Few people go to France without wishing to return again to explore further. And there's plenty of France to explore – it's roughly twice the size of Britain.
You'll find plenty of variation in the hexagon-shaped country – from vast silver-sanded beaches on the Atlantic coast to soothing honey stone villages in Burgundy, chic and boutique on the French Riviera (perfumed with a little lavender) to rough and ready in the wilderness of the Massif Central. Don't miss out on Picardy, in the north of the country, either. So many visitors get their head down at Calais and make a beeline for southern France. You'll be missing out if you do!
Top five things to do in France
There’s nothing more poignant than a visit to the war cemeteries and graves around the Battle of the Somme in Picardy. You’ll find major First World War memorials at Thiepval, Beaumont Hamel and Albert.
Visit Paris. It is one of those ‘must do’ capitals – and it’s a ‘can do’ capital with a motorhome, as there’s a campsite close to the city centre, just five minutes by bus from the Arc de Triomphe.
For sumptuous gardens and shockingly perfect chateaux, the Loire Valley is the place to go. Chenonceau, Blois and Chambord are some of the well-known biggies, but you’ll find plenty of smaller, private pads, open to the public, which are as equally pleasing to the eye.
To follow the sea, the Breton coastline offers something slightly Cornish in feel. You’ll find creeks, giant headlands, boulders and dozens of charming little whitewashed villages. And the food’s pretty good too!
For the quaintest of quaint villages and olde worlde half-timbered houses, all pastel painted and coloured with floral displays, the Alsace region in eastern France is a gem. With ancient cobbled streets, and a cuisine to die for (not to mention the wine), this is a winner.
When to visit France
When to take your motorhome holidays in France? It is such a large country and there's so much to see that you'll have plenty of things to do whenever you tour France. Here are a few highlights.
You'll always find foodie festivals, spectacular temporary exhibitions and cultural displays at art galleries and museums across France, but the country offers a fabulous mix of world-class annual events.
January is Rallye Monte Carlo time. Choose between the modern, World Rally Championship version and, held straight afterwards, the historic version, when classic cars compete on the often tight and twisty roads. It's the stuff of motorsport legend.
In February, look out for exotic creations made entirely from lemons (and other citrus fruits) in the colourful world of the Lemon Festival in Menton, on the Côte d'Azur.
The English are (now) welcome to the Joan of Arc Festival in Orléans in April, a celebration of the liberation of the city by the teenage fighter, who defeated the English during the Hundred Years War. There's plenty of medieval atmosphere and charging knights on horseback.
The following month there's something very different – get your autograph books out in May to improve your collection of star-studded signatures at the Cannes Film Festival, where there's lots of glitz and glamour. Plus, in the Loire Valley, you’ve got until October to visit the International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire. With a different theme each year, there’s plenty to inspire your own garden.
Come June, you can choose between two sporting greats – the French Tennis Open at Roland-Garros in Paris or the Le Mans 24-Hour Race near the city of Le Mans in the Pays de la Loire. Either way, you’ll find tests of endurance and speed.
In July, it is time for one of the Riviera’s biggest events. Get toe-tapping at the Nice Jazz Festival or find yourself clinging to the roadside listening to the whoosh of bicycles pass you by on the Tour de France. And don’t forget that Bastille Day is 14 July – a national holiday, you’ll find most places closed.
It is time for the grape harvest across the many winemaking regions of France during September and October. The whites usually come first, followed by the reds. And you’ll find many harvest celebrations, wine fairs and markets. Beaujolais Nouveau Day, a celebration of the arrival of weeks-old Beaujolais, is celebrated on the third Thursday of November, when there are over 100 different festivities in the region.
Plus, of course, between December and April it's the French ski season in the various mountain regions of France, including the Alps, the Jura and the Pyrenees.
Cheap overnight stops
Like Germany, France is at the forefront of cheap overnight stops for motorhomes, with potentially more opportunities to stay ‘off site’ per square mile than any other country in Europe. You’ll find most French motorhome owners using the vast network of Aires de Service, specific motorhome stopovers, in preference to campsites. These aires can be found in thousands of towns and cities across France, many with stunning locations and spectacular views on riversides, lakesides, in mountains or parks.
Open to all motorhomes, many aires are free to use though there may be a small charge involved (typically between €5 and €8 for 24 hours). Most provide essential facilities for emptying waste water and cassette toilets, filling up with fresh water and dumping rubbish; some of the facilities are operated using a token, available from a nearby shop or tourist office. If you are likely to use aires significantly, it’s worth keeping hold of a supply of tokens so you’ve always got access to the facilities even when offices are closed.
