Driving in France is generally a pleasant experience for us coming either from the poorly-maintained, go-kart course which purports to be Italy's motorway network or, alternately, from Britain's bumper-to-bumper, overcrowded motorways. The substantially empty autoroute stretches before you and, apart from at certain times, there is very little other traffic. A word of warning, though – France is deceptively big and if, like us, you have to travel across it then be prepared for some extended driving stints.
The distinctions are big and, seeing them in kilometers (if you are coming from the UK) inflates them further. One sign, in particular, makes it for me. Just south of Calais on the 'Route des Anglais', you will see a distance marker which proudly proclaims – Lyons, 650km. For us, returning to Italy, the journey to Lyons is about two-thirds of our overall journey in France.
The bad news about the autoroute is the toll. These charges can soon mount up. With the French attitude towards the English set at 'Situation Normal', the tight toll booths only accept payment from left-hand-drive cars. If you are in a right-hand-drive car and do not have a passenger, prepare yourself for entertainment – we suggest you take a butterfly net for this purpose.
A good feature of the autoroute network in France is the 'Aire'. This is an official pull-in but, unlike the busy UK service stations or the sunbaked, heavily-littered asphalt that the Italians offer, it consist of two types of rest area. You have a choice between a large aire with food, petrol and play area for the children or a smaller rural aire with basic toilet and picnic facilities. This latter group can be very picturesque and even include woodland walks etc.
Each aire is subject to regular night visits from the police and there before it is reasonably safe to pull over and sleep in even the most rural location. This may well be necessary because the idea of the motel has not really been heard in France and, while there are a few in the south, there are only a handful of motels in the north.
As a disabled driver, the thing which I applaud the French most for is their attitude towards 'reserved' parking. If you are not disabled, pregnant or war-wounded then you just do not park in a reserved space. It is simply, 'not done'. I remember going to the very busy Bourges-en-Bresse service area at mid-day in the summer holidays. The car park was crowded and people were going round and round looking to predate any space which dared to show itself. After that and the frayed tempers as people argued over who was first, the two unfilled disabled spaces remained empty until (as a badge-holder) I occupied one.
Although the autoroute is generally quiet, there are two problem areas to avoid. The first is around Lyons at the beginning or the end of the working day. Like the M25 around London, there are just too many vehicles for the road system to cope with. We were there once and decided to pull into an aire and sleep for an hour. Sure enough, an hour later (10 am) the traffic had cleared and off we went. The other thing to avoid is Bastille Day (14th July) when every man and his dog take to the road network. Do not think of driving on Bastille Day.
I hope, like us, that you enjoy driving in France.