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Provence by the fast route
If you’re going to bring back a useful amount of wine, you’ll need your car (this is where the travelogue starts).
Before you even get to the Channel, you need to know that there are two crucial differences between motorway driving in the UK and in France.
First, British motorways are free. The French autoroutes carry heavy tolls (péage ).
Second, British motorways rarely allow you to maintain a speed anywhere near the legal limit - instead, at the time of writing, you oscillate between 20mph (most of the time) and 90mph (occasionally), with frequent periods at a complete standstill. On French autoroutes you rarely encounter serious congestion and can usually cruise legally at 130km per hour (just under 85mph) for hours on end (I must confess that my speed tends to be nearer 100mph, with an eye on the mirror for the gendarmerie ).
This means that you can plan to cover vast distances in a day and almost guarantee to do it. In fact, the main enemies on French motorways are the deadly duo of fatigue and boredom from the absence of traffic. It’s essential to take regular breaks or swop drivers fairly frequently. Fortunately, the autoroutes have far more rest areas - known as aires and usually named after interesting local features - than our motorways. They range from simple picnic stops to small conurbations with motels and shopping complexes, but they all have at least basic toilet facilities.
So if you want to get to the South quickly, get on the péage - it costs quite a lot of money, but it’s money well spent. Anyway, what you save on the wine will recover it several times over. The only real problem is the profound shock you will experience when you drive out of the UK ferry port on the way home onto one of Britain’s wretched, clogged ’arterial’ routes.
The civilised alternative, of course, is to use the routes nationales, which cover the same routes, and to take several days seeing the sights. If you’re sensible enough to do that, take good maps, good guide books - and plenty of time. You’ll find some delightful places between the Channel and the Mediterranean.
Choosing a crossing
The very first time Wife Number Two and I went to France , we used P&O’s Felixstowe-Zeebrügge ferry because Felixstowe seemed a lot closer to Derby than Dover - and because I’d never driven on the notorious M25. This was a foolish move, because (traffic permitting) the drive from the Midlands to Dover takes no longer, if as long, but while the Zeebrügge ferry takes nearly five hours the Dover to Calais one takes only 75 minutes. Once the novelty of being ’at sea’ has worn off, five hours is a long time. And when all’s said and done Zeebrügge is a lot further from Provence (or even Paris) than Calais.
We finished that first holiday with a couple of days in Bruges, a few minutes’ drive from Zeebrügge, which was fine. But then we switched to P&O’s bigger, posher ferries and got to France a lot sooner. Even when we went back to Bruges for a short stay to celebrate my 50th birthday, we went via Calais - it’s only about an hour’s drive.
Then I discovered that Stena Line were doing cheaper deals through various agents. The atmosphere was less cruise-liner and more chippie-and-disco, but Stena had the added advantage that if you turned up at the port early or late you might get on their fast Lynx catamaran, which does the crossing rather more noisily and bumpily in 45 minutes.
Now that P&O have merged their Dover-Calais business with Stena’s, the savings - and the other differences - have presumably disappeared. However, it’s still worth shopping around for cheap deals.
I know people who prefer to take a long overnight crossing to Le Havre, but this only gets you a few kilometres nearer Provence. I’d rather have a cheap motel stop in France.
Last winter I started using Le Shuttle. Even slowed down by the repair work following the lorry fire, this is the ideal way for the blasé traveller to ignore the Channel. You can get cheap deals from the same agents - as little as £69 return for a car and passengers if you travel after 10pm on the way out, which is as cheap as Stena Line. (Contact the Euro Travel Club on 0990 502505 or have a look at their Web site .
The Chunnel is fast and never choppy, and the duty-free and tax-free shopping is the best I’ve seen yet in terms of both choice and cost. Pat and I got two bottles of Moët et Chandon’s ordinary Brut Impérial Champagne in a carton for £21 on our first trip (it was about £17 per bottle in my local supermarket), and a litre of my favourite Bombay Sapphire gin (47.5% alcohol rather than 40%) is a lot cheaper than a 75 cl bottle is here. It also has the advantage that you do all your shopping, ticket-bureaucracy, passport checks and customs controls on the departure side (when you have time on your hands anyway). Then, when you get to the other side, it’s off the train and go (or, on the way home, off the train and crawl).
Incidentally, all the operators I’ve used, including Le Shuttle (now called Eurotunnel), are quite happy to let you on an earlier crossing if you just turn up at the port or terminal, provided they have space, and if you miss your reservation they’ll allocate it to someone else and put you on a later crossing.
