Road travel

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Introduction

This page is to help route planning (including deciding how to cross the Channel if you're starting from the UK or Ireland, and including some travel detail for regional airports and train stations.)

When we first bought Le Vieux Mas over 20 years ago there was really only one autoroute south and only one way round Paris.  Even so, from the start, we looked for other routes; for better scenery, less traffic and lower cost.  The options have broadened considerably over the years with the expansion of the autoroute network and the addition of many high quality dual carriageways.  Of course the main improvements have been in the roads radiating out from Paris, but improvements to the cross-country road network contribute almost as much to the flexibility of choice now available.

It is not far short of 1000 km from Calais to Le Vieux Mas, about same from Cherbourg and about 100km less less from the central Normandy and Brittany ports.  So it a long drive, with 8 to10 hours of actual driving.  That is do-able in one day, especially with two drivers, and it is worth remembering that driving in France is generally easier than driving in the UK because the roads are better and less busy.  So the stress levels can be lower, and the enjoyment greater.  But it is still a long drive, especially if you are not used to such distances.  Since most UK visitors who drive to Le Vieux Mas will have varying distances of driving in the UK before crossing the Channel, many will break the journey, whether in the UK, France or on a ferry.

The sections that follow may seem to be in an odd order.  But it is as well to be aware of the three main options for the southern leg of the journey before considering the first half and possible cross-channel choices.  Some guidance on more local routes to the house comes last.

To state the obvious, you should read the notes below with a good map to hand.  Michelin maps are by far the best for France, and if I could have cut and pasted a few in here I would have done.  However you can probably do as well by opening a route planner in another window.  The  best online route planner for France is ViaMichelin, (which also has scaleable maps) and there are some references to it below.  One of the things this planner now does is to give you several suggested routes, though not always for long journeys.  So if you put in Calais to Florac it will give you just one option.  But if for example you put in Calais to Orléans it gives you three routes together with costs (tolls and fuel) distance and time.

Three main routes south

Le Vieux Mas is in the centre of the south of France, due north of Montpellier and due west of Avignon.  You can see it's position here.  It is in a tiny hamlet called St Michel de Dèze le Vieux, about 6 km south of a village called Collet de Dèze, which is on the N106 roughly half way between Alès and Florac.  These places are on any reasonable road map of France, and you can easily find it on ViaMichelin if you click on maps, select France as the country and search on the postcode, 48160.

Drawing a line from Paris to Le Vieux Mas (approximately due south) the three routes below are to the west, the east and roughly on that line.  They are described below starting at points south of Paris - how to get to those points is in the next section.  Obviously the western route is more suited to the Normandy ports, and the eastern route to travel from Belgium and Germany.  But you can vary one with another and, for example, any of the three is compatible with starting from Calais.  So, the three main options:

A    Orléans/Clermont Ferrand.  The most western route, and so useful for arrivals at the Normandy ports; it is also the route we have used most often, including from the short-crossing ports.  The route is picked up on the A10 north of Orléans (or on variant 3 below the A71 south of Orléans)  From there it is easy:  the A10 south then the A71 when it separates near Orléans then the A75 from Clermont Ferrand.  The A75 is in effect a continuation of the A71 but toll-free.  Leave at junction 39 to take the N88 towards Chanac and Mende.  At Balsièges you meet the N106 which takes you almost to the house, but see local routes below for a better variant.

This was long our preferred route south, even when the A71 and later the A75 were incomplete.  It is a reasonably straight line, through often empty and sometimes beautiful country.  Very quiet when we first used it, even now the autoroute is relatively uncrowded, and the A75 is toll-free from Clermont Ferrand south.  It is also a wonderful piece of engineering, a quintessential "grand projet", even setting aside the Millau bridge.  There are plenty of interesting places to stop over, including around Orléans.

