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French Road Trip

Coffs Harbour...
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French Road Trip

My wife and I are in our fifties but active outdoorsy types. We will have a car from 3rd July(leaving Paris) returning it to Paris on the 4th August. We will have a house to stay in for a week 60km from Lyon(La Fouillouse) from 25th July. We want to have the Jura in our trip as I am a fly fisherman. We don't like cities and would like a trip visiting country villages, a few wineries, a few national parks and wonderful scenery. We are more interested in the eastern side of France except for perhaps the Dordogne. We want to do a combination of hotels,gites and camping. Any suggestions for a Paris To Paris trip taking about a month including our week in La Fouillouse?

Lewes, United...
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1. Re: French Road Trip

Hi Troutbum

Welcome to TripAdvisor and this Forum.

I'm assuming you mean this July, so your plans are for a trip that starts in a month's time. I will try and help you with a rough itinerary later. However, the first thing I feel it would be useful for you to know is that July is high season for travell in France. Only August is worse. Roads will be especially busy at weekends, plus Fridays and Mondays, but traffic levels will be higher than at other times even on some more minor roads. Also, the inevitable extension of that is that lodging will be hard to find. As you're asking for route suggestions, I take it you have no reservations made other than the stay near Lyon. At least I hope you have your Paris reservations also confirmed. Consequently, you may well need a very flexible budget for lodging as often it's only the very expensive or very cheap options that may remain - it's good you plan to be flexible.

Here are a few websites steers to consider for lodging choices:

Accor group are France's largest hotel company, they run from basic motel chains usually sited right beside the autoroutes up to 4 star grand edifices! As they're global you need to specify country first.

accorhotels.com/gb/united-kingdom/index.shtml

Rather than give you the link to the official Gites de France website I suggest you google this yourself. The reason is that the main website is in French only, which you may struggle to navigate. The other .co.uk options you will find will lead you to websites where you can book in English. Many gites are owned/run by Brits, not that many French owners speak anything but French.

Again, if you google France and camping, you will get a choice of websites, some in English, others in French. All French campsites are graded and star rated, with some luxury ones offering a wealth of facilities. They are all likely to be busy at your time of year.

You might want to get a guide book for the whole of France, there are several good ones available and I'd guess Dymocks should stock some, or of course there's always Amazon. The Green Guides, Michelin's regional guides are excellent, but you need to decide which regions you will definitely visit before buying, but the Burgundy guide certain will cover many of my top suggestions.

Now route planning. First, may I suggest you have a look at the viaMichelin website. It is brilliant at route planning and gives wonderful details of routes, and you have a lot of choices to tweek it for options such as no toll autoroutes, fastest, most scenic, etc. It even marks the fixed speed cameras on the print outs!

When you're driving around France, you may well come across BisonFute additional signs. These are alternative routes that are very well marked, different each summer, put up by the French government to help tourists avoid well known bottlenecks or notorious, always congested roads or long term road works. If you find one going your way, take it!

Where to go: Firstly, as I have never fished in the Jura, I have no idea where you will find anywhere where you can fish, whether you need a permit, advance bookings or whatever. You may find better info by posting on the Jura forum for responses on that front.

For information on long distance footpaths, not to walk any in their entirety, but because most pass through lovely countryside and national parks,and you can find parts of them to follow to make a circular walk in some lovely, unspoilt, uncrowded and unknown parts of France, even in mid July(!) google grand randonees.

As your Lyon stay is effectively at the end of your trip, after which you may need to drive directly back to Paris, you will need to snake south to get to the places mentioned as a circular route with Lyon in the middle won't work, but you have about 3 weeks which will be plenty of time to get a good flavour of much of France.

My route is by towns, just so you know where to head on your map and for your own detailed route planning - effectively, pushpin points!

