and leave it for a while. Although I did drive to pick up family from Lyon airport, and then there was the occasional excursion in surrounding Provence. Otherwise this time revolved around barbecues, beers, football and laziness, as well as evenings eating reasonably-priced Entrecôtes (steaks) with wine at the Place de l’Horloge (Avignon’s central square). There is a lot to cover in Avignon, although it is still relatively small when compared with other major cities in France. But the historical significance is worth following up on (Palais des Papes), as well as the major Roman influences in this part of France (which include Nimes, the Pont du Gard, and the Amphitheatre we visited in Arles). (Here for hotels in Avignon).
Provence is really quite huge, and already we have covered lesser known locations in the region such as the Camargue, Arles, Avignon, and Les Baux-de-Provence. So this is more of a continuation through the region, starting with one of the day-trips from Avignon to Roussillon, a picturesque and out-of-place red coloured village. It is set over “Sentier des Ocres” (Ochre Path) which twists and turns through old quarries beneath (image below). Then leaving Avignon we were back onto a more hurried itinerary, and we soon find the iconic lavender fields travelling north in Provence, and include a stop at Sénanque Abbey, where the bloom hadn’t yet arrived. It is then around Valensome when it’s all tours and perfumeries. But probably our favourite stretch since the Spanish Pyrenees was Provence’s Gorges Verdan, which is quite similar to Gorges Ardeche, only with fewer walls and barriers through roads that wind and teeter with magnificent views over the cliff sides. It’s a little bit terrifying which just adds to the fun. We then turned down to our next stop on the southern Cote d’Azur. (Here for hotels in Provence).
The French Riviera / Cote d’Azur
We pass through the Maritime Alps to reach the Cote D’Azur, and the terrain is really quite windy and mountainous right down to the sea. We then stayed the night in Saint Tropez before taking on the French Riviera / Cote d’Azur (the terms are pretty much interchangeable). Although we originally planned to continue to Monaco which would really be a bit insane (we changed as bad weather was battering the destinations ahead). So I instantly loathe driving in the Riviera (for my third time), because it’s busy, and congested, and it’s continually starting and stopping alongside the pedestrian promenades and boulevards. But the scenes are admittedly intriguing, with green hills on one side and coastline marinas the opposite. Soft sand beaches, pristine aquamarine sea, but it’s all just too busy, as we pass somewhat kitsch and cliché promenade scenes, with joggers, roller-skaters, topless bodybuilders, and endless stretches of palm trees and the stinking rich yachts off the coastline. But of course there are many iconic destinations along this road trip route, such as Cannes, and Nice, and of course the city-state of Monaco (Circuit de Monaco) ticking another country from the to-do list. Otherwise it is only at Nice when we decide to stop, finding an underground car park near the shortline, before calling up at the Port of Nice (Port Lympia). Before continuing on to the Italian borders. (Here for hotels on the Cote d’Azur).
Our original plan was to travel north towards Switzerland, but the weather was grim in the Alps, and we decided instead to kill some time in Northern Italy. And this will all be covered in a separate post. But to sum up the route, we started in the Italian Riviera, where from the border it takes around 3 hours to reach the best bits starting at Genoa, and including Cinque Terre. The scenery and colours are really unforgettable, it’s probably one of the most beautiful routes on earth, however extremely hard to enjoy. Because parking is almost impossible to find on the coastline, the roads are ridiculously thin and winding, and Italians really are just not known for their patience in driving or hospitality. Then add in the motorbikes. We then continued to spend the night in Pisa, called to see the leaning tower the next morning, before travelling east through the hilly terrain of Tuscany to spending the night in San Marino (another country ticked off). Then it was north again, towards the Alps, where we spent a night near Lake Garde, before passing Lake Como, as we crossed the borders at Lugano into Switzerland. (Here for hotels in the Italian Riviera).
