Friday, 6 February 2015

Driving to the UK Part 2 - Where to Stop

There are constraints with stopovers. This being a wine blog then staying somewhere that avoids driving to eat is important. A consideration for larger towns is parking and security as lugging everything to a hotel room is essential with street parking almost anywhere. Reasonably priced/budget hotels with some form of secure parking tend to be on the outskirts but at least these days the larger towns (Rouen, Orleans, Clermont-Ferrand) have tramways that make the journey into the centre easy and predictable.

Suggestions for dining and sleeping are influenced by personal preferences – economical, simple, clean, quiet accommodation; not put off by walking a Km or more from the hotel and splashing out on an occasional up to date gourmet restaurant with good wine that can set one back over €150 for two.

Near the channel ports - La Cour de Remi

A strong recommendation wherever it was sited, La Coer de Rémi is only 1h15m from the channel ports just east of Hesdin. Sited in the grounds of an estate a courtyard conversion has yielded spacious rooms and an atmospheric contemporary dining room. For good measure add a Bistro menu that would shine in Paris plus a highly personalised wine list full of value.
This is also a good base for the Somme WW1 museums and memorials.

Interesting Towns ordered north to south

Large busy town on the Seine a couple of hours or so from the channel ports. The Ibis/Mercure is conveniently next to where the A28 meets the Seine and has a secure underground car park. Origine delivered one of our best 2014 creative dining experiences, but otherwise the dining scene is mixed to say the least - beat the streets to find somewhere busy with locals.

Dominated by the famous cathedral the old town and banks of the Eure are pleasant for wandering around. Chartres is also well positioned if only stopping one night when doing the west of Paris route. Downsides are the budget hotels are a fair way from the centre and this is not a city for a gourmet meal. The easy to find Bistrot de la Cathédrale at least has a good atmosphere and some hearty dishes.

On the splendour of the Loire where for some real France begins when heading south. Several budget hotel options with secure parking on the outskirts and the tramway makes an evening in town simple. Not the most exciting town for dining out but natural wine lovers can console themselves in Les Becs à Vin (Place du Châtelet by Les Halles).

Interesting buildings and museums plus a gastronomic heritage are the plus points. The Logis Hôtel Des Allées is friendly and pleasant with courtyard parking and an easy walk into town.

Delightful medieval town of manageable size on the Yonne. The central Ibis has a great location with parking along the river (empty your vehicle). Sadly eating out is a bit of a mixed bag.

Attractive hilltop wine town. Not overtly tourist but enough to ensure a fair selection of accommodation and restaurants. Sited on the central place La Tour just about lived up to its Michelin star but wasn't memorable.

Large but not daunting town in the centre of France with and some well preserved medieval streets and buildings. The impressive cathedral tower is worth climbing for the view and exercise. For a delightful change of pace take a walk past the gardens and waterways of the Marais.
The old town proffers a selection of restaurant but for something special Le Cercle gets it right.
Although not particularly central, give the Logis Les Tilleuls a try (convenient for Le Cerle), otherwise friends recommend the Hôtel D'Angleterre where garage parking can be pre-booked.

Clermont Ferrand
Beyond the imposing dark basalt Cathedral Clermont Ferrand is more a functional than attractive town. However, several edge of town hotels by the tramway and near the autoroute smooth the logistics. The cooking plus stunning wine list at the inexpensive Le Saint Eutrope won’t disappoint. Run by the hands-on couple who previously operated Chassignolles (see below) Harry Lester also sources regional wines for the Gergovie Wines in London. Otherwise the town punches above its weight with Michelin macarons.
Being at the gateway to the A75 Clermont-Ferrand is little more than 3h from the Hérault so there will be time to spend a good couple of hours in the interesting Michelin Museum (free secure visitor parking and near a tramway).

There are too few country retreats in this list. To redress the balance a bit: -

The Auberge de Chassignolles (open May to October) is perhaps a bit close to the region to be an ideal stopover. On the other hand, at little more than 3 hours from the heart of the Languedoc and 45m from the A75 J20 south of Issoir, is also suited for an overnight excursion. Chassignolles is more a hamlet than village high up in the meadows and forests of the Auvergne. Come here for gimmick free tasty simple dining, carefully chosen wines (Domaine Ribiera is listed) and inexpensive accommodation. Run by Bristol chef legend Peter Tayor the result is something the French struggle so hard to deliver in the modern era.

