How To Drive To The South Of France

I think driving to the South of France must be a bit like undergoing a major DIY renovation project - hell at the time, but you soon forget how painful it was, and a year later you're ready to do it again.

Andre and I drove from Manchester, England to Provence, France at the start of July - here's how the mammoth journey went down.

And if you have no interest in driving to France then hey, you can just skip the text and look at the pretty pictures instead.

The Rhone Valley - unsurprisingly, there are quite a lot of vineyards

First up, take the eurotunnel. It's three times as fast as the ferry, and is the only really valid option if you're travelling with dogs. You drive directly into this space-age train, get mildly jolted around for half an hour, and bam, you're in France.

Don't even think about driving in France without sat nav. It takes away all the stress of driving in a foreign country. The first time we went to France we casually rocked up in Calais with no maps whatsoever, confidently expecting to see signs directing us to Brittany - er, nope. When you exit the ferry and hit the autoroute, you have two options - Boulogne, or Paris. That's it. And if you're not going to either destination? Cue long diversion round Calais while we tried to find somewhere that sold road maps. Yeah, I'm pretty embarrassed just thinking about how clueless we were. By the way, you should choose Paris. That will take you down south.


Provençal lavender

I'd also recommend taking a French road atlas (buy it from Amazon in advance) in case your sat nav goes on strike.

Driving to the south of France isn't really that much cheaper than getting flights. By the time you've paid €1.45 for a gallon of fuel (which at the current glorious exchange rate works out at about £1.20 a litre), the petrol alone costs basically the same as the flights. On top of that you'll need to pay for the toll roads.

People - take it from someone who knows - just take the toll roads. On the map, it looks as if you have two options - one toll road, and then a free road that runs parallel to it. Except what the map doesn't tell you is that the toll road is a motorway, and the free road is at best the equivalent of an English A-road, and at worst a country lane. And these dinky little roads have low speed limits to match, so unless you fancy driving all the way to Provence at a stately 60 kmph, then you need to take the toll road.


We were forced to exit the motorway at one stage due to a crash and get on the free road instead (and being obedient English people, it didn't even occur to us to ignore the 'sortie obligatoire' signs like all the French peeps did) - I kid you not, it took 4 hours to drive 10km. Never again. My advice would be don't exit the motorway unless it's literally on fire. Ignore the signs telling you to exit - you'll get there faster just by chilling in your vehicle and waiting for the motorway to open again.

Anyway, the tolls from Calais to Provence (one way) cost in the region of €75. Totally worth it.

French service stations are way nicer than English service stations. There are lots of places to stop along the way, called aires - some just have picnic tables and toilets, others also have petrol, shops and playgrounds for the children. The first couple of times we drove to France we took a large picnic with us in a coolbox - not a good plan. Large meal plus warm weather = need to take a siesta. Not ideal when you're, y'know, driving n all. You're better off buying a nice freshly made sandwich au jambon and a can of red bull from an aire shop.


So the big question is - how long does it take? Hmm. I can't lie to you, it takes a loooong time. The section from Calais to Lyon is pretty speedy, with the traffic gradually increasing the further south you get - but once you get past Lyon (for goodness sake, don't even think about driving through Lyon even though the sat nav will try and convince you that this is the preferable route), what appears to be a short distance on the map takes ages and ages and ages, due to the massive amounts of traffic.

It's not so bad out of season, but in July it took hours - numerous bouchons (a bouchon is a cork, and also a traffic jam), trucks on fire, and so on. Particularly because as soon as the traffic comes to a standstill, all the French dudes promptly spill out of their vehicles and start wandering up and down the motorway. So it takes a while to round everyone back up, identify their vehicles, drive for a couple of miles before you reach the next bouchon and everyone immediately does exactly the same thing.

Bonnieux rooftops

To give you an indication of how long it can take at peak season in July - on the way there, it took 10.5 hours, including lots of short breaks for the purposes of human and Jack Russell leg stretching. On the way back, it took a majestic 14 hours. Nice. I'd advise you to book the latest chunnel crossing you can, because even though you're allowed two hours on either side before they make you pay extra, it's impossible to predict how long the journey could take.

On another important note - attention, English drivers! The fast lane in France is not for you to park your Range Rover in and cruise at a steady 80km per hour! It is strictly for overtaking only, and the French get very upset when they find an English moron blocking the fast lane the way we're all accustomed to doing back home.

L'Isle sur la Sorgue

Wow, turns out I had a lot to say about driving in France. Who knew?

Anyway, it's all totally worth it cos it means you can take these:

To see this:

And do this:


Yeah. Loving it.