If you head east after leaving Paris, you will reach the Champagne area. This is not a very exciting part of France, very flat, and I'd avoid Reims as traffic is awful, but Epernay is a more pleasant town and has many champagne houses which have free tours, if you wish to start your wine exploration in style. Then maybe continue in a south easterly direction towards Bar le Duc, St Dizier to Vittel in the Vosges mountains. Now head south towards the Juras for the fishing, via Montbeliard and Besancon.

Then head west to Dijon, the capital of the Burgundy region. There is a huge amount to see in this area, hitting all items on your wish list!!! A base near Beaune would work well for afew days. Then continue west towards Nevers and Bourges. Then you can continue west towards the Loire valley area, famous for grand chateaux but very touristy and crowded. Or you can head south through the Massif Central to continue west towards the Dordogne. I wouldn't suggest you go further south or west than perhaps Bergerac before heading through maybe the Tarn gorge to the lower Massif Central, or perhaps the upper Languedoc and the Ardeche valley, looping north and east to Lyon direction.

Rather than write a book here, I'll let you digest what I've written so far. If you're happy so far, let me know and I'll revert with more detailed routes of some parts, highlighting pretty chateaux, historic fortified villages, notable churches, parks and scenic spots. While I don't claim to be an expert, we've been taking trips to France for over 35 years now, and there are few parts yet to be discovered for us!

Post back and I can continue .....

SWT

Edited: 01 June 2011, 16:54
Coffs Harbour...
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2. Re: French Road Trip

Thanks so much for the advice so far. The recommended internet sites are brilliant. Your suggested route looks spot on and appears doable in the time we have available.

We have booked a hotel at the airport (Charles de Gaulle) and will leave by car the next day for the road trip. We have accommodation booked for the last few days in Paris. No other accommodation has been booked.

I have just bought a Tomtom car gps with maps of Europe so I'm hoping it can steer us away from autoroutes. Our intention is to stay away from cities and busy towns and try to experience the French countryside and its villages

(combined with a bit of fly fishing)

At the end of the trip I think we will take your suggested link to head south from Bourges as the Loire valley sounds a bit too touristy for our liking.

When we are in the house at La Fouillouse( near St- Etiene) we will still have the car so we can radiate out from there on day or overnight trips. Any suggestions? What would be your suggestion for a quick trip back to Paris at the end of our stay in La fouillouse with perhaps one overnight stay?

We are flexible as far as accommodation is concerned but don't want to break the bank over the three weeks on the road. We will have a phone and will use wi-fi as often as possible to access viaMichelin and book accommodation ahead by a day or two. Do you see this as feasible at that time of the year if we stick to country locations? We will have a small tent for camping grounds but we only want to use that for about a third of the time for our accommodation on the road trip.

I know a little French and want to practice it as much as possible along the way.

Your offer of more detailed routes and attractions along the way would be much appreciated. Charming country villages,historic villages,parks and scenic locations are what we are looking for.Thank you.

Lewes, United...
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3. Re: French Road Trip

Sorry not to get back sooner, the day job got in the way!

Anyhow: Glad the suggestions so far have met with your approval. So, to continue with a little more info and suggestions….

As you say you speak/understand a little French, I may offer up some tips for further googling, where you can test your language skills! France is divided into regions, and many of these regions operate a local tourist info system. Some have websites which are multilingual. You just click on the union jack flag or ‘EN’ for the English language version, if there is one. Also, in the major towns and a few others (the préfectures and sub-préfectures of the various départments) there are tourist info offices – with very French civil servant opening times, not always that tourist friendly! They’re general known as ‘syndicats d’intiative’ rather than tourist info, but they usually have the universal italicised ‘i’ symbol somewhere.

Spending your first night near the airport and only picking up the rented car after a good night’s sleep to help with the jetlag is very sensible. I wish other long distance travellers did this more often!

