Driving South Through France – Just How Far is Enough?

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The long drive on holiday in France is always worth it, but where is the tipping point when a family holiday drive becomes just too much work?

It takes all sorts to make up this world and it seems that there is quite a variety in the approach of different people to the family holiday in France with a car.

For some (and particularly those doing it for the first time), they decide that they won’t travel any more than 2-3 hours in the car, and since the vast majority want to be by the sea, it means that they end up somewhere in Southern Brittany. It’s a good choice – the Bretons are among the most welcoming nationalities in France and they’re very well-informed about and familiar with Ireland and its history. Brittany is crucially a few degrees warmer than Ireland too, so it suits a lot of tastes.

Then there are those who feel that another 3-4 hours won’t kill them seeing as they’re on the road anyway. Plus, if they’ve already driven in France, they’ll have discovered that, not only are the roads of a far superior standard generally, they also have great facilities for stopping en route. The aires on the French main roads and motorways (note – there are no toll motorways in Brittany due to an ancient law; hence, the speed limit of 110km/h and not 130km/h applies) are not just places to pull for a toilet/coffee/sandwich/fuel stop, they are areas that do just like their names sound like they do – i.e. they refresh the senses completely; for the driver, the passengers, the children and your vehicle. They have real, un-vandalised, well-maintained picnic tables with dustbins that aren’t overflowing. They usually have large clean toilet facilities, washing-up facilities and green spaces for drivers and co-pilots to stretch out in and for children to run around in. Some aires have playgrounds. Many of the bigger ones will have decent-sized indoor shopping centres and a choice of restaurants. Some even have showers.

Relaxing at an exceptional aire by the famous Viaduc de Millau - a stop with restaurants, toilets, picnic tables and... a museum, with one of the world's tallest bridge in the background.

Relaxing at an exceptional aire by the famous Viaduc de Millau – a stop with restaurants, toilets, picnic tables and… a museum, with one of the world’s tallest bridge in the background.

If you stretch to five or six hours from either Roscoff or Cherbourg, then you’ll be in warmer climes for sure – well below the Loire Valley to where the roof tiles are predominantly red (and not black, like in Brittany) and you can hear the sound of the cicadas. Again, it depends on when you arrive at port and on what day. If you arrive on a Sunday morning very early, then it’s an ideal time to make up the hours while the rest of the country is resting.

If you’re going to go try and make all the way down to the Mediterranean Coast in one day, then you do need to have a little think about it. Personally, I love that sort of thing. It’s like living in a real-live road movie of your own making. Nowadays, Google Maps and/or your sat-nav will give you a very accurate picture of both the time it will take and the cost of the journey in fuel and tolls. Even more accurate in that regard, incidentally, is the Michelin website.

It’s a ten-hour drive if you keep your stops nice and tidy. I would advise a picnic stop around the level of Nantes, followed by two or three more en route, to ensure that you don’t get too sleepy. Expressos do it for me (that’s what the French call them – not expressos) and I found that I needed about two such stops during the first 2-3 hours. In fact, I wondered whether I was going to make it at all. If I felt this tired after three hours, then how could I possibly drive for another seven hours?

But somehow, around the level of between La Rochelle and Bordeaux, I began to settle into a sort-of acceptance of my exhaustion and I settled into the role of a long-distance driver. So, whether or not it had anything to do with the excitement of passing increasing numbers of vineyards and watching the temperature gauge rise from about 15 degrees up to 30, a steady but unshakeable kind of second wind kicked in so that by the time we got to Agde at the end of the line at about 7pm, I felt ready for another 1,000km. We all jumped out of car shouting “Hurray!”

So what’s my advice? I think that it really depends on the individuals concerned first and foremost, but what I will say is that, having driven all the different distances from 2.5 hours to 10, once you’re all on board both physically and psychologically, then there isn’t a great difficulty in going for the maximum distance and I’ve found it much harder to do two days of five-hour drives (that will always turn into six or seven) than to do one day of a ten-hour shift behind the wheel.

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