travel motoring in france
jonathan crouch discovers france afresh on a tour of the beautiful south west at the wheel of bmw's latest 3 series coupe
The real France still exists. I know, I've been there. A land where you really can drive through peaceful mountains and verdant valleys, sample exquisite, yet affordable, food and wine, staying in quaint little hotels. A land where the pace of life is slower and people have the time to stop and talk, even if they can't understand you.
Moreover, you can be there in just a few hours, either via a short, cheap flight or an easy ferry crossing. Whether you fly and hire a car or cruise across with your own as we did with BMW's new 3 Series Coupe, you wouldn't believe it could be so simple.
To be honest, it wasn't what I'd expected. I'd travelled to France for years and never really liked the place. The people never seemed particularly friendly, the food and wine were expensive and many of the sights were forgettable. This time however, I decided to give it one last chance. BMW bills its new Coupe as a real Grand Tourer and a gentle week meandering through France would, I decided, be a perfect opportunity to put it to the test.
The area we chose was that of the deep South West, right on the edge of the Pyrenees near the Spanish border. Once upon a time, a visit here for British tourists meant a long repetitive drive south: hardly a holiday. Now it's much more accessible. These days, plenty of ferries make the journey across the Bay of Biscay from England's southern coastal ports. We chose Brittany Ferries, who regularly cruise across from Plymouth, Poole and Portsmouth to Santander in Northern Spain, just a couple of hours easy drive from the French border.
As long as you avoid the high season (mid-June to early September), prices are relatively modest, beginning from around £100 for two people and a car in the coldest months and spiralling upwards thereafter depending on your choice of month, size of car and selection of cabin. Alternatively, Ryanair now operates a regular flight to Biarritz (near the French/Spanish border) from London Stanstead for around £70 return per person, with easy car hire facilities when you arrive.
If you're planning a trip, a good place to start is with a 'phonecall to the French Tourist Board (information line 0891-244123) who will happily help you plan an itinerary to suit the time and budget you have available. Ours began in the Haut-Pyranees area, an hour or so's drive from the coast and known best for the famous Catholic town of Lourdes, now sadly spoilt by tourists and trinket salesmen.
Venture just a few miles south however, and you're into a series of picturesque little towns resting in the foothills of the Pyrenees. One of these, where we stayed, was the little village of Angeles-Gazost, a place of little narrow streets and friendly people, another world from the metropolis of hotel rooms just down the road.
For not much more than £25 a night in the Hotel Le Beau Site, the old proprietors treated us as honoured guests and fussed over eleven month-old Caris like doting grandparents before feeding us royally with a thick local stew, pate, beef and crepes smothered with strawberries. All at just a few pounds a head.
Too soon, it was time to head the BMW north towards the ancient Cathedral city of Auch. Here, we were looking forward to trying a Chambre d'Hote, the French equivalent of Bed and Breakfast. Ours was the Domain de Loran, near the little town of Saint Maur, where we found Monsieur and Madame Nedellec and a beautiful old chateau with huge grounds and echoing wood-panneled rooms. A meal of roast duck and cherry tart had been prepared in front of a roaring fire for our arrival: it looked idyllic. And for the price, it was.
Auch lies in the Gers region of Gascony in Southern France and you don't have to travel around it for very long to discover the its culinary claims to fame. Farms everywhere advertise Fois Gras, a refined pate based on duck or goose. Some also produce the special grapes required to make armagnac, Gascony's traditional brandy. Alternatively, if you're after wine rather than spirits, there are plenty of producers willing to let you taste their wares. We visited the Caves des Producteurs Plaimont in Saint-Mont and came away with cases of the stuff.
Should ancient monuments be more your thing, there are plenty to see. Castles like the Termes D'Armagnac, abbeys like the Cistercienne de Flaran at Valence Sur Baise, chateaus like that at Lavardens and cathedrals like the one in Auch - all are worth visiting, but you need to be prepared to drive a little. There's an equally wide choice of old hotels too: we enjoyed the excellent L'Hotel Du Bastard in Lectoure, not far from the ancient town of Condom (yes really). At least it gave us something to put on the postcards.