By the way, even if you have GPS, I would always recommend you have actual maps. They help with route planning and I’d never personally just rely on sat nav systems to get me somewhere, but that’s just me! Michelin maps are way the best for France, they do a whole range from large spiral bound atlases of the whole country to France in 17 regional or 40 more detailed/smaller areas. They can be bought from Amazon before your trip or picked up in bookshops, some petrol stations and tourist offices, plus even the odd newsagent, once in the country.

Quick thoughts: Almost all places of interest (buildings) that are owned by the state are closed on either Monday or Tuesday, can be closed at lunchtime. Almost every place, private or state owned charges an entry fee, but usually just a few Euros. Major parks and forests are always free and often don’t have clearly demarcated boundaries. As a consequence, there are few public amenities such as toilets, picnic tables, parking areas, etc.

More lodging finding options include: Logis de France. These small guides and website list smaller, local and often family run hotels all across the country. They’re mostly quite modest and priced accordingly. Incidentally, better value hotels in France rarely have restaurants attached, but do have breakfast rooms. Breakfast often isn’t included in the room rate, irritatingly, and can be oddly pricey. If the hotel is near a train station, you may find a choice of small cafes with much better prices for breakfast, which is rarely much more than a coffee and a croissant or bit of baguette.

Michelin produce a large red handbook/guidebook to France. It has no specific tourist info, it’s mainly a hotel and restaurant directory. But, to us a major reason to buy it is the town plans of every medium size town and larger, complete with one way systems, pedestrian areas, etc. You can work out where town centre (centre ville – always signposted!) is, and all major sights, museums, etc are shown, as well as the town’s tourist office.

Booking your accommodation on the fly, just a few days ahead, is perfectly possible and how we have usually done it. However, as all your travelling will be during European school holiday season, your choices may be very limited, as already said.

Back to the route: I’m only offering non-autoroute options. If you wish to travel by autoroutes (mostly, but not all tolls) then you can find these routes very easily for yourself from any map.

Paris/CDG airport area to Epernay area: Head to Meaux, then Chateau-Thierry. From here try and pick up the minor rods that follow the Marne River valley towards Epernay. Slow but very pretty, lots of picnic spots.

I have an acquaintance who runs a B&B and writes a Brit centric blog on the life of champagne growers. I can send a personal message if you’re interested as advertising is frowned on on this forum.

Epernay area to Vittel area: Head towards Vitry le Francois, along the Marne, but flatter and less pretty. Then head towards either Bar le Duc (compact area of interest on hill with clock tower and historic church) or St Dizier to Domremy-la-Pucelle (birthplace of Joan of Arc). In the triangle formed by Domremy, Toul (fortified town, historic Roman ramparts) and Vittel you are in Lorraine, and the Vosges foothills with lots of attractive forest. Vittel and it’s twin Contrexeville are unexciting spa towns but with lots of lodging choices and a good base for this area. Most routes are scenic and bendy.

Depending on time choices, from here you could continue east towards Alsace, with its very pretty wine villages, but you are adding quite a diversion.

Continuing my route you head to Epinal and now swing south to Remiremont, Luxeuils-les-Bains to Belfort to Montbeliard. You are now headed towards the Jura. The short route between Montbeliard and Besancon follows a pretty route of the Doubs River. However, probably for your fishing and because it’s even prettier, you would probably want the longer route, still following the Doubs but along the other direction as it does an exaggerated hook to St Hippolyte. Go east and you reach Switzerland. Otherwise, continue to swing back towards Besancon via Maiche. From here you can chose the high road, with lots of viewpoints and notable peaks near your route, notably the Cirque de Consolation and Roche du Pretre, or the low road following the pretty valley of the Desoubres, via Cour-St-Maurice and Pierrefontaine.

From Besancon you now head towards Burgundy area, skirting the Bresse region and the Franche-Comte. All of these areas that I’m mentioning are great. You just don’t have that much time, I suspect, so I’m trying to cherry pick for you!

