A TORTOISE THROUGH FRANCE
A MORE SEDATE APPROACH TO DRIVING
950 MILES ACROSS A BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY.
When heading to France on holiday, the seemingly slender stretch of water between England and France, tends to have a curious effect on many British drivers and their fellow travellers.
Taking the ferry from Dover to Calais, or driving to Folkestone in order to travel beneath the water on the train, their sole desire on arrival in Calais appears to be to escape south to their final destination and as rapidly as possible. There is little, or even no passion to digest and absorb the northern departments of the beautiful country that they have just arrived in.
Perhaps in certain respects, this is perfectly understandable. In France and in particular the south of the country, they have warmth and something round and yellow in the sky called the sun, which let’s face it, doesn’t appear quite so regularly in the persistent murky grey gloom that generally hangs over us in the UK.
If you are in a hurry, motorways invariably offer the most effective way of getting from A to B and unless the surrounding views are captivating, there is a natural tendency to get the drive over and done with quickly and methodically. Why spend time in an area that looks deadly dull from the snaking lanes of a motorway, when you could be basking in the sun, toes in swimming pool, fruit-ripening vineyards in view and with a soothingly chilled glass of rosé wine in your hand?
Depending on the final destination, the drive from Calais to the far south can take anything from between 10 and 12 hours and that is without stopping. In order to escape the UK and arrive on the same day in the South of France, it therefore becomes necessary to depart more or less in the middle of the night.
At any time, it would be difficult to consider this as the perfect option. By the time the journey has been completed, the driver and most likely any passengers as well, are sure to be tired, hot, aching from lack of movement and decidedly tetchy, if not downright grumpy. Hardly the most pleasurable way of launching everyone into that idyllic and supposedly restful holiday in the sun.
If the roads are clear, this is of course possible, but if travelling in France in July or August, it is a certainty that there will be long delays, due either to volume of traffic, or accidents, or both. At any time of year, sitting in a traffic jam passing through Lyon needs to be factored into the final journey time.
In the past, I too have been guilty of putting the blinkers on, aiming the car resolutely south and of applying considerable pressure through the right foot onto the accelerator pedal, in order to arrive at my final destination in Provence, or the Corbières AOC wine region of the Aude, as swiftly as possible.
However, this year, due to various Covid-19 related issues in both France and the UK, I decided on a different strategy for getting there and back and if you have the luxury of time, then this is by far the most enjoyable way to both begin and end a holiday.
To avoid that horribly early departure from home in the small hours of the night, and leave at a time avoiding the rush hour, it is preferable to select a first stop on the journey in France, not that far from Calais.
No more than a 40 minute drive from the Eurotunnel terminal in Calais, Château Tilques is ideally situated for a perfect, restful and uncomplicated first day of travel. With check in at 16.00 on the day, a leisurely breakfast can be enjoyed in London, before packing up the car and sedately heading off to Folkestone to drive onto the train.
Seen from the motorway, much of northern France comes across as supremely flat and unfortunately, visually quite uninteresting. The reason for this being that many millions of years ago, from the South Downs in England, to a considerable way into northern France, a vast but shallow sea existed and the mostly flat surface that we drive along these days, is the long ago dried out bed of that sea.
The first signs of hills appear in Laon and then the Montagne de Reims in the heart of the Champagne region, a two and a half and three hour drive respectively from Calais. These sudden, almost out of place visual eruptions are the results of two earthquakes, some 30 and then 10 million years ago.
Added to this, it was only as recently as 1947 that French farmers discovered that the soil beneath the trees in the forests that cover the plains of Champagne, south and east of Reims, was in fact ideally suited for growing wheat. The lumberjacks came in, most of the trees were removed, the land turned into sweeping fields and much money was made from the new crops. This area is often referred to as the Kansas of France, but the truth is, it isn’t particularly interesting to gaze at from the motorways that pass through it! Today, it has also become a hot spot for wind farms.