By now, the BMW was starting to prove its worth in Grand Touring mode. Whereas the old model was restricted when it came to space for rear passengers and their luggage, we found that this one easily swallowed four huge bags, ten cases of wine, a pushchair, Caris' childseat and a stash of presents, a burden that would have tested a small estate car. Moreover, the 325Ci version we tried offered a perfect combination between 140mph performance and 30mpg economy.
The three hour trip from Lectoure back to the coastal town of St Jean de Luz just south of Biarritz offered a chance to stretch its legs as we made our way back to the Basque Country. This isn't an area many British tourists seem to know much about, preferring either the over-crowded French Mediterranean resorts or the many spoiled coastal cities of Spain. Knowing better, the French flock to St Jean de Luz, which nevertheless has kept its unspoilt charm and affordable prices.
As long as you avoid the dreaded French holiday season (mid-July to early August), you can wander the pretty streets at will and dine affordably on Basque cuisine like chipirons a l'encre (cuttlefish in ink), marmitako (a kind of stew in white wine and water) or mouchous (little macaroon cakes). There's also the option of a session of refreshing seawater treatment session at the Helianthal (00-33-559-515151), St Jean de Luz's own Institut De Thalassotherapie where your body can be bathed, massaged and generally goaded back to life at prices starting at around £50 for a half day session.
Hotels are also surprisingly cheap for a popular French resort. At the Hotel de la Poste where we stayed, the most expensive room was not much more than £40 a night for two people. Alternatively, you can now book a short stay direct with the local tourist office (00-33-559-260316) as a 3day/2 night package from as little as 500F (around £50) including two nights with breakfast, two meals in local restaurants and guided historical and gastronomic tours. All just a short hop from Biarritz airport and regular flights to Stanstead. We'll be back to try it again.
So pleasant in fact is this little resort that its only when you venture a few miles out into the Nivelle Valley that the wisdom of either hiring or bringing a car becomes evident. Not for nothing did Louis XIV choose this region for his marriage to Maria-Teresa, Infanta of Spain, back in 1660. Whether you take a drive through the Basque mountains, try the little Rhune railway, or check out the many legends of the region, there's plenty to keep you away from the sea until supper time.
Too soon, it was time to point the BMW south for the two-hour trip back to connect with the Brittany Ferries sailing at Santander. The car was faultless, quiet, fast and surprisingly practical: no better luxury coupe exists right now. As for South Western France, well we'll be back. This journey has changed my feelings about this place forever.
TRAVELLING IN SOUTH WESTERN FRANCE - FACTS AT A GLANCE
HOW TO GET THERE?: Brittany Ferries (0990-360360) / Ryanair (0541-569569)
WHO TO HELP PLAN YOUR TRIP?: French Tourist Office (Information Line 0891-244123) /Hautes-Pyrenees Tourisme (00-33-562-564800) / L'Office De Tourisme d'Auch (00-33-562-052289) / St Jean de Luz office of tourism (00-33-559-260316) - (For a Midi-Pyrenees or Aquitaine area fact pack, write to: The French Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London WIV OAL (including £1.45 postage towards P&P
WHERE TO STAY?: [suggestions based on this itinerary] Hotel Le Beau Site, Argeles-Gazost (00-33-562-970863) / Chambre d'Hotel - Domain Loran, Saint Maur (00-33-562-665155) / L'Hotel Du Bastard, Lectoure (00-33-562-688244) / Hotel de la Poste (00-33-559-260453)
WHAT TO SEE?: [suggestions based on this itinerary] Caves Des Producteurs Plaimont, Saint Mont - wine production & tasting (00-33-562-696676) / Termes D'Armagnac - castle museum (00-33-562-692512) / Chateau de Lavardens (00-33-562-645120) / L'Abbaye Cistercienne de Flaran, Valence Sur Baise (00-33-562-285019) / Cassaigne - chateau for armagnac tasting (00-33-562-280402) / Helianthal - Institut de Thalassotherapie - seawater therapy - (00-33-559-515151)