My friend Bill will not be reading this. By now he will, I hope, be slumped by a swimming pool in the Dordogne, recovering from the sort of Friday night most of us could do without. He and Deirdre took the day off work yesterday and tried to sleep for most of it, ahead of an assault on the roads of Europe. As soon as their children had finished school for the summer, they were loaded into the Mondeo and battle commenced on the not-so-superhighways of Europe.

Does this sound like the start of your holiday? A dash to Newhaven, the evening boat to Dieppe, arriving in France around midnight. Then a 12-hour run due south along the routes nationales, dodging the tolls, the traffic and les flics. After a few hours of jostling with the cattle and tractors of a rural French morning, you finally get to your gite. You unload a bootful of baggage, several tonnes of nervous tension and then peel off the congealed mass of toys, sweets and bickerings from the back seat. After an 18-hour journey like that you will certainly need a holiday.

The autoroutes of Europe become more crowded each year: 40 per cent of the world's private vehicles are crammed into the smallest continent. These days, the Toyota in front on the autobahn is likely to be driven by a Polish tourist. The new visitors from Eastern Europe are vying for space on the strada with a growing number of British cars, taking advantage of the huge increase in capacity provided by the Channel tunnel.

"Ten years ago four million people crossed to Calais, last year it was 20 million, and we expect 25 per cent growth this year," says Stena Sealink's managing director, Gareth Cooper. His company has had a public spat with its French partner SNAT, splitting up after 26 years of co-operation. So next year a newcomer, SeaFrance, will take to the Dover-Calais route, giving even more capacity and even lower fares.

Financially, there has never been a better time to jump into the car and head for the Continent. Even though the school holidays are under way, competing companies are offering a raft of deals to persuade you to float over (or under) the Channel with them. Book by the end of July and you can get at least a fifth off your ferry fare or a free tank of petrol from Le Shuttle. If you cannot decide by 31 July, though, fear not: the bargains are about as likely to evaporate as La Manche itself.

Those of us who respond to the bribes can bring back a crop of cheap booze, but we run some risks. Speeding fines in France are shockingly high, with routes to the Channel ports especially lucrative as drivers rush for the boat home.

The thoughtful traveller is the one speeding past on the TGV, at more than twice the legal limit. Yet motoring holidays are so much cheaper that Bill and his family are quite prepared to lead the overnight charge of the white light brigade through France. If you are following in their tyretracks, then bon voyage, bonnes vacances and bonne route.

Comments