If you are prepared to journey off these motorways though and explore the countryside of northern France, then you will be pleasantly surprised by the characteristics of the villages and towns that greet you. There are also some wonderful and often traffic free roads to drive along and the scenery in a blissfully open way, is far more stimulating.
Château Tilques (now part of the Najeti Hôtels group), built in 1891 and on the outskirts of St. Omer, is in an area of northern France these days referred to as French Flanders and the building itself, is an impressive example of neo-Flemish architecture.
Although now very much a part of France, this area of the country has seen its fair share of conflict, with numerous occupations taking place over the past 1000 years. At various times, both the English and Spanish have claimed it as theirs and even as recently as the second World War, the Germans had a foothold here (a nearby ‘attraction’ is La Coupole, an underground missile bunker, where the Germans were hoping to launch a major V2 rocket offensive towards London. Fortunately, the war ended before they had the chance to fire a single rocket from this particular spot. If they had succeeded with the project, London would have been totally destroyed by the bombardment).
The hotel really does tick all of the boxes. If peace and calm are high up on your list of holiday requirements, this will suit you just fine. Set in its own parkland, with no buildings nearby, parking is easy, the staff very helpful and you will feel instantly wrapped in a blanket of tranquillity. This is a perfect start to your break and the pre-dinner aperitif of ‘Kir Vin Blanc avec Crème de Mûre’, was both generous and perfectly balanced and an absolute steal at €6 a glass! On a warm day, drinks can be taken outside. This is preferable to being indoors, as the only area in the hotel that seems to lack character is the somewhat austere and functional bar. The main restaurant, an old converted barn, is in a separate building and is spacious as well as being excellent. The menu is short and quite simple (perfectly cooked beef fillet steak and delicious Sea Bream), with a limited, but interesting and inexpensive wine list.
If you have the time, a stroll into St. Omer is also recommended. Even though you will need to walk along the local roads until you reach the town itself (it takes about an hour each way), there is little in the way of traffic and it is a pleasant opportunity to view the various styles of architecture that are a feature of the area. St. Omer has a very impressive main square, with numerous bars and restaurants and plenty of outside seating for sunnier days. There are also some exceedingly inviting boutique chocolate shops!
Apart from the architecture (and quite possibly the chocolate shops), this area of France is also well-known for its breweries! On the above mentioned walk, I discovered the delights of La Goudale beer. It was only after the second glass however that I realised that being so close to Belgium, this was a high alcohol beer at 7.2%! It didn’t matter though, as I wasn’t driving and in any case, it was the first day of my holiday!
Breakfast the following morning was included and for a hotel, typically French. Croissants, baguettes, slices of cheese and ham and really quite dreadful coffee (as weak coffee is what I am accustomed to drinking in France, I am rarely disappointed)!
Comfortably in a holiday state of being, it was time to move on to the next stop. With no need to rush, time could be taken exploring some of the countryside away from the motorway. As indicated, this part of France is as flat as it comes, but there is a distinct charm about driving through villages, even though as not a soul or even a stray dog is spotted, it would seem that no one actually lives in them.
The drive from northern France to the Côte d’Azur, will take you through some high profile wine regions, starting with Champagne. Depending on which way you go, Chablis (at the most northern tip of Burgundy) is next up, followed by the main body of Burgundy (including the wines of Mâcon and Beaujolais) and then after Lyon the vast variety on offer from the vineyards of the Northern (Côte Rotie, Hermitage and Condrieu) and Southern Rhone appellations (Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Châteauneuf-du-Pape).
Despite the fact that Champagne is the closest wine region of France to the UK, surprisingly few British motorists take the time out to stop there. This is nothing short of a tragedy, as apart from providing an opportunity to explore the complexities and delights of the ‘wine of celebration’, stretching back at least as far as 486 AD, the area itself is steeped in history.