B    Moulins/Clermont Ferrand.  This is the central route and with recent improvements it can now be recommended as offering a reasonable proportion of fast road.  Probably the shortest route to Le Vieux Mas from the Paris area, it is picked up at the point where the A77 leaves the A6 south-east of Paris, roughly south of Fontainbleau.  This point is easily reached whatever your starting point in northern France.  The A77 is now continuous to the south of Nevers, from which the N7 is largely dualled to a high standard south to Moulins; and increasingly beyond.  From the A7 you cross to the N2009 on either the N79 south of Moulins or the D46 north of Varennes-sur-Allier.  Whichever, from the N2009, you take the A719 north of Gannat across to the A71 north of Clermont Ferrand to pick up route A above.

This is our most recently favoured route (we've done a couple of van-runs over the last few years.)  The A77 is for the moment very un-busy, and the tolls are low, because a fair part of the route is not formally autoroute even if increasingly at that standard.  The non-dualled stretches of the A2009 can make a break from motorway driving, and are not usually over-congested.  St Pourcain-sur-Sioule is an interesting possible place to eat or stay.  The route follows the Loire, Allier and Sioule rivers, and passes some interesting towns including Sancerre, though I confess we have always pressed on.

C    Lyons.  The most easterly route and not really recommended, on the grounds of congestion and cost.  The route takes the A6 south from Paris, though - and this is perhaps a main advantage - it can also be reached on the A26 from Calais.  For the latter, you can stick to autoroute via the A5 and A31 or perhaps have a break south of Troyes, taking the N77 to join the A6 near Auxerre, or the D671/D971 to go by the attractive town of Dijon.  Whichever, the A6, the famous Autoroute du Soleil, heads south, becoming the A7 after a slightly  awkward transit of Lyon (also now bypassed by the A46).  Exiting at junction 19 the route is via Pont St Esprit, Bagnols on the N86 and then Alès on the D6, heading on to Le Vieux Mas on the N106.  Again, there are local routes available.

We have certainly used this route from time to time, not least when we were based in central Europe.  It's fine, millions of people use it every year, and the road has been widened and improved over the years.  Travelling from Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium it would probably be odd not to go this way.  And a stop-over in Burgundy can be an attractive addition to the holiday.

Routes from the coast - and from Belgium, the Netherlands and Belgium

OK, so you have provisionally selected one of the three main routes south, A, B or C.  But what is the best way to join each route?  It depends where you start from:

1    What we used to do was to take the A13 most of the way to Paris but then turn south on the A12, continuing on the N10 and then a short easy stretch of non-dualled road, the N191, to join the A10 south to Orléans.  This is still the simplest route more-or-less avoiding Paris with the least non-dualled roads.  However there is some risk of congestion on the autoroutes near Paris, and the N10 around Rambouillet is rather old and often crowded.  

2    A new variant on this route is now available with the opening of the A86 middle ring road in 2011.  For the price of a €5 toll, you can continue on the A13 past the A12, to take the A86 anticlockwise to access all three routes south.  For the A10, (route A), you take the N118, shortly after the tunnel.  If you want to try route B (or even head over to route C), continue  a bit further along the A86 to join the A6 at an interchange near Orly.  Then stick on the A6, taking the A77 for route B.  You can get the Michelin planner to show this route by asking for a route from Caen to Nevers.

3    The first "country" variant goes near Rouen.  From Dieppe you take the N27, which is mostly dualled, to join the A151, A150 then A139 to join (relatively briefly) the A13 towards Paris.  However unlike our old route, you exit on the A154 and N154 south towards Dreux and Chartres, joining the A10 north of Orléans.  From Caen and Le Havre you just join the A13 and then follow this new route south at Rouen.

4    From Caen, there is a second, better, "country" variant which joins the A10 south of Orléans, useful for avoiding a slightly busier section of autoroute, (but also bypassing an area favoured by some for an overnight stop on the journey.)  The route goes by Le Mans: you take the N158, much of which is dualled, to join the A28 past Tours, then the A85 east to join the A10 at Vierzon.  This is a good route: it doesn't make sense to use it from Dieppe or Le Havre but it works for Cherbourg and the nearer Brittany ports.

