August 30, 2015


Supernomad in the sand

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The Cynic's Guide to Driving in France - by Vicki Marinker of Lifestyle Maven

The Cynic’s Guide to Driving in France - by Vicki Marinker, Lifestyle Maven

Being an unadventurous family of four with two young kids, our holidays usually comprise an all-inclusive hotel in a hot climate where we don’t have to move far from our sunbeds and the kids are entertained by far more engaging adults than us.

This year we joined my best friend and her family in the Dordogne region of France for a self-catering holiday in a large rustic farmhouse.

It was a long car journey, taking nearly two full days with an overnight stop in a fantastic budget hotel in Le Mans en route (see, I can speak French and everything!).

There is some essential kit you need to take with you if you’re driving to France, including headlamp beam deflectors and other safety equipment. There are loads of car kits available on Amazon and they aren’t expensive. I also recommend taking a spare car key. We forgot ours and had a couple of hairy moments looking for our one and only key.

We learnt a few things during our trip, so here’s my honest guide to driving in France, with some helpful tips and a few MASSIVE generalisations, all served with un petit peu of sarcasm:


  • It is perfectly acceptable to ‘tailgate’ on the roads in France, driving very close to the car in front in order to intimidate them into the slow lane.
  • The speed limit on the A and N roads (the faster routes) changes every few miles, but you can ignore the signs as everyone speeds.
  • France is bigger than you think, so prepare for several hours of driving between attractions. France is three times bigger than the UK in terms of landmass.
  • The petrol stations on the fast roads only have a couple of toilets, which means there is always a long queue for the ladies loo. I used the men’s toilet, although I had two small boys with me so no one seemed to care.
  • There are picnic areas just off the N roads, where you can stop to stretch your legs or use the toilet. Some of the picnic area loos are those old fashioned stand-up holes in the ground, where you have to position your feet on the foot plates and just let it all hang out. My tip – take loo roll in the car.
  • Motorway tolls (péage) are really expensive. Gone are the days of chucking a few coins into a bucket. We spent on average 70 Euros per day travelling from Calais to Dordogne. Fortunately they all take credit cards making the process pretty quick and easy.
  • French music is everything you imagine it will be. Unless you have a digital radio the signal on the motorway is poor so take your own music.
  • You can get BBC radio 2 in northern France.
  • You can get French radio in Kent!

Food & Drink:

  • Kids’ meals in France comprise of only two choices – steak haché et frites (burger and French fries, which comes without a bun, but is usually home-made, good quality beef) or Pizza.
  • If you don’t eat bread, tough – for two reasons: firstly, it’s delicious so you will have to submit; secondly there are relatively few bread-free menu options. Just enjoy it, you’re on holiday.
  • Don’t expect to be offered any vegetables.
  • There is no such thing as bad wine in France. We had the table wine with our meals and I wouldn’t describe any of it as ‘plonk’. So make sure to stock up before driving home. Wine boxes don’t have the same negative reputation as they do in the UK. We bought two x five litre boxes home with us and it worked out at around 4 Euros per litre – and the wine is lovely.
  • If you want to eat really great French food, come to London. We ate some good Italian style meals, but the French food was nothing to write home about.
  • I read a book recently called French Children Don’t Throw Food, about how French children behave so well in restaurants (and generally) compared to British children. I can now confirm this is a myth. Because there are no French children in restaurants in France. I don’t know where they are, but they aren’t here.

Out and About:

  • There are no pedestrians in French towns in the summer. The French clearly go elsewhere for their holidays. This became the subject of a fun family game of ‘count the pedestrians’.
  • In the Dordogne most of the people you will encounter will be English. So you won’t have to shout to make yourselves understood.
  • The weather is unpredictable: we were there in August and the weather ranged from 14 degrees and rain one day, to 32 degrees and bright sunshine the next. Take clothes for all seasons, and an umbrella.

Places to Visit:

Although we had a pool and all the comforts of home, we had several rainy days so had to find interesting places to take the kids. They would have quite happily played Minecraft all day, but we felt that was a waste of a 700 mile journey. The Dordogne is full of beautiful towns and villages as well as historic and pre-historic sites. We were in the North of the region and were willing to travel up to 90 minutes, so here are my picks:

Brantome – a pretty village, with boutique shops, several restaurants and a weekly market. Has something of a Cotswold feel to it.

Bourdeilles – beautiful architecture in this village with a wide river running through it. We went to a little food fair one evening, with musicians playing and great street food. We let the kids run around and paddle in the river while we sipped our Rosé and noshed on our duck confit.

Le Roque St Christophe – a pre-historic town cut into a very high cliff. Neanderthal man lived here 50,000 years ago. It’s 300 feet above the ground and gave me the wobbles, but it’s a fascinating place.

Grotte de Villars – these caves were only discovered just over 60 years ago by a potholing club. It’s difficult to describe how incredible these caves were. There are literally thousands of stalactites and stalagmites, which are lit up – artificially of course. There is a light and sound show in one of the chambers and original cave paintings. Awesome – in the true sense of the word.

On sunnier days there were lots of opportunities to swim in lakes and rivers as well as hire canoes. A favourite of ours was called La Guinguette de Rénamont, where the water was clear and there was a little beach.

Feel free to share any tips you have about driving abroad, or just tell me about your summer holiday in the comments below. Bon Vacances!

Vicki Marinker in the creator of Lifestyle Maven, the UK lifestyle blog for your fabulous 40s and beyond - from the unusual to the useful, the beautiful & the bizarre: beauty, food, fashion, parenting & more. You can read more lifestyle articles on Lifestyle Maven.

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