Provencal road lined by plane treesYou may be a hurry to drive south. But perhaps you prefer to take your time and see some magnificent sights along the way. If so, this is the best route to Provence from Northern Europe.

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We've driven down from London to Marseille on numerous occasions, trying out different itineraries each time.

This one has emerged as the optimum combination of time, cost and enjoyment. Click here if you want to drive south to Provence by the fastest routes.

Our "best route" takes three or four hours longer than using the autoroutes, or motorways, for the whole journey. But the driving, spread over at least two days, will be more relaxed and the tolls will come to only around a quarter as much.

And, if you go through the town of Millau instead of over its dramatic viaduct (thus getting a better view of this amazing structure), you will reduce the tolls even further. Click on the map to enlarge the image.

Best route south thumbnailWhere stretches of autoroute are recommended, the "A" road numbers have been shown. However, when driving on ordinary roads, you will find French signposting to be somewhat erratic.

Be aware that roads are likely to change their number when they cross from one département to another and so it's best to follow the signs to towns and villages rather than the road numbers. However we've also given the current individual "N" and "D" numbers assigned to smaller roads for additional guidance.

Click here to find tips and useful websites for driving in France, including more about the French road labelling system.

We recommend using this guide in conjunction with either a SatNav system, or a good map for the middle part of the journey: Michelin Map no. 238 (Centre France) covers the territory perfectly and you can buy it online here. If you want a map for the whole of the journey, the Michelin national map of France is your best bet.

To program your SatNav or Google Maps for this route, do it as three separate journeys. From Calais to Chartres and also from Clermont-Ferrand onwards use the "quickest route" option. From Chartres to Clermont-Ferrand, on the other hand, select the "cheapest" or "no tolls" route, listing the individual villages that interest you.

The route is shown starting from Calais. Options for crossing from the UK to the Northern Channel ports include P&O Ferries, which covers routes from Hull to Zeebrugge and from Dover to Calais and Eurotunnel, which will take you from Folkestone to Calais under the Channel in 35 minutes.

It's also possible to get an overview of fares and price comparisons from different companies on certain routes with our affiliate partner Direct Ferries.

If coming from northern Belgium, you can join the route at Rouen. From the western channel ports in Normandy and Brittany, you can join it at Chartres. All distances are approximate.

We've briefly commented on significant places of interest that are either on or very close to the route and well worth visiting if you have time. Where available, links to the local tourist office websites have also been included.

Places marked with an asterisk indicate that accommodation is available for overnight stops. Click here to read our tips if you are planning to do this trip by camper van and here for our guide to the laws, rules and regulations governing driving in France.

If you are planning to rent a car, please consider our comparison search engine for all grades of hire car from Smarts to 4x4s and limousines.

Powered by our affiliate partner, it will instantly compare the current rates on offer from all the major suppliers at your chosen location to ensure you get the best deal.

The Best Route South to Provence, Step by Step

Start by taking the A16 / A28 from Calais to Rouen* (212 km / 132 miles), whose Cathedral, Notre Dame de Rouen, is an outstanding example of Gothic architecture.

Rouen Cathedral Photograph by Richard Groult for Wikimedia Commons.

It was immortalised in the 1890s when the Impressionist artist Claude Monet painted it over 30 times in different lights. Website for the Rouen Tourist Office / Book a hotel in Rouen

From there take the A154 / N154 to Chartres* (137 km / 85 miles), where another magnificent Cathedral awaits: Notre Dame de Chartres, one of the world's largest. It also claims the distinction of being one of the first High Gothic cathedrals, and the first to use flying buttresses.

Take a break to look inside, where the stained-glass windows - over 2,500 square metres / 26,900 square feet of them - create a dazzling tapestry of light and colour. Website for the Chartres Tourist Office / Book a hotel in Chartres

The D935 / D995 bring you to Orléans* (75 km / 47 miles), a pleasant - if not essential - place to take a break on your journey. Attractions include the Cathedral, a recreation of Joan of Arc's house and - for children - a large amusement park, the Parc Floral de la Source. Website for the Orléans Tourist Office / Book a hotel in Orléans

From here take the D2060 / D952 / D2007 (following signs to Nevers) to Sancerre* (129 km / 80 miles). After all the spiritual uplift, here, finally, is a gastronomic stop: this charming town on a hill overlooking the Loire is a web of narrow streets with many surviving medieval buildings.

