Crossing France: fly-drive or ferry-drive?

Should a Brit access a holiday on the French Riviera by ferry-drive or fly-drive? One has to decide whether to turn the time and expense of making the driving option into a tourism experience versus making a driving dash for it versus the dubious pleasure of flying and – quite separately to be computed – the pleasure of car rental. Follows, my attempt to chart some of the options, after a recent trip south. Sorry – it’s a combination of fact and anecdote…
Our ideal starting point for any journey is Portsmouth, so that inclines us toward the own-car option and the Brittany Ferries version of that.

I have a soft spot for Brittany Ferries. Its routes to its home territory last year gave us a memorable trip to the Roscoff area, and even the strike didn’t really spoil that. The firm handled the issue well, at least from a passenger’s point of view.

I have quite personal reasons for my affection. In the late 1970s, I wrote about the geology of Brittany and the captain of a Brittany ferry let me on his bridge to watch his huge ship nudge into the tricky skerried entrance to St Malo, having – I am almost sure I remember right – filled me with good food and drink at dinner the night before. I later went on the bibulous inaugural press trip for the Portsmouth-Caen route (I read in the Brittany Ferries enthusiasts’ website it happened in 1986).

There is something exciting about a shipping line started by cauliflower farmers as part of Brittany’s slow revitalisation after the war. More recently, as Nevile Shute (see Most Secret and Pied Piper) and further trips have told me more about Brittany and Normandy, and about their ancient and modern British connections, the romance has deepened. This is indeed the shipping line whose slogan might as well be, “…of cabbages and kings”.

The ships are, by the way, pretty pleasant to use. These days, I don’t eat much on board, but the offers all look appetising and affordable.  My wife, who sometimes travels alone to Caen as a foot passenger, says that getting on and off the ferry at Portsmouth is an awful schlep: ramps and steps and no lift for the able-bodied, however burdened.

So. Fed and relaxed, you drive off in France. I think if I had more experience, I would probably make a dash for the south. Still, I doubt even a couple of pensioner-age drivers could do the thing safely without a stop-over, even in disciplined shifts.

Whether you break the run for one night or two, the issue is how much to spend. On our very modest budget, I think I have decided for now that I would prefer to save my money for the main event – the Riviera. On the other hand, one can fit in touristy visits as part of the pleasure of crossing the country.

On that logic, I think one might as well go for the cheaper – but not the cheapest – end of the motorway hotels. We paid a tiny bit more than we needed to by having an Ibis room roadside in Venoy, near Auxerre.

On the way, we Googled restaurants in Chablis and got very tempted by La Cuisine au Vin. I wanted to eat there even more when I saw its funky modern interior, just beyond the sign saying that it was booked-out for a group that night. We ended up as about the last to get into the Bistrot des Grands Crus, which was fine. It was very much a wine-tour spot: channelling Sideways, somehow. Eating at modestly bourgeois mid-priced touristy places has the merit that the portions of the menus fixes are small to moderate. In this one, that night, we had the entertainment of a heroically grumpy waitress who was gorgeous. She was assisting an older colleague who was ordinarily good-looking and much, much more cheerful.  Each was a pleasure in her way.

The next morning, I noticed a further piece of our travel armour. We ignore the £9-a-head breakfast on the basis that soon enough we’ll want to stop for a coffee and it might as well include a croissant. If I was really getting efficient, I’d stop for a coffee and buy a service-station supermarket snack.

But there’s a dilemma if you’re a cafeteria type, as I am. (An all-you-can-eat buffet is my undoing, in which I am very like Marty Crane.) I am a huge fan of Autogrill, which is on a par with liking airline food – but then I like that too. (The Autogrill by Milan cathedral is a very easeful place.) I have yet to trade up to L’Arche, but I have a well-heeled gourmet French friend, and she loves their glistening buffets, offered (in her case) on the road from Normandy to Paris. Spurred on by her recommendation, I scoped a couple of L’Arche motorway buffets, and yearned to eat there. So is this the way to go? Never mind the tricked-up posings of the pseudo-authentic frenchified restaurants with peasanty terroir pretensions – here is the new skill, basking under the infra-reds.

Apropos cheaper eats, I found that the Planetalis in an Aubagne shopping mall (but it has a terrace and so on) was pretty, tasty and affordable. It, too, was a relief from restaurantism and I’d look out for others in the chain.

A corner of Fontenay Abbey's smallish but well-formed grounds.

A corner of Fontenay Abbey’s smallish but well-formed grounds.

We spent the morning at Fontenay, one of my favourite Cistercian monasteries, and then motored on down to Arles (yearning, by the way, for cruise control), where we wanted to explore for a day or two (we stayed at the Best Western Atrium, and ate at La Fuente and Hostellerie des Arenes, as  reviewed positively by me at Trip Advisor).

After our fortnight on the “lesser” Riviera, we made a two-night trip homewards. In Chalon-sur-Saône, we stayed at the motorway Campanile, and thought it better value than the Ibis at Venoy. And then a trip into the unexpectedly gorgeous old city, with its fine cathedral square. We went to the most ordinary of the outdoor restaurants in the lee of the great pile and were given barely adequate food by quite cheerful but fairly disengaged waitresses: it was an experience, oddly, which was rather soothing, as local youth dropped in for drinks but seemed to disdain to dine. One fabulously disaffected girl was bad-mouthing all and sundry in the establishment, like a proper pissed and maybe pissed-off English Goth-cum-basic-greaser, and actually informed us that it was a terrible place to eat. She should write for Trip Advisor.
Afterward, we walked down the rue de Strasbourg, across the river: it is extraordinarily pretty and has a mass of high-tone, much-admired restaurants and one or two cheaper eateries too. I felt rather smug that I had roughed it with a more picaresque local flavour elsewhere, and with less of the aspirational about the experience.

We had intended to make a pilgrimage to the high-camp Chateau de Bataille, as recommended by Monty Don. (My piece on Don’s paysan manqué jackets remains the most viewed page on my website, which is galling.) But it was raining, so the purely urban and historic delights of Rouen beckoned. The cathedral is too grey for my taste, but it’s worth it to nod toward William Longsword and the Norman line, and Richard Coeur de Lion and the Angevin line. And that Jeanne d’Arc was burnt to death in the old market certainly merited a pilgrimage.

And so to the good mid-priced Mercure overlooked by the cathedral. I was very pleased that I had booked by (promptly answered) email at Brasserie Paul, which seemed to me to have kept the best of the French restaurant tradition, but made it just a bit more customer-friendly than I recall it being at say, Chartier in Paris (last visited, the restaurant I mean, a decade or more ago).

In Rouen's fine city art gallery, a convivial group discuss conviviality.

In Rouen’s fine city art gallery, a convivial group discuss conviviality.

Our five-day travel strategy worked pretty well I think. We crossed France in driving sessions of no longer than four or five hours. We spent more than we perhaps wanted, but had good tourist experiences on the way. The cheapo branded hotels delivered as they should and so did our two city-centre mid-price places. We had a couple of very good meals, though I might well have avoided some ho-hum restaurants and snacked on pre-packed salads and baguettes and fruit instead.

And I am still longing for L’Arche.

But the sums are still a little perplexing. Ferry-driving aller retour across France with one night’s stop each way would cost, say, £200 in ferries, £350 in fuel and tolls (according to the Michelin trip planner) and £250 in bed and board. Roughly, one can add £100 a night for any additional breaks. Our version came to £800 for four days’ driving. Next time, I might pitch that against fly-drive alternatives.

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Publication date

16 October 2013


Mind & body