5    From Calais, the first Michelin recommendations is still a route heading straight into the périphérique on the A26 and then A1 and back out initially on the A6 for all 3 routes south.  Plainly that is an option, though for years we have preferred to avoid the périphérique because it is both pretty stressful and often congested.

6    So what we used to do was to take the A16 via Boulogne towards Paris, turning right on to the N184 (part of an outer ring road) at junction 10 signposted for Cergy-Pontoise amongst other places.  This provides a fast route as far as Poissy, which we drove through in order to join the A13 back towards Paris, then the A12 south and then on via the N10, N191 (route 1 above) to join route A south.  You can still go this way of course: the downside is a short urban section through Poissy and possible slow progress past Rambouillet.

7    The modern alternative to this provided by the new A86, is to exit the A16 on the N184 (as route 6 above) but to take the A115 and then A15 to join the A86 anticlockwise to the N118 and A10 (route A) or on to the A6 junction for routes B and C. This is autoroute all the way with a toll of €5.

8    The other thing to note is that the route via Rouen and Chartres (route 3 above) is also viable for Calais.  You take the A16 then A28 near Abbeville, driving through the outskirts of Rouen to pick up the A13 east and the rest of route 3.  The Michelin reckons this to cost 25 minutes and save €25 on the shorter route.

9    So that's fine for the A16, but if you choose to arrive via the A26/A1 you probably won't want to go the long way round.  Instead, to avoid the périphérique, take the A104 just after Charles de Gaulle, initially following signs for Marne la Vallée but continuing on the A104/N104 (including a short section which is the A4) round to the A6 junction for all 3 routes south.  This is the same outer ring as at route 6 above, going the other way, and fully dualled, albeit with quite a few junctions.

10    Or you can keep further in by taking the A3 exit off the A1 and then joining the A86 (clockwise) until you get to the A6/A10 turn off for all three routes south.  This is the Michelin recommended route from Lille and is also well signposted - just follow signs for Bordeaux and Lyon as you approach Paris.

11 Two further options from the A26 avoid Paris rather more widely.  The first is well suited to route B south, and also a stop-over or brief respite from autoroute before joining the A6/A77 south.  From the A26 take the A1 towards Paris but exit at the A104 as at route 8 above.  Follow signs to Marne la Vallée and then Melun, exiting the N104 on the A5b and N105 (the numbering is a bit uncertain around here, it keeps on changing) for Melun itself.  Whatever the road numbering, you are heading for the centre of the town.  We have stayed at Melun a couple of times, it has most of the cheap and mid-priced hotel chains and some decent restaurants.  It's not unbeautiful but for a more attractive and/or upmarket stopover you could try Fontainbleau, a few miles further on the D605.  From there, the D607 will take you through the forest to the A6.  The A77 for route B is the second exit after joining the A6.

12 Finally, there is an option to stick on the A26 south from Calais.  The basic route is A26, A5, A31, A6 and on south, but there is an obvious corner to cut to give a bit of relief from autoroute, the N71 from near Troyes to Dijon.

13    So for example the Michelin recommends that from Brussels, you take the A4 (and A6 in Luxembourg) then the A31 south to join the A6 near Beaune, then following Route C.

14    Michelin also offers a route via Paris to join route A but it is 40 minutes longer and slightly more expensive.  That means Routes B is also possibly worth considering, approached by a variants of routes 10 or 11 above.

15    For much of northern Netherlands a route via Lille and Paris and then Route A south appears to be slightly quicker and about the same cost (Route B would be slightly cheaper).  For the southern part of the country the Luxembourg route may be better.  For example, from Amsterdam, the Paris route comes out better, for Eindhoven it's about the same.  For most people from the Netherlands a pretty equal choice therefore, with other factors also no doubt having a bearing.

