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France motorhome country guide
France has something for everyone from lavender days in Provence, to awesome alpine activities, and Mediterranean meanders. During the Tour de France, it appears that every motorhome (Camping Car in French) in France is lining the mountain stages. There are annual race stages through the Pyrenees and Alps, but the route changes every year. You can check the stages online at www.letour.fr
Campsites, Motorhome Stoppovers and Offsite-Parking in France (free wild camping)
France has a mind boggling 10,400 campsites that range from tiny summer-only camping areas to large family fun parks. The star rating system applied to French campsites is inconsistent, therefore we recommend that you walk around the campsite and check the facilities before you book in. French campsites are generally well signed from the nearest town or village, so you will not need directions to find them. Pleasant municipally run campsites are found all over France. Often they are located in small villages and normally alongside a river if there is one. The pitch fees are low and the facilities basic, but the campsites normally have a comfortable ambiance. Small rural campsites, with less than 25 pitches, are identified as Aire Naturel in French. These small sites are often very basic but have a great appeal. Camping on farms is available through the Bienvenue à la ferme scheme, see www.bienvenue-a-la-ferme.com for details. Site entrances are clearly marked with the schemes yellow flower symbol. Les Castels is an organisation that promotes 40 campsites that are located in Chateaux grounds, see www.camping-castels.co.uk . A good selection of campsites is provided at www.campingfrance.com. Le Guide Officiel Camping Caravaning lists 9,857 French campsites, including all the municipal and small campsites. The guide is written in French, but has an English key and is easy to use. Vicarious Media stocks this guide and it is available to buy in large French supermarkets from April but may not be restocked once sold out.
France has 3,562 Motorhome Stopovers called ‘Aires de service’, or Aires for short. These are detailed in All the Aires France, published by Vicarious Media, this is the most comprehensive French Aires guide available, it is written in English and all 3,562 Aires listed have been inspected and photographed. Le Guide National des Aires de Services and Le Guide Official Aires de Services are produced by rival French motorhome magazines. The Aires are not inspected and few have photographs. The French language Aires guides are on sale in large French supermarkets from April but may not be restocked once sold out. France Passion members can stop overnight for free in their motorhomes at farms and vineyards all over France. Membership runs from Easter to Easter and is gained by buying the current guidebook. Host establishments vary considerably so it is a good idea to check out two or three before deciding where to stop. This scheme gives you a unique insight into French culture and the hosts are likely to show you how the goods are produced and grown, even if language prevents conversation. The biggest complaint about the scheme was that no GPS co-ordinates were provided making remote host sites difficult to find but since 2014 the guide now also features GPS. All the guides mentioned above are available from Vicarious Media. Offsite-Parking is possible in France as long as it is undertaken in accordance with the traffic and parking laws.
Driving your motorhome or campervan in France
Compared to the UK, France has twice the landmass, but has a similar number of residents. Consequently traffic is light outside of major urban areas and there would be even less if all the motorways were free. French toll motorways are correctly named Autoroute but are normally signed and referred to as péage, which translates to toll in English. These well-maintained motorways are quick and quiet but expensive and for that reason, most truck and domestic drivers use the non-toll main roads called route nationale. Driving on French Autoroutes is mind numbingly boring and it is hard to resist driving at high speeds, just to get it over with. Modern panel vans can easily drive at the 130kmh (80mph) upper speed limit and so can motorhomes if you are willing to accept the dramatically increased fuel consumption. Fuel at Autoroute service areas is 10-20 cents per litre more than from supermarkets. Just in case you are only reading this section, for safety reasons never park overnight in a motorhome or campervan at an Autoroute service or rest areas and maintain vigilance when you use them at any time of day. For further information about Autoroutes visit www.autoroutes.fr
The route nationales are often marked red on road maps. These routes take the majority of the traffic including trucks that maintain a speed of 90kmh (56mph) whenever possible. Overtaking or being overtaken by trucks is very dangerous and because there are insufficient passing places drivers take extraordinary risks. Speeding is normal on the open road, but the 50kph (31mph) speed limit is observed in areas of habitation. In order to reduce accidents and speeding more speed cameras are being installed, often they are not signed and may not be marked on maps. Mobile speed cameras and road checks are common at town and village boundaries. Bypasses are infrequent in France so the main routes pass through towns and villages. The majority of these, main road, built up areas have a depressing look due to the grey film from pollution that coats the buildings. When driving past shops, be prepared for other drivers making emergency bread stops as they realise they just passed a bakery. The nicest roads to drive are the lesser roads, marked yellow on Michelin France road atlases. These minor routes tend to accommodate local traffic only. They pass through the pretty landscapes and interesting villages, where you will be able to stop without disturbance.
