France has always been a popular destination in July and August being just across the channel. I remember going on some great holidays there when I was a child, my poor dad having to keep us occupied on the long drives whilst all I remember was tormenting my younger brother and having a great time! I’ve just spent the last 2 weeks driving through France and what a vastly different experience it was. Less arduous motorways, more quaint villages with delicious plats du jour. Less arguing with my brother, more scenic stopovers for glimpses of castles or fresh mountain cheese. This trip was done on a budget, but that’s no easy task in France. You have to be crafty and willing to take your time, but it is possible to do it and get a lot out of it. Want to know how to make the most of your drive through France? You’re in the right place.
Pick the right starting point
We started our journey in Dieppe, Normandy, a much more convenient landing place when driving south. A stop in Rouen is a must; it’s a gorgeous cobbled street town famous for burning Joan of Arc at the stake but the main draw is the laid back plaza culture and authentic architecture. The light show on the cathedral at sundown is also pretty spectacular.
Avoid the toll roads
We chose to take the free roads to make our trip much cheaper, but it’s actually far more enjoyable because you get to see the real France, away from the major tourist spots. Just make sure to plan your itinerary well so that you don’t do more than 5 hours of driving per day. Look out for green signs to your destination which signals the free road, or download Nokia Here’s free map app and set your preferences to avoid toll roads. This will take you through some quaint little towns with great boulangeries and pâtisseries for a quick lunch, or look out for good value plat du jour menus which are usually advertised outside little bistros. If you want to plan your route and check out the cost of the tolls to see where it might be beneficial to use them, use ViaMichelin for an easy calculation tool.
Enjoy the castles
For me, the castles in one of the most unique and enjoyable parts of France. We’ve been all around the world this year, and I can tell you nowhere else in the world has such beautiful, well preserved structures with such detailed information available to learn about the history that created them. The Loire Valley is where you’ll find most of them, base yourself in Angers or Samur and spend a few days exploring. Alencon is a lovely town to stop off in on your way here. Some castles are free ruins, little gems found by the side of the road. Others like the immense Château d’Anjou or Chambord and far bigger and need at least a couple of hours to explore, worth every penny but free if you’re under 25. This is also a fabulous region for wine, so try and stop off at some vineyards, do a tasting and grab a bottle, what a perfect souvenir.
Wine country isn’t just for wine lovers
St Emilion was one of my highlights in France, a small, immaculately preserved medieval town surrounded by a stunning landscape of castles and vineyards as far as the eye can see. Even if you don’t drink wine, it’s too beautiful to miss. This is the perfect day trip from Bordeaux, another impossibly beautiful town. Can you sense a theme yet? Restaurants here are numerous, delicious and expensive, be sure to make reservations for the fancy ones. If you’ve had enough of fine dining, I highly suggest you eat at Ragazzi da Peppone excellent pizza and desserts at a bargain price. This whole area is a great for a couple of days, more if you want to spend some time at the beach.
Venture across the Mountains
Some of the most gorgeous scenery is found in the Pyrenees and the Alps, it’s not just for winter sports you know! Do something different and drive through either mountain range, and while you’re at it why not spend a day in one of the bordering countries? If you choose the Pyrenees and you’ll end up in Spain, a fine excuse for some tapas and sangria. The road takes you through Pau and Borce in France and some tiny towns in Spain but the lake in Jaca really steals the show. Spend a few days in the mountain air or continue over to Barcelona or the Costa Brava after a night of well earned rest, where you’ll find great beaches, hotels and restaurants far cheaper than France. If you choose the Alps, look out for fromage signs to point you in the direction of some tasty fresh mountain cheese!
Drive along the Cote D’Azur
This is where most people are heading on their road trips to the South of France, and it’s easy to see why. The sea is such a tremendous shade of blue and the weather is usually perfect. The popular town of Nice is the ideal place to stay, with a captivating old quarter full of cobbled streets and delicious French Restaurants. This blog has the best tips and tricks for avoiding tourist traps here. A drive over to Monaco will reward you with stunning views of the ocean, mountains and mansions dotting the hillside. Stop for a glass of rose en route, it might be the best you’ve ever had.
Pop over to Italy for some Pizza
Why not! it’s so close you can almost smell the bubbling mozzarella! It’s a short drive to Genova, a delightful port town with a lively marina and charming old quarter. Stay here for a night or two and go further into Italy if you have time, or head up to Turin, an unexpectedly excellent town. We had no idea it was such a burgeoning town full of Roman history, great food, great people and alluring views of The Alps. Bogetta Baretti is the place to go for what might be the best pizza of your life.
My list is truly endless for France, there are so many lovely towns to explore and the best advice I can give is to be flexible and take your time. If budget isn’t a problem there’ll always be somewhere to stay, get on the free wifi and book somewhere on the road or look around when you get into town. If you’re more budget conscious consider planning the trip a bit more so you can find good deals or use airbnb for even cheaper options. Just try and be as free as possible because you never know what charming experience might be around the corner in this magnificent country.
For help planning a trip through France perfectly tailored to your tastes, be it wine, food, beaches or bell towers, get in touch to see how I can help.