16    A route via Luxembourg will also be an option for much of northern Germany, but in practice the absence of motorway tolls may suggest a route that stays longer in Germany.  Thus from Frankfurt, Michelin suggests taking the A5 south, the A36 past Mulhouse and then the A39 to join the autoroute bypass of Lyon and the A7 south.  It suggests the same for Hannover but the Luxembourg route for Köln/Cologne.

Local routes

The point of this section is that some of the ways of arriving at your destination in the Cévennes are not the ones you might naturally assume.  Also there are "scenic" routes that might be as quick or as appealing as the main roads.  The section is also written with visitors in mind who might be arriving from local airports - so it covers arrivals from all points of the compass.  What follows goes clockwise from one of the main access routes, route A.

a)   after you leave the N88 to take the N106 at Balsièges, do not stay on the N106.  The route is very winding and the risk of getting stuck behind a truck for miles is very high.  Always, the better way is to take the right shortly after the village of Balsièges, the D 986, which winds up steeply to the causse.  After several hairpins take the D231, which becomes the D31 across the causse to drop down to Ispagnac, where you turn left on the D907b to rejoin the N106 to Florac and on to the house.

b)    from Rodez, take the N88 and then the A75 north to junction 39 to pick up route (a) above.  You also have the opportunity to drive through the Gorges du Tarn, which is genuinely spectacular, but be aware that it will be slow.  To do that, leave the N88 before it reaches the A75, going through Sévérac-le Chateau on to the D995 and Les Vignes.

c)     much more locally, leave the N106 (again) at the Col de Jalcreste to take the D984, exactly at the col, then the D54 and D13 to the house.  We always go this way from Florac.

d)    leave the A6/A7 at Lyon and take the N88 to St Étienne and onwards to Mende and then routes (a) and (c) above.  (You can take either the old route through Lyon or the autoroute bypass.)   We have never driven this way.  The N88 is destined for improvement over the years, but for the moment this not the fastest way to the Cévennes from Lyon;

e)    Possibly a more interesting variant is to leave the A7 on the D104 south of Valence (junction 16) and to drive through the Ardèche.  This is a great drive, but quite slow, and perhaps demanding at the end of a long day's drive.  We have done it a couple of time partly because there is a pass famous for migration observation on the way.  The route also flatters to deceive:  it points towards the central Cévennes but to persist with that involves some seriously little roads.  I have persisted and it was a delight; but I know the roads and I could not seriously recommend it to those who do not.  So the route is to Alès and back on the N106 to the house.

f)    The first choice for Michelin is out of Avignon on the N100 and then the A9 to Nîmes and back up the N106 to Alès.  We've never done this though it is simple and increasingly quick as the N106 dualling extends south towards Nîmes.  The route is best avoided if you may hit Nîmes at rush hour as the N106 near the town can be very busy at such times.

g)    Second for Michelin is the N100 and then the D6580/N580 up to Bagnols and then across on the D6 to Alès (the tail end of Route C above).  I just don't think I'd do that, though the D6 is quick and in places attractive across the garrigue.

h)    Our original preferred route goes by Uzès, which, if you have time to stop, is a fine, rather Italian, town with a good market.  You take the N100 out of Avignon, and then zig-zag on to the D981at Remoulins and across to Alès.  This route goes by Pont du Gard, so you could visit on your journey - but do allow enough time to enjoy the spectacle and its surrounds.  The dualled N106 does exert a pull, of course, so increasingly, and especially if we plan to shop in Alèès, we drop across to the N106 on the D982 via Moussac.

i) and then there is the little road way, which is to follow route (h) but to take the D112 not long after Remoulins to Collias and on via the D18 and D22 to la Calmette the present (though not for much longer) end of the dualled section of the N106.  This route skirts the garrigue along the Gardon and is passingly attractive, with opportunities to buy wine and local produce by the roadside.

j)    Take the D20 out of the airport, quickly reaching the D113 north to Salon (some signs say for "Salon par RN"), then the A54/N113 to Nîmes (exit at Nîmes Ouest and follow signs for Alès) and the N106 to Alès.  This is the Michelin recommended route.  You can choose the A7 north from the airport, but that involves more toll costs, a number of potentially confusing junctions in quick succession at the start, and doesn't really save any time.