Most sites are safe and secure, although it is not recommended to stay overnight at aires within motorway service stations. In addition, it is always worth having a back-up option if you arrive and don’t like the look – or feel – of the aire. The official listings guide of French aires is the annual Le Guide Officiel Aires de Services Camping Car. It’s written in French so if you’d prefer a very good English alternative, All The Aires France is a must for regular users of this type of overnight accommodation.
Aside from aires, France has a fantastic alternative, the France Passion scheme. This uses the car parks, gardens and fields of, in particular, wine producers, farmers, cider makers, cheese makers, vegetable growers, beekeepers, restaurant owners etc. On the purchase of an annual guide listing the details of all the places, you can stay for one night free of charge. It’s a great way of getting to know a particular area of the country, especially wine-producing regions – you’ll get to chat to the producers, have tastings and potentially purchase (without obligation) the produce.
For those who prefer the security of a designated campsite, you’ll find municipal-run sites in many towns. With limited facilities, these are often some of the best-value campsites in the country.
Motorhome access and information
France is one of the most motorhome friendly countries in Europe. You’ll find specific motorhome parking, including overnight stops (see our separate section) in most towns and cities, and many villages. And, even if you don’t wish to overnight in the motorhome-specific aires, you’ll find them really useful for doing the essentials like emptying cassette toilets and filling up with fresh water on your travels.
To avoid on-the-spot fines while driving, however, ensure that you have the correct documents and equipment in your ‘van. Passports, driving licence (the minimum age for visitors to drive is 18 years), vehicle registration and insurance documents are all required. It is also compulsory to have a warning triangle and a visibility-warning vest for the driver (although it’s recommended to have sufficient for all passengers). A certified (showing an ‘NF’ number) breathalyser should be carried, although officially a driver cannot be penalised for not possessing one. Headlamp converters may also be necessary. Winter tyres are not mandatory but are naturally recommended if travelling to mountain regions; snow chains, however, must be fitted in compliance with relevant road signs.
Motorways (autoroutes) in France are well maintained and a very efficient method of reaching a particular region quickly. Watch out for speed limit changes according to the weather; the law requires a reduced speed in wet conditions.
With few exceptions, motorways in France operate a toll, the price based upon the classification of the vehicle (motorhomes under 3.5 tonnes are generally Class 2, with larger ‘vans in Class 3). If you think you’ll be using autoroutes frequently, it would be worth registering the motorhome with Sanef France to make use of the Liber-T automated payment service (currently only available for motorhomes and campervans that are less than 3m high and below 3.5 tonnes GVW). It allows motorists to use the automatic telépéage lanes rather than queuing to handover cash or credit cards. Though motorhomes with overcab beds need to site the TAG correctly on the windscreen to ensure it can be read – the Sanef Tolling website provides instructions. However, using autoroutes extensively really can ramp up your touring costs, so if you have the time to tour using N-roads, you’ll get to see a lot more of the country in detail, and save yourself a fortune.
Tolled bridges and tunnels likely to be encountered regularly by motorcaravanners from the UK include the Pont de Normandie and Pont de Tancarville (crossing from Le Havre to the rest of Normandy), the Millau Viaduct (more expensive in summer than in winter), and the Mont Blanc Tunnel when crossing the border to Italy. The Paris Low Emission Zone currently only affects vehicles over 7.5 tonnes.
How to get to France
You’ll find plenty of options across the English Channel with direct routes from the UK to several ports in northern France and, for certain routes, a choice of operators. In north east France, select between Dover-Calais, Dover-Dunkirk or Newhaven-Dieppe by ferry or, using the Eurotunnel, Folkestone to Coquelles (between Calais and Boulogne). Calais, Coquelles or Dunkirk routes are useful for reaching southern France (straight onto the A26 motorway), eastern France and Paris. Alternatively, use routes to Normandy and Brittany (from Portsmouth and Poole to Caen, St Malo, Cherbourg, Le Havre and Roscoff), all operated by Brittany Ferries, which are also useful for reaching western France, the Loire, Vendée and central France.
To save hours on the road to south west France (Aquitaine, Pyrenees and Languedoc-Roussillon), it’s worth considering the Brittany Ferries crossing from Portsmouth or Plymouth to Santander in Spain – the port is less than two hours from the French border.