Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A No Hassle Drive to Spain

We had a fine time this summer driving the 1600 miles from London to Cadaques on the Costa Brava in Spain and back. I found the whole trip vastly superior to our usual budget airline experience and so here are some of our roadtrip key learnings:

1. If you need to get your car from the UK to the continent, Speed Ferries is a good deal.

This relatively new discount ferry service operating between the ports of Dover and Boulogne is cheap and efficient. We paid £25 to cross the channel on a trip taking 50 minutes on a giant catamaran once owned by the Australian Navy. The service was friendly, running almost to schedule on a busy travel weekend in the height of the summer.

2. Boulogne is a much nicer port than Calais.

Smaller, prettier and filled with history. Right across from the harbour where you dock is the French National Sea Experience Center, Nausicaa, an amazing place which could happily keep an entire family entertained and educated for a full day. The restaurant in Nausicaa serves a very good lunch exceeded only by La Matelote, the one star offering across the road. From the harbour, there is easy access to the A16 motorway.

3. Check the colours before you go

The French travel on highly predictable days and that being the case, the government has instituted a colour coding system. On green days, no heavy traffic is expected, moving from orange to red to the ominous “black”. On a recent black day, traffic jams of up to 100 miles were recorded. If you speak even a little French, you can check out the expected conditions at the website of the Ministry of Transportation and plan your trip accordingly.

4. The Loire is a good place to spend your first night but forget the chateaux

We stopped the first night in the Loire Valley at a delightful, family run hotel La Tonnellerie in the small village of Tavers near the medieval city of Beaugency. The atmosphere in this former wine merchant’s manor house is charming. The rooms, which range in price from €82 to €232 are comfortable and well decorated. Our family room provided much appreciated privacy for all. There is a lovely courtyard and pool which was perfect for our young daughter and we had an excellent dinner “au plein air” which included regional wines and specialties as well as a beautifully presented breakfast. Staff was attentive and seemed genuinely concerned about the quality of our experience. I’m trying to think of something I didn’t like about this hotel – well, our bathroom was a little dark and cramped - but it mattered not a bit given the warmth and attractiveness of the place. I would go back again in a heartbeat.

Inspired by such a lovely evening in the Loire, we elected the next morning to pay a visit to the chateau, Chambord which was a 20 minute drive from La Tonnellerie. In many ways it was a fine idea but not a fine “no crowds” experience. The 440 room castle is spectacular and we thought it would appeal to our daughter’s interest in princesses and all things royal. So far, so good, but even though we arrived close to the opening, the parking lot was full and the place was heaving with tour groups. It’s a big chateau and absorbs an awful lot of people but based the lines to buy tickets, lines at the bathrooms and endless numbers of competing tour groups, I would save visiting the chateaux of the Loire for off season, probably February.

5. Troyes is a vastly superior medival experience to Carcassone

Carcassonne is a perfectly restored medieval city and world heritage site that is also to be avoided at all costs in summer as the crowds are unbelievable. By contrast, on the drive back from Spain to London we had a first class “No Crowds” experience in the wonderful city of Troyes in Champagne and the equally wonderful hotel, Le Champ des Oiseaux which can be found near the cathedral in a collection of beautifully restored buildings from the 15th and 16th centuries.

Unlike so many of the places I’ve just described, this city, so important during the middle ages, is beautifully preserved, charming, uncrowded and packed with museums, shops, interesting architecture and good restaurants. We had a seriously delicious dinner at La Mignardise which can be found at 1, rue des Chats. And finally, after all the history and culture, Troyes seems to be the discount capital of France with factory outlet stores for big time French brands such as Lacoste and Petite Bateau and the savings were huge.

6. Provence is better on a bike

On the return journey, we spent the night in Provence with our friend Patrick who recently left a highly successful career in banking to pursue a love of motorcycles, biking and the open road. Patrick has a motorcycle and bicycle rental company in the fascinating city of Avignon and anyone who is considering biking in southern France should be in touch with Patrick. Why? First, because the many pleasures of Provence are best experienced on the back of a bike. Second, because Patrick is a knowledgeable and charming guy who will give you good advice and rent you an excellent bike or motorcycle at a fair price, and most importantly, because any man who has the chutzpah to trade boring old banking for motorcycles deserves everyone’s undying support.

Patrick can be found near the train station in Avignon at Holiday Bikes Provence, 20 Boulevard St. Roch or by phone on +33 (0)6 70 95 04 72 or hbprovence@wanadoo.fr.

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