k)    From the airport join the A54 north to Nîmes and exit at Nîmes Ouest and follow signs for Alès: after the toll, cross the roundabout, 2nd exit, and continue.  This is a sort of western bypass of Nîmes and can be a bit congested; it is also the N106 to Alès.  

l)    From Montpellier airport, take the D66 to the A9, head for Nîmes, exit at Nîmes Ouest (junction 25) following signs for Alès and the N106 to Alès (see route (k) for a little more detail.)

m)   Whatever your starting point, on the A9 after Montpellier you will see a sign for Alès at junction 28.  This would take you by the old N110 now demoted to D610 and D6110.  But this is not a route I really favour, it is rather an old fashioned road, quite narrow and winding for a French main road, and with a fair few villages along its length.  

n)    For a better cross-country route (also more scenic and with wine-buying opportunities) take exit 28 but continue on the D68 until taking the D17 to St Matthieu de Tréviers and Quissac.  There are many good wine properties on and just off this road.  At Quissac you can follow signs to Alès but that will put you back on a stretch of the D6110 so we never do that.  Instead we take the D35 towards Anduze and then branch right on a little road, the D24, that takes you the country way to Alès.  From Montpellier airport you can also access this route by crossing the A9 on the D66 and driving through Castelnau-le-Nez on the D21 to reach the D17.  It's urban in places but perfectly quick.  From further west, you can get to the D17 by exiting the A9 at junction 32 and taking the D132 outer ring.

o)    From Toulouse, you have another option which is the N88 to Albi and Rodez (from which see route (b) above.)  But if you are going that way it would be a pity to miss the Millau bridge, so from Albi, take the D999 across to junction 46 on the A75 and go north across the bridge (there is a toll), stopping at the aire on the northern side.  For the Gorges du Tarn, you could leave at junction 44.1 to take the D9 - but be aware that it can be slow.  Otherwise continue to junction 39 and see routes (a) to (c) above.

That said, there are of course good and less good routes.  The town has a bypass to its east, the D60, but it is a mixed blessing because it is quite long and lined for much of its length with well used shops: it is often busier than the roads through the centre.  But its existence allows a simple instruction: from whichever direction you meet it as you approach Alès, turn right at the roundabout (there will be a roundabout) following signs to Mende until (at the end of the bypass) turning right, still following signs to Mende on the N106 north-west.

To avoid the bypass (which we usually do),  at the end of the dual carriageway from Nîmes, go straight across the roundabout heading into a retail park with a prominent MacDonalds.  Turn right at the first mini-roundabout and straight across the second (unless to go right to a Cora hypermarket) and third.  Continue along the river embankment, going under little bridge and straight across several roundabouts and sets of lights, eventually leaving town, still on the right embankment, by the main N106.

Similarly, if you have arrived the back way from Montpellier (route (n) above) it is certainly quicker to go directly across the ring-road roundabout and drive straight into town.  You will quite quickly get to the old bridge which you cross and then turn right along the embankment.

Just to note, some road signs for Mende take you on to the left bank of the river, because the busy town centre is on the right.  There's nothing wrong with that, we sometimes go that way, but it's a bit slower, not so much in town but because the signposted route take a slower road some way out of town, rejoining the N106 at Cendras.  If you are on the left bank it is generally better to re-cross the river at one of the several bridges and continue upstream on the right bank.

You can see most of this on the map here, though Google maps are much less good than Michelin.

Our local village, Le Collet de Dèze, which is less than 15 minutes from the house, is about 30km (20m) from Alès, about a 30 minute drive on a smooth but fairly bendy road.   Collet de Dèze is the last opportunity to shop before getting to Le Vieux Mas.  There are most types of shop including a good baker, a post office, newsagent and small supermarket with a good amount of local produce.

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