Statistics show that firstly, France tops the polls these days for Britons looking to move to Europe and secondly, most of them would say the reason they want to move is not just cost of living. Rather, they have found that the quality of life is infinitely preferable. Plus, if you are going to own a home in Europe or simply plan to spend time on holidays, how you get there on a regular basis can be important.
When my wife and I were planning a trip to southern France in September, we had two main alternatives. The first was to fly to Toulouse and hire a car or second, to use our own Citroen and take the Eurotunnel train from Folkestone to Calais and then drive south. We’d never used Eurotunnel and we decided to make the trip a comparison between the train and the plane.
We were going to visit English friends who have just bought, and are renovating, a house near Montcuq in the Quercy region of the Lot and then we were moving on to spend a few days further south with another English friend in her home in the Lauragais region of the Haute Garonne.
Obviously security considerations are paramount and there’s no way to make the process easier or less complex for passengers. Most of us have travelled by plane and it’s a fact of life that these days just getting through an airport to your plane can be lengthy and tiring.
You have to show your passport/boarding card several times, you have to pass through security and you have to walk some distance to reach your boarding gate. In addition, you have to be careful of the space and weight restrictions.
On this trip we were under no time pressure so I booked the tickets and we set off from south-west London onto the M25 motorway and arrived on the outskirts of Folkestone. Within minutes we were driving up to what looked like a peage (a toll gate).
Stopping the car at a computer screen, I saw the greeting: ‘Welcome Stewart Andersen’ and the registration details of our car. I was asked to confirm that the information was correct and this involved simply pressing a button on the monitor. A further window on the screen asked me, as we were early, if we’d like to catch a train that was due to leave 40 minutes before the one on which we had been due to travel.
Obviously the earlier time meant that we’d be on the road at the other end sooner so I pressed ‘Yes’ and out of the screen came a card ‘hanger’ which identified the train we were to take and we were asked to suspend it from the rear view mirror. In a very few minutes, we’d passed through both UK and French passport controls and we were in a queue waiting to board the train. Some 35 minutes later, after an incredibly quiet and smooth trip, we arrived in the Eurotunnel Terminal in France. In no time, we were on the autoroute driving across the vast flat landscape of northern Normandy.
Many people choose to take a very early train (2 or 3 a.m.) and whiz round Paris’ périphérique (ring road) before the morning rush hour. Instead, we’d chosen to travel west of the capital, drive as far south as possible, spend the night en route and then head for Montcuq the following day. This added some 200 kilometres on to the journey but I had a longing for an omelette aux frites and a demi of beer and this would involve stopping at a café.
Even though we stopped in Chartres for about an hour and a half, we were in Blois by about 5 p.m. My wife had called ahead and booked a room in a hotel in the centre of the town and dinner was in a nearby bistro with a pichet of red wine and delicious galettes, a very thin form of folded-over pancakes filled with cheese, ham and onion.
The next day
The hard part of the journey was over and leaving Blois by 9 a.m. (parking restrictions started at a civilised hour) meant we still had time to meander down ‘D’ roads for part of the way.
I should mention two things. We were warned by our friend in the Lauragais to try and avoid Rouen because of the traffic. Nevertheless, we were sucked into the centre and at that moment the traffic signs vanished totally (this is unusual for France where normally signs saying ‘Toutes Directions’ or ‘Autres Directions’ will handhold the uncertain driver through any town and village and safely out the other side).
Rouen caused definite moments of tension in the Andersen family, both on the way south and on the return. Doubtless the centre of Rouen is charming but at the risk of upsetting the Rouen City Fathers, I can only advise drivers to avoid the place at all costs. (In fact, on the way back we once again missed the signs and ended up driving 52 kilometres east towards Paris before we could get off the autoroute and returning the same distance back to Rouen. Fortunately, we spotted a sign to Calais pointing to a minor road that finally led to the autoroute).
The other thing that has to be said is that while France and Britain both had a tough winter during 2009/2010 with low temperatures, snow and ice, the roads throughout the trip were uniformly smooth and pothole free. Why British motorists are forced to put up with repairs that last for about two days and then have terrible potholes that reappear is a complete mystery.
Drivers in France pay a one-off fee when they buy a car and after that, there’s no annual Road Tax. The government simply takes revenue from fuel that, by the way, is no more expensive than in the UK. We stopped at a Carrefour filling station that offered a discount and the cost of a tank of petrol came to about €40 whereas the same amount would have cost around £58 back in the UK.
By 4 p.m. we had checked in to a gîte at Preniac owned by Liz and Bill Moore, unpacked and were on our way to nearby Montcuq. Typically, our friends had wine open and waiting on a table in their garden. It was great to be able to relax, have a drink and look forward to exploring the village the next morning.
In Part 2, we spend time in Montcuq and then head to Nailloux, south of Toulouse