Other towns on the list to explore are Gien, Troyes, Blois.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Driving to the UK (to transport that wine) Part 1

The subject of driving to the UK from the Midi comes up quite frequently with friends and acquaintances in both physical and social media environments. Sometimes the context is driving vs. flying. Assuming flying implies the need for a hire car then, all things being equal, fly for a trip of less than three weeks as costs should be less and travelling time is reduced. Of course there are many determining nuances to consider – number of travellers, luggage needs and pets, convenience and cost of a UK air route, age and size of car, the number of willing drivers and any plans to visit elsewhere en route. Perhaps, and this is a wine blog, the ability to bring back wine will be the most critical of all.

What surprises is how many who drive always treat the journey as a rally, only stopping for fuel, loos, leg stretches and to rotate drivers. Avoiding overnight accommodation and even meal costs makes this tactic economical and does maximise the time spent in the beloved south.

This post covers the express driving routes to the main channel ports. Part 2 proposes detours and wine friendly stopovers for those wishing, even if only occasionally, to take two or more days crossing France.

To/from the central France – A75, A20 or A7?

Without contemplating a major detour around the hexagon or a seriously sedate crossing the Massif Central there are realistically three routes between the Languedoc-Roussillon and central France. Between the centre and the main Channel ports more variations are available, but again broadly three routes.

Taking the A75 is the obvious route when based in the centre of the Languedoc-Roussillon. Packed with stunning mountain scenery for over 250Km and featuring two passes over 1000m it is, bar the wonder of crossing the Millau bridge, toll free as far as Clermont-Ferrand.

To the west picking up the A20 north of Toulouse also carves through hilly terrain and is toll free for much of the route after Toulouse.

Finally to the east is the A7 up the Rhone valley to Lyon and beyond. The downsides of this route are many. The Rhone valley is an industrial and transport artery making for plenty of indifferent scenery. The A7 is also perennially busy, Lyon has to be negotiated and there is no relief from tolls. Nevertheless, this can be the last route to suffer winter weather and is the quickest way for wine lovers taking in the Burgundy, Jura and Champagne regions.

Location in the Languedoc makes a difference when time is of the essence. Anywhere where Carcassonne is nearer than Narbonne makes the A20 the main contender. East of Montpellier and the A9 starts to look more attractive to avoid back-tracking. In between the A75 is the obvious choice.

Paris or not

Traversing Paris well out of rush hour makes it the quickest route. A popular option avoiding the notorious Périphérique and the boring lorry bulging A1 uses the relatively new A86 tunnel on the west side of Paris. Heading south take the A16 from Boulogne to Paris. At the end the A16 turn right onto the N184 and soon after left onto the A115 that joins the A15 just before the A86 turnoff. At the end of the long A86 tunnel section take the N12 west and then the N10 south west. At Ablis pick up the N191 to the A10 and on to Orleans. It’s complicated, but friends always go this way.

West and East around Paris

Avoiding Paris the most popular route is to the West via (direction south) Rouen and Chartres before joining the A10 autoroute north of Orleans. After Orleans the A71 leads to Bourges and the A75 at Clermont-Ferrand. For the A20 turn off the the A71at Vierzon. This route does have slower bits – Rouen, around Dreux and Chartres where heading though town is as quick as the long bypass. In between is mostly quiet toll free dual carriageway, but use the A16 péage between Boulogne and Abbeville.

The route to the east involves the A26 from the channel ports via Reims and Troyes and if avoiding Paris is an option for Lyon and Montpellier. A scenic and toll relieving alternative with some attractive open country is to go from Troyes to Auxerre and on to the Loire valley at Cosne-Cours and the heart of Sancerre country. Head down to Nevers and Moulins (mostly dual carriageway) then cut across to Saint-Pourçain and pick up the autoroute just north of Gant to join the A71.