The French driving style is consistent across the country. Mostly drivers are calm and unrushed in towns and villages, but they turn in speed freaks on open roads. Unfortunately, French drivers seem to lack forethought and appear to be unable to assess how their actions will affect other road users. Head-on collisions, on perfectly straight roads, are common in France. Drivers often maintain their speed even if there is an obstruction on the road or their vehicle is sufficiently wide to overhang the white line. On narrow lanes, be prepared to pull off the road, avoiding any ditches, to allow oncoming vehicles to pass.
Priorité à Droite (priority to the right) is a tourist’s worst nightmare. Thankfully it has been removed in most towns and villages, but unfortunately you are likely to find yourself in a situation where you have no idea who has priority. What makes this inconstancy so dangerous is that some minor roads have priority over the main route and the local drivers will join the main route at speed. You should avoid giving way to vehicles on the right when it is not appropriate as doing so will cause all sorts of confusion, instead drive as if priority to the right exists and look for road markings and signs that prove otherwise. Some villages and towns have ‘Priorité à Droite’ signs written at the boundaries, but normally a sign displaying a yellow diamond indicates that there is no priority to the right. The priority is cancelled as you exit the village and the signs display a yellow diamond struck through with a black diagonal line. Apparently, some villages are incapable of commitment and have removed all the road markings! At junctions where the priority is unclear, proceed confidently but keep an eye on every direction, French drivers are very cautious at junctions and will willingly give-way.
Roundabouts are a relatively new addition to French roads and help with priority issues. Most roundabouts flow the same as the UK, which may be indicated by signs saying 'Vous n'avez pas la priorité' or 'Cédez le passage'. Occasionally, in towns and villages, the priority on a roundabout will be to the right, this is of course ludicrous but no worse than putting traffic lights on roundabouts like they do in the UK.
Traffic lights go from red to green skipping amber when releasing traffic. Light changes tend to be a long time apart. Crossroads controlled by traffic lights may be left on flashing amber lights outside of rush hour, this indicates that you can proceed with caution; the problem is no one knows who has priority.
Roads are commonly marked with temporary ‘Route Barrée’ signs (road closed) during road works or when markets are blocking the road. A deviation route is not always provided. Traffic calming chicanes and road humps are very common in towns and villages and their design ensures that you have to drive slowly over or around them to prevent damaging your vehicle.
When driving along narrow mountain lanes it is French driving etiquette to give-way to traffic travelling uphill, this includes pulling over and reversing if necessary. The French highway-code requires the sounding of horns on twisting roads with reduced visibility. The Michelin France Tourist and Motoring Atlas highlights difficult or dangerous sections of roads. Less confident motorhome drivers should avoid these routes. High passes may be closed during winter and spring due to snow, drifts, or wind. Never drive along roads signed ‘Route Barrée’ or ‘Fermé’ or open gates used to close off mountain roads.
LPG autogas availability varies from region to region but is available across the whole country, especially on the Autoroutes. LPG autogas stations are listed in the rear of All the Aires France and can be found online at http://stations.gpl.online.fr/appli/index.php and www.jerouleaugpl.com/installateurs.php lists Total fuel stations with LPG.