If you fancy a French driving holiday, Richard Swan recommends Évian-les-Bains in the Rhône-Alpes region of south-eastern France.
Driving long distances is both a pleasure and a pain. I love the feeling of freedom, being able to switch off for long periods of time as the milometer steadily turns over; I hate the time spent crawling through unknown cities and one-way systems, and the accompanying rows with whoever is unlucky enough to be navigating. I could even provoke the sat nav into answering back.
Comparatively, taking the car across France feels pretty easy to me. We live in south-west London; the M20 is barely half an hour away and, by Eurotunnel, one can be on the Autoroute outside Calais within two hours of leaving home. The previous summer, I drove through the Alps to Lake Garda for a wedding. Then, we travelled at breakneck speed through breathtaking scenery, so this time I wanted to take it slower and see more of the mountains.
Driving in France can be a fairly expensive affair and the regular toll booths feel extortionate after a few stops. Tolls, at the time of writing, are around €50 each way, but they shave off around three hours’ driving time. ViaMichelin shows you the costs of tolls and lets you choose routes that avoid the booths if you want to take a more meandering – and affordable – route.
I’m a sucker for my Hotels.com loyalty points (book 10 nights, get one free) and comparing ViaMichelin’s route maps to available rooms en route made planning the trip very easy. The city of Laon looked a good bet for a one-night stopover and we found a deal at the Golf De L’Ailette for a night.
Laon itself is a walled medieval city that sits on a 100-metre high bump on the otherwise flat Picardy plains. The area has been fought over by everyone from Julius Caeser to Kaiser Wilhelm, and we spent part of the afternoon exploring the Caverne du Dragon, a system of caves that were the site of several WW1 battles.
After the stopover, the following day was largely spent driving, mostly through the mountains. Shrouding towns and villages in secrecy, the Alps gradually reaveal breathtaking views as you drive through gorges and tunnels cut into the limestone. Finally, reaching the built-up areas around Lausanne by mid-afternoon, the sat nav was switched on and the hard part started.
Evian-les-Bains is rather a confusing town to navigate by car. Built on a steep hillside, the roads form a strata-like effect with a number of streets leading back onto themselves. It took a few circuits of the town before we happened upon our accomodation. We stayed at Sur La Corniche in an en-suite room with a view across the lake and a small kitchen and outside dining area in the garden. The booking process was slightly old-fashioned, involving contracts and cheques, but the couple we rented from were very easy to deal with.
We weren’t staying far from the funicular railway running up and down the hillside all day. That took us right into the centre of the main promenade, and from there it’s possible to catch a fast ferry over to Geneva, Lausanne or Montreux, or a more leisurely six hour cruise on a paddle steamer, with lunch included.
For something more child-friendly and active, the town of Evian has a beautiful swimming pool including a children’s pool and high diving boards into the lake. There are also free beaches dotted around the lake at regular intervals. Or, for a more luxurious day out, there’s the Evian spa. Around the lake, there are also medieval villages and the Chateau de Ripaille, in nearby Thonon-les-Bains, produces its own AOC-labelled white wine (made, of course, with Evian water).
Heading inland, away from the lake, we travelled into the mountains through Le Vallee D’Abondance and the ski slopes, melted at the time of our July visit; instead of skiers, mountain bikers would pass over us in the cable cars. But in the distance, we could make out the snow-capped peak of Mont Blanc. We travelled through the ski resorts of Morzine, climbed a high peak to a wooden cabin restaurant to eat a reblochonnade (melted cheese on potatoes, onions and sausages), and spent an afternoon fishing for trout in one of the lakes.
Our time in Evian ended and, for the return journey, we picked Le Touquet as our stopover. It’s fairly near to Calais and, at around 500 miles away, we arrived in the late afternoon. It has the air of a Victorian seaside town with cafes, bars, boutique shops, upmarket restaurants and a black-tie casino. The Hotel Victoria is in the centre of town and was pleasant enough for a night’s rest.
The following day was a Sunday, and a pretty bleak one at that. With storms blowing in and the Cite Europe shopping centre closed, we were pretty surprised to be waved on a much earlier Eurotunnel crossing, and only charged €3 for the changed booking.
Into the train, into the tunnel, and within 30 minutes we were back home in England, ready for the short drive home back up the M20.
Words: Richard Swan for Feet on the Ground
Images: Richard Swan / Evian-Tourisme.com