The Swiss Alps
As expected, the snow-capped Swiss Alps are just so ridiculously scenic, but again this will have to be shared in a separate post (although I have covered our 3 days in Jungfrau already). But the country is also notoriously expensive, and the most of the majestic peaks and scenery will always be better covered up close by mountain train and cable cars. And these will shatter the lower budgets (I think we spent around £500+ on train/cablecar passes. Otherwise we find some really nice drives in Switzerland, before reaching Lake Geneva and the borders of France. More or less Lake Geneva sits on both sides of the France and Switzerland border, and you could probably circle the lake in a couple of hours, although we failed to do so after a cyclist smashed into the back of our car near the Giant Fork of Vevey. And, slightly shook up, we instead made a dash for the borders into France, where we stayed in an Alpine chalet in the ski resort village of Chatel. Although the ski and snow are long-gone during summer months, and the slopes are instead taken over by trials and mountain bikes. (Here for hotels in Lake Geneva).
Without a doubt, the main attraction in the French Alps would be Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe, at least west of Russia’s Caucasus peaks. It really is iconic in the region. And to make the most of it, we decided to climb to the top of it, by cable car, which sets out from the famous French ski resort of Chamonix (leaving the from Aiguille du Midi). From here it is more or less a straight cable car to the top of the mountains, where we arrive just below the peak of Mont Blanc, where it sits pretty much opposite the arrival station (ticket prices here). Note, breathing is harder and can be somewhat uncomfortable at these heights (Fanfan struggled this time, although I had it worse at Jungfrau), and sunglasses do help against the blinding glare of the summer sun reflecting off the snow. Also at the station there’s a great photo-op with a glass booth (for complimentary photos) with the peak of Mont Blanc framed in the background behind. And we also paid the extra attraction for The Panoramic Mont Blanc Cable Car, the highest cable car in the world, which connects France to Italy at Point Helbronner. It is definitely worth paying the extra (we paid 86 Euros per person, all in). (Here for hotels in Chamonix-Mont-Blanc).
The past five days in the Swiss and French Alps were by far the most expensive of our travels to date, by a very long way. These parts of Europe are notoriously expensive, but they are no doubt worth it, as they really just once in a lifetime opportunities. However, we were now just very happy to return to the lower lands of France, where we would not have to worry about expensive travel, mountain itineraries, and of course the stress of driving in Italy. It has been a hectic week. And Annecy is the perfect place to escape it, a truly beautiful Alpine town, with cobbled streets, winding canals and pastel-coloured houses (although the town’s famous Palais de l’Isle was under renovation on our visit). But the relief to just potter around the canals, and eat free cheese and cold cut samples along the central markets, reminded me of everything I love about France. And of this road trip, Annecy is definitely the destination I’d love to go back to. Otherwise we had no time planned, and after circling Lake Annecy by road, which takes a leisurely hour or so, we are travelling north, to our next hotel stay in Burgundy. (Here for hotels in Annecy).
Unfortunately we are in a rush now to the finish line, and to the boat crossing from Roscoff to Rosslare which leaves in two days-time. So we pretty much have the cross the entire length of France, from east to west. But to make the most of the return journey we stop in Beaune, found in the famous winemaking region of Burgundy, just south of Champagne, and west of Sancerre. There’s a lot of wine in this part of France, and therefore, after our first time on the toll roads in France, we arrive to back-to-back vineyards. And in Beaune are sure to share at least one celebratory bottle, alongside beef bourguignon, a local which literally means ‘Beef Burgundy’. It’s from here. But otherwise we have no plans north of Paris, simply because we prefer the sunny southern destinations of the country (and I have already personally covered the north anyway. From Burgundy we then cross “Centre”, which is the actual name of this region of France (and like its name isn’t the most exciting) breaking up the journey in the famous car racing city of Le Mans. From there it is direct to the boat crossing, with a short stop at the supermarkets to pack the car full with boxes of cheap wine. (Here for hotels in Burgundy).