We’ve just had a fantastic three-week driving holiday.
Travelling to France
We took the decision not to fly this year and it was a great one. After a wonderfully uneventful 35-minute crossing on Eurotunnel, we made our way to our first stop of the holiday: Orbais-l’Abbaye in the Champagne-Ardenne region. It’s a great base for exploring the wider Champagne region.
For our first night dinner we headed to nearby Champagne epicentre Epernay. I’d assumed it would all be rather quiet, but there was no room at restaurant after restaurant. We finally lucked out and got a table at a lovely place where the girls had the first of the many steak hachés they’d be eating in France.
Champagne – day 2
We had a private tour booked with Grape Escapes and were picked up from our accommodation and taken to one of the most traditional Champagne houses in existence – Champagne Henry de Vaugency. A great overview of the history was given and we saw the main processes, which are still done by hand (including the ginormous wooden press). It was a very visual tour and the owner was extremely enthusiastic, so the girls were kept entertained. Then it was on to the tasting 😁 The children got as much fizzy orange as they wanted so thumbs up from them!
Lunch was arranged as part of the itinerary and for that we headed into Hautvillers, a really pretty village surrounded by vines and containing lots of Champagne houses. We had a trio of Champagnes to accompany our lunch and then had a mooch around this quaint village. Then it was off to another traditional maker: Champagne Philippe Martin in nearby Cumières where we had another good tour and tasting.
Puligny-Montrachet – days 3 and 4
We then headed to another wine heartland – Puligny-Montrachet in Burgundy. It’s a small and pretty village, which has a really great wine bar (literally opposite our accommodation) serving all the local – and many other – wines. From this base, we visited the wonderful and vibrant walled-town of Beaune, which is the wine capital of Burgundy.
The town is renowned for Hôtel-Dieu (Hospices de Beaune). This fantastic place now hosts the largest charity wine auction in the world. However, it was originally a hospital and refuge for the poor, which was the beneficiary of many neighbouring vineyards through charitable donations.
This place did not disappoint; it is stunning with it’s amazing Gothic architecture and iconic polychrome tiles. We did a self-guided tour, which we all enjoyed.
After a really top-notch lunch at Le Cheval Noir, it was time to be unashamedly touristy and take the train tour. It was a good way to cover a lot of ground, see some of the pretty cobbled streets and the encasing vineyards of the town, but it wasn’t the most informative of tours!
Pila in Valle D’Aosta region of Italy via Lausanne in Switzerland – days 5 and 6
We did three countries in one day. We drove from France to the Swiss border at Vallorbe. From here we drove to Lausanne, a city on Lake Geneva. We had a promenade, paddle and drinks at Angleterre & Résidence where Lord Byron was when he wrote The Prisoner of Chillon. The lake is stunning. We didn’t get chance to visit the cobbled streets of the old town, but next time…
We hit the road again and drove from Switzerland to the Valle d’Aosta (Aosta Valley) region of Italy via the Great Saint Bernard Pass, which connects the two countries and lies on the ridge between the two highest mountains of the Alps. It costs 29,50 CHF to pass (£25 at time of writing). It’s a fantastic experience driving round the twisty turny roads, going higher and higher and getting your first glimpse of snow-capped mountains (even in August when it’s over 25c). I can only begin to imagine what it must look like in winter. The journey brought back memories of doing this route as a child.
We arrived in the outskirts of Aosta – the capital of the region – and carried on climbing and climbing. Although our final destination Pila was only a couple of miles away it took over half an hour to reach owing to the zigzagging; it got fresher as we continued our ascent. The 39c of Beaune the day before was a distant memory and this was an invigorating contrast we all loved.
Our accommodation was a proper alpine chalet. It was delightful and nothing like any place we’ve stayed in before. We all thought it was amazing.
Pila is a ski-resort in the Aosta Valley and has lots of pistes, but obviously we weren’t there for the skiing (though I’m now sorely tempted to give it a go in season). Our host recommended Yeti restaurant, which was a 15-minute walk from our chalet. Even in summer, it’s a hugely cosy place. We had a fantastic meal and the kids said it was the best so far and I had to agree. We had a wonderful evening and stayed until late.
Next morning, we had an early dip in the jacuzzi, which the girls LOVED (used for limited periods at a time). Then we got the cable car down into the city of Aosta itself. It was a fab ride and surprisingly cheap (5 euro return for the kids and 7 euro for us). Aosta is a nice Roman town and we had a good mooch about, visited the cathedral, had an aperitivo, bought gifts and had lunch. Later it was more jacuzzi time. Then we built a fire and had a chill out with a film. Despite it being a 10-15-minute cable car ride away there was a 15c temperature difference between the town and Pila in the mountains.
Bordighera (and surrounding towns), Liguria, Italy – days 7-14
A fond farewell was bid to the Aosta Valley (with a promise to return) and we set off for my family’s place in Bordighera.