Crossings - 2003 update
Since Pat and I got together most of our trips have at least started at our house in Normandy. This is about three hours’ drive from Calais, so we started using Brittany Ferries’ excellent crossing from Portsmouth to Caen. The drive from Derby to Portsmouth is less stressful than that to Folkestone or Dover - you can rely on doing it in no more than 3½ hours. The ferries are superb, and for us the option of driving down in the evening, getting on the overnight crossing, going to bed and getting up an hour away from ’home’ is brilliant. We’ve also come back on an afternoon boat and had a superb four-course meal with wine on the way - very nice.
The long road south...
So, unless you’re lucky enough to live in Kent, your route is probably via the M25 and the Dartford crossing (it’s easier to use the auto-tolls now the rate has gone up from 90p to £1 and you don’t have to fish in your pocket for the right change) to the M20 and straight to the Channel Tunnel terminal or Dover docks.
When you get to Calais, follow the péage signs for Paris (A26). You’re en France !
Near Arras, there’s a major motorway junction. The A26 carries on towards Reims and the A1 heads for Paris. You can go either way. The distances to the south are similar but the extra traffic around Paris can be a problem, so I tend to use the Reims route unless I want to stop off in the capital.
Be careful around Reims - the urban motorway system can be a bit hectic, despite being a fraction of the size of Paris’s. Make sure you don’t take the A4 back towards Paris - you want the A4 towards Metz and Chalons-sur-Marne.
About 30km south of Reims, get off the A4 and back, mysteriously, onto the A26 heading for Troyes.
At the junction south of Troyes, follow the A5 (signs for Dijon and Lyon, not Paris), and near Chaumont take the A31 south to Dijon and Beaune.
For a long time we invariably used two chains of inexpensive French hotels - Campanile and Ibis - for short stops. Outside Paris a double room with bath and/or shower, TV and telephone in either costs between £30 and £35 a night at current rates.
Recently, the Campanile group has spawned an even cheaper offshoot, Première Classe, with rooms for three people (a double bed with a bunk over the head end!) for 149 francs (about £15.75). In reply, Ibis has come up with the Villages Hôtel, where virtually identical rooms start at 140 francs (£14.75). Both feature a sort of Tardis - a moulded plastic en-suite shower-room - and a TV but no phone. The rooms are basic but clean. You wouldn’t want to spend a fortnight’s holiday in one, but for an odd night they’re fine, and by UK standards absurdly cheap.
Incidentally, of all these, only Campaniles have any means of heating water for drinks. I carry a small electric travel kettle and a variety of adaptors. As a committed francophile who has spent many weeks self-catering in France, I have made up extension leads with UK 13amp trailing sockets and French 3-pin plugs. I’ve never yet been in a hotel room where I couldn’t find a socket, though they’re sometimes well hidden and are often, frighteningly, in the bathroom.
The great advantage of the super-cheap hotels is that you can turn up at 3am, stuff your credit card in something like a cash dispenser, have an on-screen dialogue with the computer in any European language and obtain key-codes for a room and the car-park gate. If your taste-buds have atrophied, you can even order a pre-packed breakfast, which will appear miraculously outside your door in the small hours (human intervention here, I suspect - the French are great at computer technology, but there are limits), though frankly if you’re satisfied with such a naff petit déjeuner you’re in the wrong country.
I have two basic schedules.
The first was the norm while Wife Number Two, a teacher, was still with me. Leaving Derby around 4pm (when they let the teachers out for their famously long holidays), we could usually get to Calais by around 11pm to midnight, regardless of the traffic on the M1 and the M25. A bit less than an hour on the Paris autoroute got us to the Hôtel Première Classe at Béthune.
A quarter-bottle of Marks and Spencer’s Champagne, drunk sitting up in bed from plastic picnic wineglasses at one o’clock in the morning, isn’t a bad way to celebrate your arrival in France.
Leaving early and stopping at the first full service area about 50 miles down the road for breakfast (no cellophane-wrapped rubbish for us), we could get to one of my favourite French cities, Beaune, in time for lunch and a visit to the supermarket, and then on to Jeff’s house in the Vaucluse in time to cook a late dinner.
The second schedule is tiring and really does need two drivers. Leaving Derby very early in the morning - say 5am to miss the worst of the London rush-hour - my co-driver and I can be in Beaune, 600 miles from home, in time to check in at one of a positive village of cheap hotels and go into town for dinner. There’s a Villages, a Relais Bleu and various others. This routine has the advantage of giving you both dinner and breakfast in Beaune.
A word about language
Back in 1959 I scraped an O-level GCE pass in French. Two years later, after much laborious study of Molière, de Maupassant and Zola in the original French, I managed another O-level. Then my French more-or-less went to sleep until 1990.
I had a hell of a job waking it up - not because it had rusted away in the intervening 29 years but because I failed to realise that, unlike us native Anglophones, whose mother tongue has become the Lingua Franca (there’s a pun there somewhere) for much of the planet, the French don’t expect all foreigners to be fluent French-speakers. So in my first face-to-face encounters with real French people on their native soil, I could scarcely open my mouth for fear of making a fool of myself.