So head to Dole (another nice town with a small old quarter with historic church) then Seurre to Beaune. Beaune is a very attractive small town with lots of wine interest of all kinds, including a world famous auction (not when you’re there, but you won’t want the crowds it brings) and lots of negociants, some of whom do have tasting sessions. The highlight of Beaune, without doubt, is the Hotel-Dieu with its coloured tiled roof. A tour inside is fascinating, but I suspect you can only take a guided tour, not sure if there are English ones. The weekly market in the pedestrianised area is terrific, too. You can also walk along some of the ramparts of the old walls and look towards the distance, all the hills of the Cote d’Or and the super expensive vineyards of the top Burgundy wines.

I’d find somewhere in the countryside to base yourself and then you can visit the wineries, if you so wish, at leisure. The ‘posh’ places aren’t the way to go, you want the small operators on the perifery. They offer limited free tastings, some you can buy a cheese plate and some tasting samples and have lunch under a tree on their terrace looking out over the vines. Once you’ve a base, there are so many places to visit. You wish to avoid larger towns, but Dijon as the capital of Burgundy is steeped in history and has some seriously imposing buildings, a cathedral of note, and much more – but it’s not a must do. There are a number of wine areas – try the small villages around Chablis and Tonnerre, or the classic ‘route’ between Dijon and Burgundy.

Now more rural pursuits in Burgundy. The regional park of the Morvan is one of my favourites. Lots of picnic spots, small lakes than can be circumnavigated for a 1 or 2 hour walk, I could go on. My one must-see in Burgundy in general is Vezelay’s basilica. Park at the bottom and walk up the cobbled streets to the top to St-Madeleine. Awesome views, too. Then there are chateaux and abbeys to consider visiting: Amcy-le-Franc, Tanlay, Fontenay, Sully, la Rochepot, Commarin, Talmay. Pretty villages include Clamecy, Chateau-Chinon, St-Honore, Paray le Monial, Autun, and Cluny for the abbey.

Let me know what you think so far! To be continued ….

Lewes, United...
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4. Re: French Road Trip

Quik edit - it timed out on me:

"the classic ‘route’ between Dijon and Burgundy" should read ..... "and Beaune", you're already in Burgundy!

SWT

Coffs Harbour...
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5. Re: French Road Trip

Thanks so much. What can I say? These insights are excellent and we feel so much more confident with our trip now. Yes please continue with your help and information. Any tips about where we could stay would be great and I would like to follow up with your acquaintance who owns the B&B near Epernay. This is my first use of trip adviser so I am a little unfamiliar with what is the correct procedure for sending personal messages.

In Epernay is there a supermarket where we could buy a few folding chairs, groundsheet etc. to make any camping we may do a little more comfortable?

This has been a great help.

Lewes, United...
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6. Re: French Road Trip

So to continue

Leave Burgundy region and head west towards Nevers and Bourges. Nevers is yet another medium size town, this time on a bend of the river Loire with a reasonable cathedral on a bit of a hill. Its in a less well known wine production region, I know the wines but have never visited a winery in these parts. Bourges is another cathedral town, in the middle of a rather flat plain, mostly agricultural. The only 2 notable points of Bourges, from memory, are that it’s pretty much dead centre of France, and the cathedral can be seen for absolutely miles before you get there on the dead straight roads heading to the centre. As you don’t want big towns I’d keep going to Argenton-sur-Creuse, a much more compact place. The (I think pedestrianised now) old bridge in the middle of the old town, crossing the Creuse has wonderful views of the town. This now get you to the edge of the Parc regional de la Brenne, a totally unspoilt and mostly unknown area of wooded low hills, intersperced with millions of tiny lakes and ponds and swamp. Unexciting perhaps but you will find peace and quiet!

Moving on south now towards Bellac, Confolens and Nontron, you are starting to reach the edge of the Perigord region, which has the Dordogne river as it’s heart. I’ve taken you a route of smaller towns and villages, the obvious route would be close to Limoges – which you’d want to avoid, and uses toll autoroutes.

