23 June 2010

Driving to France and need a stopover?

As a veteran of numerous driving holidays in France, I often get asked about the best way to break the long journey to the south, south-west or south-east. While some people prefer to collapse in an anonymous Formula One hotel on the outskirts of a town, others like something with more character. Everyone has their favourites, and here are a few of mine.

1. Azay-le-Rideau
This village in the Loire Valley is just past Tours. It's an enchanting little place, with a small square with a couple of decent restaurants. There's also a very good restaurant called Les Grottes a few minutes' walk from the centre. But Azay's star attraction is its chateau, a Renaissance confection that sits on its own island in the Indre river. It's worth a visit during the day, and the same ticket will give you entry into the nightly son-et-lumière show, which is a delight on a balmy summer's night. The Hotel de Biencourt (www.hotelbiencourt.com) is cheap, cheerful and within view of the chateau.

2. Bourges
It's almost in the dead centre of France, and about a six-hour drive from Calais. Time your journey right and you could squeeze in a late-afternoon swim in the pool at the Hotel Les Tilleuls (www.les-tilleuls.com). The hotel is just outside the centre of this attractive walled Gallo-Roman town and by the time you've refreshed yourself with a swim, you'll be ready for the 15-minute walk into town for dinner.

3. Orléans
If you've survived driving round the périphérique in Paris and feel you need some time to recover, then Orléans is just another 90 minutes south. It's a pleasant town on the Loire, with a lively pedestrianised area. Head to the streets around Rue de Bourgogne for an apéritif and dinner among one of the many restaurants in the traffic-free area.

4. Lyon
It's a bit of a schlep from the Channel, but Lyon is one of the great overlooked cities in France. Too many people zoom past it in the rush to get to the south, but it's worth a weekend break in itself. It's rather like Paris on a more human scale. The central Presqu'Île area has a big range of hotels and lots of parking, and it's only a hop across the bridge if you want to explore the old town. If you're around for only one evening, walk up to Rue Mercière, a pedestrianised street parallel to the Quai St-Antoine by the river Saône, where there's an excellent choice of restaurants.

There are plenty of others, such as Clermont-Ferrand if you're travelling east-west. I've also stopped at Dijon, which I have to admit disappointed me. I'd be interested to hear if anyone else has any favourite stopovers in France.

15 June 2010

Train power

After a mad few months watching ash clouds and British Airways strikes wreck everyone's travel plans, I couldn't help but feel incredibly smug when I took the train to France a few weeks ago. No worries about disruption, nor any of the usual annoyances that come with flying. No having to take half your clothes off or keep liquids separate. No worries about keeping to within miserly baggage allowances that threaten to charge you the earth for exceeding them. Just a simple stroll through an X-ray machine and straight on to the train.

Two hours and 20 minutes later, I arrived in the Gare du Nord in Paris, with plenty of time to catch the RER to the Gare de Lyon and buy a baguette, cheese and some saucisson at a local supermarket. Then a leisurely journey of two hours and 40 minutes to Avignon on the TGV, made more pleasant by my picnic lunch. I remember a train journey I took a few years ago, watching an elderly Frenchwoman spread a little red-checked cloth on her fold-down tray before she carefully spread some pâté and cheese on to a baguette. They take lunch seriously, the French, even on a train.

The journey back was via Lille, so I had a good few hours to get some work done on my laptop, eat more cheese and saucisson, this time washed down with some wine. Then back on the Eurostar and home – which is when things fell apart, as my local train was cancelled and I had to get a cab. Trust Britain to let the side down.

Yes, I know French trains aren't infallible. Just after Christmas 2009, heavy snow created havoc on the Eurostar services in and out of London. Funnily enough, I was set to take the train down to the Pyrénées a few days later, but the gods had been working overtime and got things back to normal by that time. Similarly, when the Channel Tunnel caught fire in September 2008, I happened to be on the Eurostar that had left 90 minutes earlier. And even on this most recent train journey, the French railway workers were going on strike the day after I left France. And, the day before I left Britain, thieves had stolen copper cable on the line between Paris and Calais and caused massive delays. Either I have the most amazing luck or there's some impish force at work whose sole purpose is to disrupt other travellers. I prefer to think it's the former.

Check out train fares and timetables at www.raileurope.co.uk