The problem was that I knew I should have masses of French tucked away somewhere in my subconscious, but I had absolutely no confidence that I would be able to find the right bits at the right times. And I believed that this would matter.
By contrast, Wife Number Two--who had a small vocabulary and absolutely no grammar, was relatively uninhibited in trying to communicate.
After a few days, it dawned on me that what really mattered was to try . An Englishman approaching a French person on French soil and speaking English deserves everything he gets - or, rather, doesn’t get. That same Englishman, managing to squeeze out ‘ Bonjour, madame. Excusez-moi. Je ne parle pas Français bien ’ (‘Good day, madam. Forgive me. I don’t speak French well’), is likely to get a sympathetic reception, a compliment about the quality of his French and all the help he needs in reasonably fluent English.
(The ‘madame’ in this example is crucial - and awkward for the British. We don’t normally address strangers as anything - ‘Excuse me. Can you tell me the time, please?’ is perfectly acceptable here. In the Anglophone USA ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ are used more commonly. But in France ‘monsieur’, ‘madame’ and ‘mademoiselle’ are essential courtesies. Do get into the habit of using them - it soon becomes second nature.)
So the simple advice is: however little French you know, use it. If you don’t know any French, it’s common courtesy to learn a few phrases before you set foot in France. Buy one of those phrase-books that come with an audio cassette - Langenscheidt’s Jiffy Phrasebooks are excellent. Listen to the tape once or twice while following it with the book and noting absolutely essential bits, then just leave it running in your car so that you can practise the sounds and rhythms of the language.
This will be money and time well spent. You’ll find the French a much more courteous people, generally, than the British, and if you approach them in the right way they’ll usually be happy to help you. If you insist on being the superior Brit abroad, simply shouting louder in English when they don’t understand you, you’ll have only yourself to blame when you’re treated like an ignorant pig.
Beaune is a small, manageable city about 30km south of the capital of Burgundy, Dijon. It’s a prosperous, well-kept place on one of the most important motorway crossroads in France. From the north-west comes the Paris road, the A6. From the north, past Dijon, comes the A31, running smoothly on to become the Autoroute du Soleil , the road to the Riviera (rather arrogantly, the Paris road hijacks this at Beaune, making it the A6). Then off to the north-east runs the A36 to Besançon and Mulhouse, the gateway to Germany and Switzerland.
The A6 south of the Beaune junction is one of the widest and busiest of French motorways, requiring a cool nerve on busy holiday Saturdays as the traffic thunders down it, six lanes abreast in places, with French, Dutch, Belgian, Swiss, Italian and the more intrepid British drivers dodging from lane to lane at 90 to 100 miles an hour.
But turn off the autoroute, pay your toll and drive a couple of kilometres west and you’re in a different world. The ancient city of Beaune welcomes you by rattling your suspension with its cobbles, and you can usually drive straight into the very centre and find an empty parking space in the shade of the plane trees in Place Carnot (unless you arrive on Saturday morning when the whole square is filled with a busy market). Push a few francs in the horrodateur (the meter which, in the civilised way of French parking meters, will grant you two free hours for lunch between noon and 2pm), drop the ticket on your dashboard and just amble.
If you’re interested in the great wines of Burgundy, you’re in the right place. Every other shop is an outlet for one or other of Beaune’s producers or merchants. I’m content to drool over the great names - Gevrey-Chambertin, Nuits Saint-Georges, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Clos de Vougeot…
If I’m feeling flush, I might pick up a couple of bottles of a modest Petit Chablis (a marque I first discovered in a splendid Beaune restaurant, Le Caveau des Arches ), but what I always buy is one of the other essential alcoholic products of the region: fruit liqueurs.
First it was Crème de Cassis , thick and syrupy and only 18% alcohol, but filling the mouth with a sensational blast of blackcurrant ( cassis is French for blackcurrant, as well as the name of a small fishing port just outside Marseille where they make remarkably good reds, whites and rosés).
Put a small amount in the bottom of a wineglass and top up with a dry white wine - the local Bourgogne Aligoté is the classic - and you have a kir , the archetypal aperitif of Burgundy. Don’t overdo the liqueur - if you do, the mixture will end up tasting like the sort of sweet English ‘sherry’ that wino’s drink. I remember making a very bad choice of restaurant in Paris once: the fixed-price menu included a kir in which dubious Crème de Cassis had obviously been used rather liberally to mask even more dubious wine; the result was quite disgusting.
Replace the still wine with Crémant de Bourgogne , Burgundy’s highly cost-effective answer to Champagne at under a fiver a bottle, and you have kir royale - trouble is, you’ll never want a flat one again. (Kriter is another modestly-priced fizz, actually made in Beaune, which is an ideal mate for cassis.)