We soon hit the Piemonte region. Everyone was feeling hungry, so I found a nearby town off the motorway called Vercelli. We looked for nearby restaurants having done no research and came across an unassuming place called Ristorante del Cin Cin. Oh my! It was fantastic Piemontese food and even had a summer truffle menu. We were all very happy; an M1 pitstop is never going to feel the same!
Heading back towards the motorway we noticed all the paddy fields. You could have been mistaken for thinking you were in South East Asia. Vercelli, we discovered, is known as the rice capital of Italy. We carried on through Piemonte and then hit the region of Liguria.
Our first night was spent with the family and the next day we stayed local for aperitivos, lunch and beach time.
We drove to nearby Bussana Vecchia. The town was partially decimated and subsequently abandoned in 1887 due to an earthquake. In the 1960s a community of international artists re-populated it and now it’s a striking, interesting and bohemian spot. I love it. We had a lovely wander and soaked up the sites. We even discovered a huge model railway rig, which was very impressive; the girls were surprisingly taken with it. Then it was off to local restaurant La Casaccia di Bussana Vecchia for panisse (chickpea fries) and arrosticini and roasted potatoes. Yum! We then headed for a nearby beach followed by an aperitivo back in Bordighera.
We headed high up into the Ligurian mountains to ‘town of the witches’ Triora. This town held the last witch trials (and executions) in Italy between 1587 and 1589. The history is that after two years of poor harvest and subsequent famine, the finger of suspicion landed on some thirty-odd women from the town. They were accused of witchcraft, rounded up, tortured and some were sentenced to death.
It’s a really beautiful and interesting place to visit and steeped in history. We visited one of the museums to find out more about what happened and why during that fateful time. The girls loved all the cobbled passageways, mystery and the curiosity shops (which weren’t too touristy).
We found an absolute tiny gem of a place for lunch (there aren’t that many restaurants in Triora itself) called Osteria La Loggia Della Strega (Osteria The Witch’s Lodge). It had only been open 12 days, but it was totally on point; the food was fantastic, authentic local Ligurian cuisine. I even felt compelled to leave a review on Google.
Triora is famed for its bread and Bruzzo sheep’s cheese and we bought both before we left – delicious.
Whilst in Liguria, we discovered the charming ancient village of Rochetta Nervina, which as well as being picturesque boasts a series of amazing crystal lakes. It was wonderful to be in clear, cold water on a hot day and so different to the sea and beaches we’d been visiting. It was great to swim and paddle amongst the waterfalls, watch the kids jump off the rocks and clearly see all the fish. We had such a fantastic time we decided to go again two days later. This time we took a picnic and goggles (and I took my book) to make more of a day of it. Bliss!
Uzès, France – days 15-17
We travelled back into France (the French border’s only 25 minutes from Bordighera) to Uzès in the Gard department in the south. Having started our journey on the eastern side of France, we were heading back up the west. Uzès isn’t on the coast so we went all out on the accommodation, which had a huge pool, so we could have a bit more of a chill out. I had massive house envy!
Uzès is an elegant town with lots of Renaissance architecture and a lovely old town. It’s very buzzy at night and there are plenty of restaurants and cafés.
It is very close to the famous Roman aqueduct bridge Pont du Gard, which spans the Gardon river. We had a fantastic day kayaking down the river (using Kayak Vert) stopping for our picnic en route and marvelling at the magnificent bridge from down below.
Our next day was all about exploring the town at leisure, which included the hub of Place aux Herbes and the Medieval Garden with its two towers that afforded great panoramas.
Le Mans – days 19-21 (day 18 travelling)
This was the biggest stint of the trip. We did a seven-hour drive, punctuated by lunch in the lovely medieval village of Sainte Enimie, and had a one-night stopover. The next day we just had a short journey to our friends’ place near Le Mans. We enjoyed lots of eating, drinking and metal detecting.
We journeyed into Le Mans itself. I knew it just for the famous race, but there’s a lot more to it. For the history fans, it’s known as the Plantagenet city – the birthplace of the Plantagenet dynasty. Here in 1129, Empress Matilda (daughter of Henry I of England) married Geoffrey Plantagenet and had their first son Henry II: the future king of England.
The medieval part of the city, which is home to the very impressive St Julien Cathedral, is lovely and completely separate to the main, modern part, which has plenty of shops.
After a relaxing three-night stay we headed back to the Eurotunnel and home.
What an amazing three weeks we’ve had. We’ve got to quarantine, but absolutely worth it!
Tips for a driving holiday
- Get a Monzo card! You can take out £250 from a cash point (every 30 days) without any transaction fees and use it for purchases indefinitely without fees. HSBC on the other hand charged me 2.75% of the transaction amount plus a 2% ‘cash fee’ for withdrawing money from an ATM. It also charges 2.75% for all purchases using a debit card
- If you’re going to have a number of stop offs, I’d recommend three weeks to do a similar journey. Even then, there are places we stopped at, which I’d have liked more time to explore
- Get an Emovis tag. We sailed through all the motorway toll booths and were rather smug about beating the queues
- Take plenty of snacks and drinks
- Have lots of USB charger ports in the car
Read more about the preparations for our driving holiday here.