Both the 11th Century Basilique Saint-Remi and the 13th Century Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims are well worth a visit. Should you be tempted to purchase a few bottles of champagne after visiting the latter, the Cave des Sacres (https://www.cavedessacres.com/fr/) has an excellent selection of small producer champagnes, at not that much more than you would pay at the door in the various villages in which they are created. This shop is conveniently less than a two minute walk from the west doors of the cathedral and parking nearby is relatively easy.
Perhaps the reluctance by many British drivers to spend time in Champagne is more due to the fact that on the way down, it might be too close to Calais (a three hour drive) and on the way north, there is such momentum to get back, that a stop so close to home would just be too irritating and possibly at the end of a holiday, rather depressing. Stopping in Reims might only prolong the agony and sadness attached to the final days of a holiday.
Matters aren’t helped by the fact that even if you stray off the autoroute in Reims, it is still not an insignificant drive (much of it along winding roads) to the nearest Grand and Premier Cru villages and their Recoltant Manipulant growers (RMs are mostly small family run businesses that mainly nurture their own land and vines and follow the champagne making process from start to finish). The significantly larger Negociant Manipulant (NM) producers may well own some of their own vines/vineyards, but in order to meet demand, will purchase grapes or juice from RM suppliers and others from across the area, in order to create their Cuvées (blends). By mixing together a high number of wines from multiple years, they manage to create the same style year in year out. Due to their more modest size, a lack of production volume and steady sales at the door, most RM producers feel little need to export to other countries and as such are not so easy to find in the UK. I find though that the good RM producers, with more of a focus on the specific grape varieties grown in their villages, bring more of a sense of ‘terroir’ to the wines and are often of greater interest and character than the more ‘generic’ NM base champagnes available in the high street.
A gentle 5 hour drive due south and east of Tilques (mostly away from the motorway on the D roads), in the Haute-Marne department, is the village of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises.
This seemingly sleepy village is well-known for two very different reasons. Firstly, within the village is the previous home (La Boisserie) and resting place of Charles de Gaulle, the French army officer and statesman. There is also a memorial and museum dedicated to his life and achievements. Secondly, this is the village where the one ‘étoile’ (star) Michelin restaurant and hotel, Hostellerie la Montagne and its chef, Jean-Baptiste Natali are to be found.
The beautiful old building housing the restaurant has far reaching views from the garden, across the plains of this southern part of the Champagne region. Rooms in buildings within the gardens are spacious and comfortable and not too pricey.
The evening meal was sublime, with some of the most interestingly prepared and cooked beef that I have ever tasted, washed down with a bottle of Rosé des Riceys, a still red wine from the Aube. Breakfast was fit for a king and from what can be gathered, chef Natali is on target for a ‘deuxieme étoile’. If you find yourself in the area, Hostellerie la Montagne certainly merits a detour. The meal was truly spectacular and worth every single euro spent!
The following day, the longest drive of the trip south took place. Setting off from Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, Dijon and the next wine area of Burgundy soon appear.
Whilst I love to stop in Burgundy, there is so much to discover and to do, see and drink, that considerably more than a day is required to truly satisfy the soul and the taste buds. Tickling it with an overnight stop at this stage would simply be too much of a tease!
Thus it made sense to get to the other side of Lyon and on to the Drôme, where the sun shines for more days in the year than further north and landscapes and sunsets gradually turn into something increasingly dramatic and equally special (the wine isn’t too bad either).
As a child, nougat was a favourite treat of mine and I was never happier than when it came from Montélimar, the world capital of this tooth filling removing sweet.
Just south of Montélimar, in Malataverne and not far from the A7 Autoroute, is the Domaine du Colombier.
Formerly a 14th century Bastide country house and inn for pilgrims, this is now a stylish hotel set in the middle of open countryside. Whilst the main restaurant with vaulted ceilings is elegant and on the formal side, the newly installed (and affordable) Bistro 270 at the far end of the swimming pool area has an excellent menu, with a well priced wine list and a definite buzz of its own. All rooms are air conditioned, which in the height of summer is an essential requirement. Unfortunately, rain came in great abundance, so there was no possibility on this occasion of sitting outside in the early evening sun with a glass of wine, inhaling the intoxicating summer scents of Southern France.
