Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

If you're off to France, prepare for Black Saturday
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The Independent Travel

Black Saturday: that is the official definition of today's prospects for motorists in France. The national traffic-monitoring centre, which occupies a leafy suburb of Paris, calculated months ago that 31 July would be a day to stay at home. Millions of motorists and their families who are juilletistes (holidaymakers who take their annual vacances in July) returning home will collide - often literally - with the aoutiens (the August loyalists) setting off on their hols.

Black Saturday: that is the official definition of today's prospects for motorists in France. The national traffic-monitoring centre, which occupies a leafy suburb of Paris, calculated months ago that 31 July would be a day to stay at home. Millions of motorists and their families who are juilletistes (holidaymakers who take their annual vacances in July) returning home will collide - often literally - with the aoutiens (the August loyalists) setting off on their hols.

The world's favourite nation for holidaymakers is simply too popular with its own people: the top destination for the French, as well as the rest of the world, is France. Accordingly, today absurd numbers of vehicles will try to cram on to the roads between Paris and the Mediterranean. So appalling is the carnage likely to be that coach journeys carrying children have been banned for the day. And caught in the gridlock will be thousands of unwitting British motorists and their long-suffering families. As the Warning of the Week on page 11 testifies, the motorway most likely to be turned into a car park today is the A7 Autoroute du Soleil between Lyon and Marseilles. Next year, the new A75 autoroute across the Massif Central to Bezier in the south will be complete, taking some of the strain. But this summer, you would be best advised to stay within close range of the Channel ports.

If you cannot find what you are looking for - from fine beaches to high culture - within an hour of leaving the port in Calais or Boulogne, you are probably in the wrong country. Just head inland to immerse yourself in "la France profonde", the tiny villages and handsome towns that most motorists bypass unknowingly: Desvres is a near-perfect sleepy ville, while the course of the Course river takes you through a trickle of lovely hamlets. And were the hilltop town of Montreuil in Provence rather than a tranquil half-hour drive from Boulogne, it would now be the setting for yet another "get a new life" TV docu-soap.

In fact, 10 minutes from the ferry or shuttle should do the trick: that is how long it takes to drive (traffic permitting) from the exit from the Channel Tunnel at Coquelles along the coast to Cap Blanc-Nez, one of the most dramatic geological formations in France. Likewise, in the time needed to move five metres along the Autoroute du Soleil on Black Saturday, you could have nipped five kilometres north from Boulogne to Wimereux. This is a classic French seaside resort with shallow beaches, outstanding seafood restaurants and delicious fin-de-siècle architecture.

This stretch of the Cote d'Opale boasts many fine places to stay. The one impediment at this time of year is that most of them are fully booked; along with many Parisians, Belgian and German holidaymakers have discovered the region. So you could instead end up staying in Le Vivier Hotel in the seaside town of Wissant, which plays the "sister hotel" scheme to its maximum.

The notion of the sister hotel is practised across the world from Venice to Valparaiso. Owners of a good, lucrative hotel usually want to capitalise on their success and expand. For places that often fail to meet demand, the easy way to do this is to enlist another property that can be sold when the original is full. The problem for the punter is that the sibling hotel is rarely as attractive as the real thing.

So it proves in Wissant, the resort from which Thomas A Becket sailed to England in 1170, aware of the likelihood of his imminent martyrdom. The Hotel Le Vivier is an attractive, small property on the main square. It has a "sister hotel" which, if you look at the website ( www.levivier.com), appears to be almost on the sea. In fact, the image has been manipulated to move it away from the main Calais-Boulogne road and place it close to the sea. In reality, the beach is a brisk 10-minute walk away, with the first part on a trottoir-free stretch of the main road.

I should have suspected not all was quite as it virtually seemed from the fact that the patron seemed unusually keen on payment in advance. Another warning sign was that none of the cars in the crammed parking area was French.

Once inside, the house rules are Byzantine. If you wish to bring any drink to your room, it has to be bought from the restaurant of the original hotel, a good 10 minutes away; oh, and red wine and Coke are banned because of the risk of stains. If you wander along to said restaurant, the sign in the window runs contrary to virtually every eatery in France: "Nous informons notre aimable clientele que nous ne servons pas la carafe d'eau." In other words, the admirable French tradition of serving ordinary tap water instead of overpriced mineral water has been banned.

Sure, everyone has to make a little money, and the holiday season in northern France is frustratingly short for hoteliers. But the hotel management refuse to countenance the prospect of customer dissatisfaction. On the official response form only three choices are allowed; services must be rated "Very good", "Good" or "Satisfactory".

THE MYSTERY OF THE PAU BUS STOP

If you have set your holiday heart on southern France, at least there is now a sensible alternative to the long drive south: the cheap flight. No-frills links from Britain have done wonders for the French city of Pau; according to the latest edition of Pyrénées magazine, four out of five passengers flying on Ryanair's route from Stansted are British. In response, the Palois have provided some useful tourist information in English. Their history and heritage guide opens with a section entitled "Walking around the city". Circuit three is called "Pau Today", and suggests you "chart the ascent of Pau by wandering from one modern building to the next". Your appetite for a rewarding stroll thus whetted, it is disappointing to be told the jaunt is "best done in a car".

Pau is the main airport for British visitors making pilgrimages to the shrine of Saint Bernadette in Lourdes. A small miracle could be handy when the time comes to return, if you are relying on the airport bus to connect with a Ryanair flight to London. The navette is scheduled to leave Place Verdun in the centre of the city in time to reach the airport 80 minutes before the departure to Stansted. But the office de tourisme dispenses a map of the city centre that manages to omit the Place Verdun. This is odd, since the square in question is surely the largest in south-west France.

Helpful locals pointed the way to the place, but none could suggest from where in this expansive quadrant the bus might depart. "Opposite the army barracks," asserts the timetable - a loose description that could apply to almost any point. I began a circuit of the perimeter of Place Verdun with plenty of time to spare; by the time I had completed one orbit, only a few minutes remained before the appointed time for the bus. Eventually I spotted a stop marooned amid hundreds of parked cars in the middle of the square. This was, indeed, the stop for the navette - but the schedule pinned to it announced a radically different departure time, which showed the bus arriving 10 minutes after the check-in for the flight closed. By this stage, the only solution was a taxi. The 10-minute cab ride cost a non-negotiable €20 (£13), commensurate with its status as a "distress purchase".

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