To me, the gateway of the Perigord is perhaps Brantome, a really charming old village with pretty public gardens by the river and some charming architecture. You might also want to check out Bourdeilles while in these parts, the road between the two along the Dronne is pretty. Just south of here is Perigeaux, the capital of the Perigord. It might be busier than you want, but the countryside nearby might give you a good base for a few nights for you to check out this attractive region. Another location to base yourselves might be in or around Sarlat. Sarlat is certainly one of the most attractive places of this region, with the medieval centre, higgledy piggledy buildings of a honeyed stone, it doesn’t have a main square so much as several, none square, of course. It’s quite popular but very charming.

Now you are in the the heart of the Perigord/Dordogne region, other places to visit include Les Eyzies. Here are the Lascaux caves with some of the oldest known prehistoric cave paintings. The museum is actually a replica of the real thing – the actual caves now being sealed, to prevent further damage/deterioration to the fragile original works, but very interesting non-the-less. The drive along the river itself, between Bergerac and Souillac is worth doing, too – the road is sometimes on the north bank, sometimes on the south with a few patches away from the banks itself. The pretty villages sometimes cling to the cliffs and there are the odd café or restaurant right on the bank, Beynac and la Roque Gageac in particular. There are boat trips and water activities, but perhaps too touristy for your liking. Rocamadour is really stunning, cling high up on the cliffs, but has very narrow lanes which might be busy. Many of the chateaux in the region are now just ruined towers on top of cliffs or promontaries, rather than places you can visit the interiors of.

If you now swing south, if you have time, you’ll reach Cahors, a fortified small town, with an amazing fortified bridge, lovely market and set in lovely countryside (where the local, curious ‘black’ wine grows). Around this area are a number of fortified hill villages, many worth investigating if you’re passing. Too many to name, but if you see the words ‘la bastide’ as some part of the name, that’s your clue!

I mentioned the Tarn gorge, but in fact in the general area east of here, several of the rivers including the Dordogne, Lot, Cere, Cele and Jonte all cut through the western edge of the Massif Central with a gorge, but perhaps the Tarn is the most spectacular. If you chose that one and head towards Millau, you will see one of the most amazing engineering feats, the viaduct across the whole valley where the A75 autoroute crosses the valley by the world’s highest bridge. Again, Millau is situation in a very pretty region, with the Parc regional des Causses surrounding it, and neaby you can visit the caves where Roquefort – the famous blue cheese – is made.

The route from Millau to St Etienne/Lyon area from Millau takes you via the Tarn gorge to Florac and Mende and on to Langogne and le Puy-en-Velay. Le Puy is another place not to miss, but is close enough to your base to explore as a day trip.

I shall stop here, what to do during your week at St Etienne/Lyon area, plus your route back to Paris with a nightstop, to follow!

SWT

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7. Re: French Road Trip

Things to do, places to visit for day excursions from your base between St Etienne and Lyon might include:

Visiting Lyon itself. I know you said you didn’t want large towns, and Lyon certain is large (France’s third largest, I think) but it does have an interesting centre, very hilly, with old quarters and old bridges spanning where 2 large rivers converge. If you don’t want to drive into the centre, there is some sort of park and ride scheme in place these days. For more details of Lyon and the public transport options, I’d suggest you ask on the Lyon forum as I’ve not been there that recently.

Drives in the area could include:

Retracing you steps back towards le Puy and its surrounds. This is the centre of the Auvergne area, an area of ancient volcanic activity, which has created the curious granite plugs (pointed hills) all around that area. It is not a lush green area so much as dramatic and brooding, but very attractive in its own way. The small town itself is charming in the centre, and the surrounding area and very small villages quaint, very uncrowded at any time, and rather in a time warp as this is a relatively poor and certainly unpopulated part of the country.

