08 May 2009

Take a break

It's been a few years since I've had the time to take a long, leisurely driving holiday through France, and I really miss the pleasure of finding the perfect stopover. I've never been a fan of doing as many miles as possible before collapsing in a cheap Formula One hotel on the fringe of town late at night. It might be a cheap option, but you miss out on so much fun.

One year, after driving for six hours from  Calais we ended up in Bourges, which is almost exactly in the centre of France. Not only did the hotel have a swimming pool, but we also arrived on the day of France's FĂȘte de la Musique. Every 21 June, the entire country erupts in song and everyone fills the streets to listen to the music. There's a wonderful carnival atmosphere that doesn't spill over into complete mayhem. What a fantastic start to a holiday.

Sometimes a stopover promises more than it delivers. I thought Dijon would be a charming place to rest on the long journey south. Great mustard, shame about the restaurants. We spent hours wandering around looking for the usual street of restaurants you get in a decent-sized French city until we finally stumbled upon a collection of bistros clustered along a short pedestrianised alleyway. And that was about it. I was expecting more from a city that size.

Other times you come across a place and wish you could spend more than one night. While travelling from south-west France to Annecy near the Swiss border, we broke our journey in Clermont-Ferrand, capital of the Auvergne. I knew a little about the home of Michelin tyres, mainly from a friend of a friend who was desperate to escape the place. That mystified me, as I found it a joy to explore. It's not very often you come across an enormous cathedral made from black volcanic rock. And then we fell into cheese heaven at a funky little restaurant that did brilliant fondues, raclettes and tartiflettes. I've been trying to go back ever since.

And then there's Lyon, which is criminally overlooked in the mad dash to the Med. France's gastronomic capital is like Paris on a more human scale. There are plenty of affordable hotels on the Presque'Ile, the peninsula in the centre of town. The old town has not one but two Roman arenas and wonderful views from the hilltop basilica. The first time we went to Lyon, a one-night stopover easily turned into two.

I'm always on the lookout for good stopovers, so if anyone has any suggestions, I'd be happy to hear them.

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