Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

More beach, less traffic? This way, please
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The Independent Travel

Are you one of the two million or so Brits taking your car to France this weekend? If so, and you are heading for the south of our favourite foreign country, you will need no map: just follow the queues of traffic. This is one of the worst weekends of the year on French autoroutes, when Parisians and their fellow northerners funnel into the motorways to the Med. The infrastructure cannot cope. Many families will spend more time seething in queues and seeking respite in service stations than seeing la campagne en route to la mer.

They should have chosen a different destination. If seashore is important to you, France is one of the worst choices in Europe. I have been investigating the amount of seashore-per-citizen in 10 European countries to help you decide where to lay your beach towel. The league table shows that residents of the British Isles are uncommonly lucky in the amount of coast that each of us has, while the French and Germans hardly have a couple of grains of sand to rub together, relatively speaking.

The computation is simple: you divide the length of coastline by the population. I have excluded islands, so as not to penalise countries such as France and Belgium that are not blessed with the numbers of isles as, say, Scotland or Greece (which, by the way, does not appear in the survey because no-one in the tourist office in London or Athens seems to know the length of the country's coast).

The measurement is expressed in millimetres of shore per person - and the results are revealing. Mainland Britain has the same population as mainland France but we benefit from five times as much coastline. One reason is thanks to Scotland's ambitious coastal geometry (even with islands left out); another, that the British mainland shares borders with nobody while France has land frontiers with five nations, not counting plucky little Monaco.

While we enjoy 294mm of seashore per person (nearly a foot, in old money), the Irish have an even more expansive 356. Top of the European holiday list, though, is Croatia, which manages 403mm without the contribution of its many lovely islands. Perhaps this is why Ryanair has just launched its first route to the former Yugoslav republic; flights from Stansted to Pula on the Istrian peninsula begin in October.

The country in fourth place, Italy, is way down with 147 but ahead of Spain: the nation that gave the world the Costas has only 122mm for each of its citizens, never mind tens of millions of visitors.

You might imagine that Portugal, with a low population and frilly coastline, would do well, but it has only 89 meagre millimetres of shore per person. Still, that is better than France's frankly pathetic 56mm: barely two inches per person. Even if you switch the calculation to shoreline-per-visitor, rather than resident, you get the same result, since France is the world's most popular destination country, with as many tourists as inhabitants.

The foot of the table is propped up by the Continent's more northerly nations. Holland would have done much better half a century ago, before its coastline was modified to create extra land and reduce the threat from the sea, but now scores only 27mm for each Dutch man, woman and child. Germany has seawater on two fronts, the Baltic and the North Sea, but still musters no more than an inch (25mm) of coast per sunbather (many of whom, if my last visit is typical, will be naked). Last place is occupied by poor, coast-starved Belgium. The North Sea shore may divide into only 7mm per Fleming and Walloon, but it is at least top-quality beach from the French border to the Dutch frontier. And even though Belgium's coast is the closest seaside to Luxembourg and landlocked parts of Germany and France, there always seems to be room to move. Which is more than can be said for the Autoroute du Soleil this weekend.

Shoreline per person (mm)

1. Croatia. 403
2. Ireland. 356
3 . Great Britain. 294
4 . Italy. 147
5 . Spain. 122
6 . Portugal. 89
7 . France. 56
8 . Holland. 27
9 . Germany. 25
10 . Belgium. 7

Additional research by Lauren Carter