In the opposite direction you could head towards the Alps and visit a couple of very pretty lakes, the nearer is the Lac du Bourget, reigned over by the spa town of Aix-les-Bains. There are some attractive lake front turn of the century hotels for a lunch stop, and you can pretty much circumnavigate the whole lake on spectacular roads. The further lake, Annecy, is also wonderful (and I shall be there again in early July, myself) but perhaps just too far for a day trip, I don’t know how adventurous you are. (Go via Vienne to miss the Lyon traffic.) There’s also the much smaller Lac d’Aigebellette. Some of these areas may offer more fly fishing as there are plenty of rivers.

Immediately south of St Etienne is an area I don’t know at all, but there’s the Parc regional du Pilat with lots of high peaks, and the Foret de Taillard.

For wine areas to check out: If you go north you have the southern Burgundy area, centred on Macon (again!), if you didn’t get there previously, or the Beaujolais region, centred on Villeneuve-sur-Saone a lot nearer Lyon. South of your base will be the Cotes du Rhone area, centred on Tournon.

Just a quick comment regarding visiting wineries, and related types of places: If you’re used to visiting such areas as Hunter Valley, things are rather different in Europe. The vineyards are larger and more spread out. There isn’t any one spot with a large concentration of centres offering free tastings where the public are welcome just to drive up. Some don’t open to the public, others only by appointments. Often all you can do it buy, without tasting. However, there are some that are very welcoming and just like the terrific Oz experience, but the most common type of place will offer perhaps a few tastings, and if they’re free, you might well be expected to buy at least one bottle. They will be a great place to practice the language skills, realisitically!

Now your 2-day drive back to Paris: In terms of direct, logical routes, you probably effectively have 2 options - the A6/N6 corridor, which is the busier route but easier and navigate and probably faster. Alternatively, you could via Roanne, Decize, Nevers (again!) to Briare, Montargis, Pithiviers, Etampes and on into Paris directly due north of you. This is not one road, but the route is linked by several main N roads.

If you pick the former route, you could stop the night near Auxerre, a nice north Burgundy town with an imposing cathedral looking onto the river. This route would allow you, if you didn’t have time on the way down to check out Vezelay and Avallon on the first day, and perhaps visit Fontainebleu (the huge former royal palace, set in wonderful parkland) just before you reach Paris.

Taking the slower and more rural route, I’d pick some where near Cosne-sur-Loire for the night, and you could squeeze in one last wine region, that of Sancerre on the doorstep.

I hope I’ve given you a flavour of what you can do. Please let me know your thoughts, and ask any questions. Also, please post back a Trip Report when you get back home for others to share.

Have a grand time,

SWT

Coffs Harbour...
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8. Re: French Road Trip

Dear SWT,

Thanks so much for all the information you have provided. It certainly is appreciated and we will provide a summary of our trip for you. We now have the hotel near Epernay booked and we have also booked another hotel near Champignole where I am meeting up with a fishing guide. I have also received some information about fishing in the Loue Valley in the Jura so I think we will spend a few days in that area also, near Dole. I have heard that Beaune is a beautiful place also.

We are adventurous travelers so you never know we may meet up in July!

Thanks so much again.

Uden, The...
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9. Re: French Road Trip

Fantastic, fantastic SWT. Isn't it about time you join the "club"

Troutbum, I've followed this threat and you''ll have a fantastic trip. I would not worry too much about finding places to stay. Most of the French aren't on vacation in july and most people from The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany are camping with their families. I don't know if SWT already mentioned it but we often use Logis de France …logishotels.com/jreservit/changelangcode.do… And yes, stay away from the motorways. They are expensive and can be crowded in july.

Tet

Edit: Bad link, just look for Logis de France

Edited: 17 June 2011, 10:58
Lewes, United...
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10. Re: French Road Trip

Tet - thanks for the compliments! Appreciated. BTW, LdeF mentioned in the middle of post 3 somewhere!

Troutbum - just one quick thought: If you are light sleepers, take ear plugs! One of the downsides of simple French hotels in older buildings is the paper think walls, and, they maybe useful for any camping, too!

SWT