Go the whole hog with Champagne and you have kir impériale - for me, this is a step too far, a gross abuse of one of the pinnacles of European culture.
I did the 600-mile twelve-hour high-speed drive from the English Midlands to Beaune single-handed once, before Wife Number Two started driving in France, using the ferry to get a decent break, and when I climbed out of the car in Place Carnot I could hardly stand up. My legs were wobbling and I was dizzy. We went straight to a restaurant and had a kir royale . By the time the glass was empty I felt ready for anything - anything in this case being a dozen escargots (in Burgundy they don’t do the pretentious trick of sticking the cooked snails back into their shells so you have to hook them out again - they have special dishes with twelve recesses to hold the rubbery meat and generous quantities of the delicious herb-and-garlic butter which is the real point of the dish), Boeuf Bourguignonne and Crème Brûlée. I’ve had the same effect with a coupe de Champagne. Both are quite remarkable pick-me-ups - as is Italy's legendary dessert, tiramisú (the name literally means 'pull me up' ) - capable of reviving anyone who isn’t already dead.
So buy some Crème de Cassis . The best one I’ve found is the Double Crème de Cassis de Nuits Saint-Georges made by Védrienne. It comes in an ordinary Burgundy bottle with a real cork sealed in with hard red wax (chip it off carefully and you’ll have another bottle for your wine) and a very simple off-white label.
While you’re at it, buy some Crème de Mûres Sauvages too. This makes an even better kir than cassis , with a delicate scent of the best wild blackberries you can imagine. Then there’s framboise (raspberry), fraise (strawberry) and griotte (a particularly delicious cherry which the French tend to keep for themselves). Many restaurants now offer a whole range of flavourings in their kirs .
The other thing you should buy in Beaune is mustard. You’ve heard of Dijon mustard? Well, if you’re following my route, you passed Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, about half an hour before you parked in Beaune. Look in the shops that sell wine and liqueurs: you’ll find a variety of mustards there too. I’ve bought white wine mustard, bright green tarragon mustard and various other kinds, which were all of very fine quality and truly delicious. The one thing I never found in Beaune was anything remotely like the over-spiced, over-vinegared confection sold in this country as ‘French mustard’.
Beaune is richly endowed with restaurants ranging from cheap-and-cheerful to seriously serious. One of my favourites is the Union Bar and Brasserie, which is really nothing more than the local pub. Leave Place Carnot by the rue d’Alsace, cross the ring road at the traffic lights (do wait for the little green man - this one-way racetrack is lethal), and carry on a little further. You’ll find the Union on the left just before you go into the big square. There are tables inside, there’s a little terrace immediately outside and there’s a larger and more elegant outdoor area across the road, under the plane trees in the square.
For a long time this establishment faced me with one of the great culinary mysteries. Wife Number Two was - and presumably still is - besotted with its Salade de saison et pétoncles . The pétoncles were perfect little cylinders of white meat, clearly shellfish from their taste, deliciously fried in garlic butter and served hot on the cool salad. For ages I failed dismally to find out what they were - at one stage I was convinced they were razorshells cut into neat slices. The mystery was finally solved in a hypermarket, when I found a bag of noix de pétoncles in a freezer cabinet, complete with orange new-moons of coral. Pétoncles are queen scallops, tiny, succulent and delicious. Now I always buy a bag of frozen pétoncles at my last hypermarket stop on the way home, and cook them for supper when I arrive. But I digress…
The other dish that became a regular at the Union is Salade aux foies blonds - also a mix of hot meat on cold salad. This time it’s flash-fried chicken livers, still a little pink in the middle. I haven’t researched the secrets of the chicken liver, but when you buy a bag of frozen ones from the last surviving stall in Derby’s poultry market some are dark red-brown and some are lighter. Why the chef at the Union favours the blond livers - and what the difference is - I have yet to discover.
There is a whole cluster of cheap hotels between the autoroute and the centre of Beaune, but you will also find some quaint and inexpensive ones in the centre itself. There are a couple on the rue d’Alsace near the Union Bar - much handier, because you can walk to your chosen restaurant and totter back, full of kir and wine and a digestif (Cognac or whatever).
Beaune deserves at least a full day, so if you can spare the time stop over for two nights and explore. If you have even more time, drop off the motorway south of Dijon and follow the wine road past all those magical Burgundian names to Beaune itself. I have yet to visit any of the grand châteaux myself - too busy buying sensibly-priced wines. Which reminds me...
On to the Côtes du Rhône
From Beaune the job is a simple one: get on the southbound A6 and just motor. For some unexplained reason, the road becomes the A7 after Lyon - the A6 just seems to vanish.
Junction 19 of the A7 is at Bollène, north of Avignon, and is the gateway to my own favourite wine-hunting territory...
Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.
This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.