Vineyards at SancerreAnd Sancerre, pictured. is noted for its superb white wine, produced from the sauvignon blanc grape. You might want to stock up here if you're passing through on your return trip.

The region's intensely flavoured sheep's and goat's cheeses, notably those from nearby Chavignol, are a perfect complement. Website for the Sancerre Tourist Office / Book a hotel in Sancerre

From Sancerre drive across the river and follow the D243 to Pouilly sur Loire* (14 km / 9 miles). This village is much less picturesque than Sancerre but its wine, Pouilly Fumé, is perhaps even better known especially in the US, where the sauvignon blanc grape is called the fumé blanc after the slightly smoky taste it imparts to Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé wines. Website for the Pouilly sur Loire Tourist Office / Book a hotel in Pouilly sur Loire

 

 

The A77 autoroute south of Sancerre and Pouilly is toll-free. Follow it to just south of Nevers, where a 14km / 9 mile deviation to the west will take you to Apremont sur Allier (60 km / 37 miles).

Apremont sur AllierA mediaeval village on the banks of the River Allier, dominated by a château, Apremont, pictured, is listed as one of the official Plus Beaux Villages de France or "Most Beautiful Villages in France".

Surrounded by verdant countryside with narrow winding roads, it traditionally decks its houses with flowers and also has an outstanding Floral Park in the village centre. Website for the Apremont sur Allier Tourist Office

Rejoin the A77, which turns into the N7, to Moulins. Then take the N9 towards Saint Porcain and on to Charroux en Bourbonnais (80 km / 50 miles). Another of the "most beautiful villages in France", Charroux is a hilltop village with superb views over the surrounding valley, a 12th century church and an historic old quarter. Website for the Charroux en Bourbonnais Tourist Office

Head towards Clermont-Ferrand* (82 km / 51 miles) via the D35, D42, A719 and A71. There is a small toll on the autoroute section, but it is worth paying for the time it saves. Clermont-Ferrand is an industrial town in a dramatic location surrounded by extinct volcanoes, or puys: its dramatic black cathedral is made of black volcanic stone.

The Romanesque basilica Notre Dame du Port is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Clermont-Ferrand is also the home of the world-renowned Michelin restaurant guide, founded by two brothers, Édouard and André Michelin, who ran a rubber and tyre factory in the city. Website for the Clermont-Ferrand Tourist Office / Book a hotel in Clermont-Ferrand

Insider tip for driving south to Provence If you have time, just to the south of Clermont-Ferrand you can visit six more villages in the "most beautiful villages in France" category: Saint-Saturnin*, Montpeyroux, Saint-Floret*, Usson, Blesle* and Lavaudieu.

Millau bridge in FranceTake the A75 to Millau* (227 km / 141 miles). This scenic mountain autoroute through the Massif Central culminates in the famous Millau Viaduct, the world's tallest bridge, pictured.

It's free for its whole length apart from the toll on the viaduct which can be avoided by driving through the town of Millau instead. Website for the Millau Viaduct Tourist Office / Book a hotel in Millau

 

 

Continue on the A75 then the A750 to Montpellier* (112 km / 70 miles). Both autoroutes are toll-free. The capital of Languedoc-Roussillon, Montpellier is also a lively university town, with shady boulevards, chic boutiques, a buzzing bar scene, a colourful old quarter (L'Ecusson) and even beaches. Website for the Montpellier Tourist Office / Book a hotel in Montpellier

The A9 (toll road) leads you to Nîmes* (55 km / 34 miles), home to very many stunning Roman ruins, including the world's best preserved Roman arena.

It's still used today for concerts and for the courses camarguaises, or Camargue bullfights (in which the bull is not killed). Website for the Nîmes Tourist Office / Book a hotel in Nîmes

After Nîmes, your onward route depends on the part of Provence you are going to. Continue on the A9 for Orange and Avignon or turn on to the A54 in you are heading further south, in the direction of Aix en Provence, Marseille or Toulon. The A9 and part of the A54 charge tolls. You can avoid these by taking the slightly slower N568 and A55 route after Arles.

The A9 autoroute takes you close to the astonishing Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard, which was part of a long canal system set up to bring water from Uzès to Nîmes. If you wish to deviate to see the Pont du Gard, this is a well-signposted ten minute drive from junction 23.

 

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