From Malataverne, it would only be a two hour drive to the final destination of Carcès in the heart of ‘La Provence Verte’. The entire journey had taken 4 days and nights and been engaging, relaxing and enjoyable. It had been a perfect way to start the holiday.
The plan for the return journey would not be so leisurely or comfortable in terms of hours in the car, but it was going to be the perfect antidote to the potential gloom at the end of a holiday and the close on 950 mile drive back to the UK.
With most holiday rentals ending on a Saturday morning, more often than not, people need to head back to the UK in order to return to work the following Monday. In reality, this means one stop on the journey home on Saturday night, arriving in the evening (possibly quite late, depending on whereabouts in the UK home is) on Sunday, to be ‘fresh’ for work the next day. In peak holiday season, the roads are always at their busiest and most dangerous on change-over days, possibly making the drive back slower, longer and more hazardous.
All the goodness gained from two weeks or more of relaxing in the sun can easily evaporate on the journey back, even if the traffic is mild and not so demanding on concentration.
There is potentially an additional drawback to the two day dash home. Apart from the drive all the way back to Calais in order to get across the channel, there is also the not insignificant matter of how much further you will still need to drive on arriving in the United Kingdom. If your home is in Ashford, Kent, then you are probably not much more than 20 minutes away from your front door. However, if you live in Glasgow, there is still the not so small matter of some 400 plus miles of motorway to consider!
Once again, approaching Calais from the south on a Sunday afternoon in July or August, has a similar effect on drivers on the way back, as occurs on the way out. In this case, the closer to their crossing they get, the faster they want to drive. The surrounding countryside becomes a blur as the tarmac ahead of them is eaten up in a frenzy of ‘drive to get home’. In peak summer months, more tickets are handed out by French police to speeding British motorists on the A26 Autoroute just outside Calais, than at any other time of year.
In order to get a large piece of the journey out of the way on the first day of travel, it makes sense to choose a point around halfway back to Calais for a stop-over and this would place you somewhere in the heart of Burgundy. How unfortunate is that?
Staying in Burgundy on the way back has a very different appeal. Having ended your villa holiday, a treat in this part of France on the way home will only enhance the memories of the time away and of course, depending on which day of the week you are travelling, provide opportunities to purchase some wine (journeying on a weekday gives you many more options, but it is worth noting that most upmarket restaurants in France are closed on Mondays).
Here, the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes really are King and Queen and the immense variety and contrast from vineyard to vineyard (almost from one row of vines to the next) is not matched to such an extent anywhere else in the world.
The hotel/restaurant Le Montrachet is in the village of Puligny-Montrachet, famous for its white wines. Serena Sutcliffe once wrote that Puligny-Montrachet is the village where the best white wine in France, so therefore the world, comes from! I find it difficult to disagree with her.
Whilst wines from the four Grand Cru white wine vineyards (Le Montrachet, Bâtard Montrachet, Chevalier Montrachet, Bienvenues Bâtard Montrachet) are now prohibitively expensive, those that I have had the rare joy of tasting over the years have been from another world and uniquely sublime.
On entering the village of Puligny, apart from the fact that most of the houses look very well cared for, little idea of its fame and wealth is on display. It really could be yet another sleepy French village.
Situated on a square, Le Montrachet (named after the village’s most famous vineyard, which happens to be among some of the most expensive real estate in the world) is a stylish, recently refurbished hotel, with an excellent, although expensive restaurant. The wine list, as you might well expect is both extensive and pricey, but there are also some bargains to be had.
Whilst Chassagne-Montrachet, the next village, is likewise highly regarded for its white wines, the French tend to keep quiet about the highly interesting red wines from there. Little of the red wine of Chassagne-Montrachet is exported. They keep it very much for themselves!
