The souvenirs you bring back from France: Frank Barrett introduces your views on the best and worst that France can offer - when the roads are clear

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The Independent Travel
AS Charles Dickens said of revolutionary France in A Tale of Two Cities: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.' With lorry drivers taking to the motorway barricades this month, the latest French revolution seemed to promise more of the worst than the best.

Nevertheless, when we asked you to tell us what you like most and least about France, it turned out that while you are on this side of the Channel, most of you are still dreaming of sleepy villages, shutters, dark coffee and toutes directions signs, with only memories of French roads to cloud those dreams.

Bottles of champagne to those whose names are marked *.

The best:

Those countless small villages in the Midi, off the beaten track and away from the tourist lures. Each offers a surprise, however small, which helps to create the overall impression of the Midi: a region steeped in history, however personal and inconsequential, a heady blend of colours and scents, indolence and quiet labour.

Here there are small surprises such as a plaque noting the birthplace of the inventor of absinthe, an ornate painted tympanum over a small church doorway, the eccentric home of an artist, a wrought-iron calvaire, the sudden pink of a judas tree in flower, a friendly auberge set into the rock beneath a crumbling castle, a single Roman column in a lush green garden, and all this in one day's journey, not far from the glories of Avignon and Orange . . .

And the worst:

The dreaded Paris Peripherique at rush hour - an unbreachable wall of vehicles cutting off the centre from the edge as surely as a wall of stone. But which, none the less, can also offer surprises - an elephant's trunk waving from the open door of a broken-down lorry, a mime artist conversing silently with an exasperated gendarme, and the continuous drama of gestures from car to car that threatens to delay still further the journey to the pleasures of the Midi, beyond the embouteillage of the tunnels beneath Lyons . . .

Richard Noyce*, Slough

The best:

Opening the shutters at the beginning of another beautiful day, and if the chime of cow bells greets you, so much the better.

Heather M Inglis*, Leeds

(Fergus Inglis, aged 5, disagrees: he thinks the best thing about France is the picnics.)

The best:

The tantalising window displays in charcuteries and patisseries.

D Ace, Bristol

The best:

To avoid the long, slow slog back up the Autoroute from the Cote d'Azur via Lyon-Calais, try the following - but not in a day] You end up at Dieppe, for reasons which will be apparent . . .

Turn off the A7 just after Vienne, for St Etienne, Clermont Ferrand and the A72, which crosses the Massif Central and has breathtaking views of the various Puys; it also has very little traffic, and avoids the bottleneck of Lyon.

Cannes to Bourges is a good day's run, and you can visit the superb palace of Jacques Coeur before starting out again. It's less than a five-hour run to Dieppe, via the A71/A10 as far as Artenay just north of Orleans and thereafter the N154 bypassing (if you must) Chartres, then Dreux and Evreux (all have ring roads) to Louviers on the Seine where a short piece of the Autoroute de Normandie provides a painless entry to and traverse of Rouen.

End up at Dieppe - and where else can you leave your car in the ferry queue by a vast expanse of green, a (pebbly) beach, and within five minutes' walk have a 20-franc plate of moules marinieres washed down with a glass of muscadet?

In terms of tolls and enjoyment, this beats the more eastern route via Paris, and if you are driving alone, avoids the hazards of the Peripherique without a map reader.

And Newhaven is much nicer, and quieter, than Dover]

Mrs G Winter*, Cheltenham

The best:

Citroen 2CV; splendid campsites; croissants, frites, steaks, moules marinieres; acres of sunflowers; refuse collected daily in large towns; friendly ever-open restaurants with superb meals; Sunday lunch when all the family eat out every week, not just on anniversaries; low taxes; hypermarkets where you weigh and price your fruit and veg yourself; gluggable cheap wine - and no headaches the morning after; glorious dark coffee; low speed-limit for lorries.

And the worst:

French driving standards and manners; revolting UHT milk; sullen stares by 'mamselles' who know just where they're going in the hypermarket, naturellement; French railways and ferries always seem to be on strike when we're on holiday; French golden delicious apples - ugh]]

Diana Miller, Cheltenham

The best:

Making a 'find' for lunch


Friendly neighbours providing wine and laughter when moving into an English-owned cottage that is damp, cold and with only broken furniture to sleep eight in two beds.

And the worst:

At lunch hearing les Anglais . . . 'Avez-vous de tomato sauce?'

Canned street Muzak.

Martin Hallam, Oxford

The worst:

French signposting. I challenge anyone to enter Rouen and exit as planned. We ended up heading for Normandy's beaches instead of the Loire after five attempts.

John Samson, Edinburgh

The best:

French coffee; sleepy villages off the tourist route; Provence; smell of lunch cooking on a French campsite; pastis on a cafe terrace shaded from hot summer sun by plane trees.

And the worst:

Autoroute du Soleil and its service stations in July and August; the Riviera in July and August; British tourists who won't try to speak even a little bit of French.

David and Jennifer Gregory,


The best:

1. Speed, efficiency and courteous manner of garage repairmen - goodness knows, we've used enough.

2. For its unique charm, whatever the season, and its superb surroundings, it has to be Honfleur - good enough alone to outweigh all the 'worst' you can think up.

And the worst:

1. As a vegetarian (who doesn't drink coffee either), meals are the most problematic - asking for a second, larger starter as a main course usually works.

2. Wholemeal bread? Forget it.

3. Bus services outside cities.

Mike O'Daly, London

The best:

Gushing gutters which wash the roadside several times a day and keep Paris fresh.

And the worst:

If you mention any sign of feeling off-colour, they force you to use a thermometer hourly (and rectally) to follow the course of your cold or whatever.

The French are obsessed by draughts or courants d'air - either preventing them or arranging them, as is deemed fit]

Sylvia Crookes, Baildon

The best:

Brimful flower beds; toutes directions signs; sculpted trees; mixing dairy herds and orchards; shutters (secure, no painting and aesthetically pleasing); not feeling the need to redecorate - ever; customised vans that turn into market stalls; timeless tacky cafes; Pernod water bottles; the wrapping of cakes.

And the worst:

The range of birthday cards; French sign-writing (Chokky, for example); the lighting in hypermarkets; blocking of roads by (suspiciously pervasive) farm vehicles; suburbs; official indifference to the dental problems of the poor; centimes; huge sugar lumps instead of granules; tiny overhead traffic lights.

Julie Ramsden, Retford

The best:

Creme de patissier; unpasteurised cheese; the standards of service in shops; beautiful D roads; the regional variety of local domestic architecture; the relaxed attitude of French customs officials; the French joie de vivre.

And the worst:

Speed limits on beautiful D roads; driving habits in Paris that make the South Circular seem like a picnic; radio stations; the manana mentality of workmen; French bureaucracy; their inability to lose gracefully at rugby.

F P Smiddy, London

(Photographs omitted)