Travel: Taking the easy way out: Driving a car to the Alps is not the struggle it used to be. Chris Gill shows the way
Saturday 20 November 1993
But year by year the journey is becoming less of a grind and more of a pleasure, thanks to continuing improvements in the motorway networks in the Alpine region and in northern France. Many skiers now judge that the benefits of driving outweigh the hassle, even for a one-week trip.
The French Alps draw most motoring skiers from Britain. They are slightly closer to the Channel than Austrian resorts and offer plenty of self-catering accommodation.
Paris is the first stumbling block on the thrash southwards. Or it was. If your starting point is convenient for the short Channel crossings to Calais, the thrills of the peripherique - the frantic motorway that encircles the centre of Paris - can now be avoided by taking the A26 motorway through Champagne to Troyes, going on via Langres and Dijon to Beaune, where the traditional route is resumed.
This option is very slightly longer (around 15km) but certainly quicker. Its other attractions are clear: it is hassle-free and offers a refreshing change from the familiar landscapes of the Somme, the Oise and Burgundy.
If you're duty bound to spend a day at Euro Disney before it closes, you'll have to tangle with Paris to a degree. You don't have to go in as far as the peripherique if you're prepared to navigate countless complex interchanges to the east of Paris. Personally, I prefer the short, sharp shock.
We bumpkins in the west of England and Wales have little interest in driving across half of Britain to get to Dover when ferries from Portsmouth or Southampton can deliver us to French ports - Caen and Le Havre - that are closer to Paris than Calais. For us, the alternative to the peripherique is dodging around Greater Paris on a mixture of motorways and dual carriageways, and, the last time I did it, some messy little bits where the big bits don't quite join up. Get a map that is right up to date.
At the Alpine end of the journey, the northern French resorts in and around the Chamonix valley are now accessible with ease: turn left on to the A40 just before Macon, and Bob's your oncle. Calais to Chamonix is about 900km (560 miles), of which all but the last 20km is on motorways. Call it nine hours plus stops.
Those bound for the mega-resorts further south have up to now faced an unpleasant choice between carving a path through Lyons or putting up with a drive across country to get to Albertville or Chambery. Great news: the motorway bypass to the east of Lyons is complete, meaning that the journey from Calais to Albertville is now motorway all the way - with the exception of a short stretch through Chambery. And the road beyond Albertville was famously improved for the 1992 Olympics.
Swiss resorts seem to divide into those that can sensibly be reached via Geneva (mainly in the Valais), and the majority that are better reached via Basel - also the best route for the Arlberg resorts at the western end of Austria. But bear in mind that even the Valais resorts can be reached easily via Basel, thanks to the car-carrying shuttle trains through the Lotschberg tunnel.
My policy in planning a route to Basel is simple: keep out of Germany as long as possible. This is because my grasp of German is weak, the petrol stations rarely take credit cards and because when I'm cruising at 90 mph I like to be surrounded by other cars doing 70, not 110.
So I use the French motorways via Reims and Metz, and enter Germany via Strasbourg, the crossing of which involves a short and fairly painless excursion outside the motorway network, and perhaps a last meal before leaving civilisation. The route from Calais is either all French motorways (with tolls) or a mixture of French and free Belgian ones. For distance, there's little in it.
When the French build a motorway linking Langres and Belfort (near Basel), West Country-dwellers may be tempted to drive to Basel via the western Channel crossings and Paris; until then the M25 and Dover are probably more attractive.
If you're aiming for central and particularly eastern Austria, Germany is pretty well inescapable. Despite improvements to the road through the Tirol, the more direct route to Kitzbuhel is Karlsruhe-Stuttgart-Munich-Kufstein. The main area of choice is how to get to Karlsruhe: French motorways via Reims and Strasbourg, or Belgian and German ones via Bonn.
Getting to many Italian resorts by car is unappealing: first go to Milan, then turn back towards the hills. But thanks to the Mont Blanc tunnel the resorts of the Val d'Aosta (Courmayeur, in particular) are not much further away than Chamonix. And thanks to the Brenner pass motorway, Selva is only a couple of hours beyond Innsbruck.
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