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.
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.
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.
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.