The rooms are spacious and quiet. The fact that the hotel has its own locked parking, will be reassuring to those with heavily laden cars, be it with luggage or wine.
In terms of a perfect plan, we now arrive at perhaps the most eye-opening part of the journey back to the UK.
From this point, in more or less the middle of France, it is comparatively easy to set off in the morning and be back in London (for example) by the evening. It is however, more than a 500 mile drive, which with the crossing, is likely to take between 9 and 10 hours. I doubt that many people will be feeling particularly fresh by the time that they finally arrive home and for the majority, there is the prospect of having to go to work the following day.
The solution…book a hotel further north and have another day in France!
As you will now have time on your hands, try to spend at least part of the morning visiting a wine maker or two in Burgundy.
One such producer is the rising star David Dubuet in Monthelie, who regularly receives praise in Le Guide Hachette des Vins for his range of wines. Even though Monthelie can boast no Grand Cru vineyards, David, who studied at the Lycée Viticole Beaune, is clearly passionate about what he does and makes exceptionally fine wines that are also reasonably priced.
Some bottles or even cases of wine loaded into the car, it will then be time to head north, but with no urgency to meet ferry or train deadlines in Calais, the tempo can be blissfully sedate.
No longer driving as though possessed with demons, there are numerous other good reasons for taking this course of action.
Any need to rush instantly disappears. Breaks for food, drinks, petrol and leg stretching can be taken without an eye on the clock, occasional detours can be made and perhaps of key significance, with the thoughts of a new experience looming in the hotel and restaurant booked for that evening, the drive north of Reims, which is always just that little bit too long and lacking in visual interest to be stimulating, turns into something infinitely more pleasurable.
Added to this, the holiday isn’t over yet!
Also avoided are the clouds of gloom that will inevitably descend when lining up on a Sunday evening in peak summer holiday time at the Eurotunnel or ferry terminals in Calais. Far healthier not to have to suffer several hundred other hot, exhausted and quite possibly depressed motorists, their only and omnipresent thought being of the further expanse of driving to be endured once across the water and back in the UK.
Chateau de Beaulieu, a stylish 4 star hotel, is situated in Busnes, nearby to Béthune, approximately 45 minutes’ drive on the autoroute south of Calais and is the perfect venue for a final night in France. Set in its own park (with beautifully kept gardens, a moat, a pond and even a vineyard) and with a 2 michelin starred restaurant ‘Le Meurin’ (Chef Marc Meurin, who pays tribute to his local Pas-de-Calais producers by using ingredients such as Boulogne-sur-Mer scallops, Étaples bass and other fish from the North Sea), it really is rather grand and appropriately expensive.
Fortunately, the hotel also houses a very good bistro ‘Le Jardin d’Alice’, as well as the bells and whistle dining experience. This was welcome, as the main restaurant was closed on the day of the visit and in any case, so close to the end of the trip, credit cards were increasingly groaning uncomfortably with the weight of mounting expenditure.
After an excellent meal and a decent night’s sleep, it was possible to have a slow breakfast and a walk around the grounds in the morning before heading off on the final leg of the journey home.
The enjoyable and incident lacking journey back to London was completed by 14.00, allowing ample time to empty the car and unpack before late summer darkness gradually descended.
First evening meal at home? Fish and chips, washed down with champagne, naturally!
Essential literature for journeying through France: the Michelin Atlas Routier et Touristique (avoid the spiral bound edition as it will soon fall apart! The much better ‘lay-flat’ bound version is available at most Autoroute petrol stations in France and is cheaper when purchased there, rather than in the UK), the red Le Guide Michelin restaurant and hotel guide and the Michelin Green Guide for the area or areas that you are visiting. If you have the slightest interest in wine, even though only in French, an up to date Le Guide Hachette des Vins, should be in the glove box at all times!
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