“France is great for touring by car – and it has an excellent road network,” says Auvergne-based Andrew Rossiter, founder of resource-packed trip-planning site about-france.com. From the North Sea to the sunny Mediterranean and from Brittany’s rugged coastline to the peaks of the Alps, he’s convinced there’s something for everyone here. (Not to mention, you drive on the right, just like at home.)
But if you only have time for one region, what are your options?
Rossiter’s recommendations start with a three-to-five-day trundle through the Loire Valley. “From Orleans, follow the Loire as far as Tours – via Blois – then down to the beautiful châteaux at D’Azay-le-Rideau and Ussé, just southwest of Tours. Then return along the Cher valley, taking in the fairytale château in Chenonceau and the great royal château at Chambord,” he says.
These final two landmarks are routinely crammed with summer tourists, but you can bypass the masses on Rossiter’s second route: a leisurely week-long southern France weave in his home region of Auvergne. “This is France off-the-beaten-track, an area of magnificent scenery with fine historic monuments.”
He suggests starting in Clermont-Ferrand, then driving south to Le Puy-en-Velay, via Ambert and La Chaise-Dieu. Return via Chavaniac-Lafayette, Lavoûte-Chilhac, Brioude and Issoire. “You’ll take in a variety of astonishing medieval castles and abbeys, a historic working paper mill and magnificent scenery with mountains and rocky gorges.”
While also recommending Cathar country – from Toulouse or Perpignan – for visitors keen to explore France’s Mediterranean hinterland, Rossiter suggests those of a foodie disposition should instead loosen their belts and head southwest to one of France’s gourmet capitals.
“It has to be the Dordogne, specifically the great gastronomic area known as Périgord Noir, located around the towns of Périgueux and Sarlat – which is also, reputedly, the country’s finest preserved medieval town.” Truffles and foie gras top the menus here, he adds, with a rich vein of traditional restaurants vying to outdo each other.
But before salivating too much, there are practicalities to consider when planning your road trip.
Rossiter recommends travelling during the less crowded months of September and October (or late-May to early June if you’re aiming for next year). If summer is set in stone, he advises back-road routes and booking ahead for accommodation. His site’s dedicated driving pages (about-france.com/travel) are stuffed with insider info on everything from route-planning to driving laws.
More than a soupçon of homework is definitely recommended, agrees British-based travel writer Oliver Berry (oliverberry.com), who has been covering France for years, notably for Lonely Planet. Mug-up on the rules of the road, “or you’ll be treated to some choice French gestures,” he says.
His main suggestion, though, is to avoid toll roads when possible – a key bugbear for drivers visiting France. “Get away from the auto routes. The minor N and D roads are usually much more scenic – and you also get to avoid the tolls.”
For Berry, “the classic French road trip is along the three Corniches on the Côte d’Azur between Nice and Monaco. It’s the French equivalent of California’s Highway 1 in terms of iconic driving.”
But his personal favourites are further afield. “The Alps top the list for views – there are some seriously epic roads over the high mountain passes. It’s also worth exploring the Jura region, a rugged mountain plateau little-known outside France. And I love the Languedoc area – particularly around the Parc National des Cévennes. It has stunning hills, dense forests, deep canyons and amazing cliff-side roads – visit in autumn for the colours and lighter crowds.”
If crowd-avoiding is your main motivation, Berry has one final suggestion. “Relatively few people visit the Massif Central – the spine of extinct volcanoes in France’s middle. There are lots of small, scenic roads between the villages here and it also offers great walking – plus some really rustic, traditional French food.”
OUR READERS WRITE
- Paris to Cap Ferrat on the back roads. No toll charges. @Jody_Robbins
- Fly into and pick up rental car at a regional airport to avoid nightmare Paris area traffic. Also, between noon and 2 p.m. the highways are much quieter as everyone stops for lunch – that’s the time to make good distances. Jackie Norris
- I just drove from Paris to Cannes to Barcelona to Paris. Warn your readers of the heavy tolls! The driving around Fayence is lovely. @caitlinagnew
- Set up home base in Arles in Provence. There are many perfect day trips possible to Avignon, Orange, Nîmes, St. Rémy, Les Baux and the Camargues. Picturesque and quiet roads, and small villages to visit, too. Howard Robertson
- Bonnieux to Lourmarin in Provence. Terrifying and beautiful. It’s dramatic, curvy, unpredictable, gorgeous, scary. Drop a pin on it on Google Maps and take it for a spin. @scoutmagazine
- Normandy for the sense of history and Bordeaux for the degustations, of course! Bordeaux also had beautiful scenery. @anngibbon
- Hubby and I just did the coast road in the south of France (D914, D114): wine country with a stop in Collioure. Gorgeous and worthwhile! Also Avignon, Aigues-Mortes and Arles (where van Gogh painted his best-known pieces). @anatingor
- For part-time drivers: take a train from Paris to Reims, stay overnight, rent a car and drive around the Champagne area. @advcardio
- Rent a GPS and know the general location where you intend on spending every night. There is roadwork and detours that will cause you grief and the road maps do not allow you to make fast decisions, or even know where you are! Mima Kapches
- I had a car and lived in Cassis for five months. You can’t see the south properly without a car – plus you can scoot to Italy and Spain. @jasonclampet
- Alsace! Great main city in Strasbourg. And a mix of German and French flavours in food and dialects. It’s also a lovely white wine region. The varied terrain is fun for driving. @runnergirl416
- Love the Loire and the castles. The Cote d’Azur can be great off season when the traffic is less. @HolidayBakerMan
- Is the Grand Corniche too cliché? For the views, the switchbacks and the setting – high above the Cote d’Azur. @Robsonian
- Saint Raphael to Cannes along the coast is stunning. The blue/green water along the way and then the mountains in the distance – also twisty roads and beautiful homes. @chowandchatter
- La Route Causses et Vallées de l’Hérault – and crossing the spectacular Gorges du Tarn in Millau, Languedoc. @FollowsummerGG
- Paris to Reims, down to Annecy, Dijon ending in Casis! It flows well and each destination offers a totally different experience. That was only half of my trip, too! @dobbernation
- Normandy with the D-Day beaches – Bayeux and Mont Saint Michel being the highlights. It’s an amazing place – I need to go back. @shionamc
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