Russell Crowe in A Good YearMany of the loveliest spots in Provence aren't accessible by public transport and unless you take a taxi - or explore the region by bicycle - you may well end up behind the wheel of a car.

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Much of the information below applies to driving in France generally. However we've also added some useful hints for driving specifically in Provence.

Click here to read about the laws, rules and regulations governing driving in France, here to find the two fastest routes by car down to Provence from Northern Europe, here for our recommended best route south to Provence and here for tips on touring Provence by camper van.

The Romans have left their mark on Provence in the shape of the distinctive, dead-straight roads which are still to be found in certain areas such as the Alpilles. Cruising on a hot summer's day along a Roman road lined with shady plane trees is a quintessentially provençal driving experience.

Of course you may just as often find yourself carefully navigating hairpin bends on a narrow road up to one of Provence's typical hill vilages!

Driving is more enjoyable at weekends, as most large lorries and HGV vehicles are banned from French roads between 10pm on Saturday and 10pm on Sunday. The ban is longer in the middle of summer, when trucks are additionally barred all day Saturday between 7am and 7pm.

A road in Provence lined with plane treesBear in mind, however, that as a result there may be more lorries than usual on the road on Saturday evenings between 7pm and 10pm, when the ban is briefly lifted.

In Provence, even more than elsewhere in France, you are likely to encounter plenty of cyclists, both the local variety, with keen-as-mustard racing teams in snazzy matching neon Lyrca, and the tourist type, laden down with cameras, maps and piles of baggage.

When overtaking these you should leave a distance of at least a metre / 3' 3" feet in towns and 1.5 metres / 5 feet in the countryside between your car and the bicycle.

At times parts of Provence can experience very high winds (the dreaded Mistral) and motorway driving in particular can be hazardous under these conditions. The main issue for tourists, however, is the heat.

In June, July and August, temperatures can soar to well over 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).

If your own car has no air-con, you might want to consider renting a car instead. Rental cars in Provence will be equipped with air-conditioning (climatisation, or clime for short) as a matter of course.

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When parking in summer, you will notice that all the shady berths get snapped up immediately. Most locals use a car sun shade on their windscreen and sometimes also on their side windows in an effort to stop their vehicle from turning into an oven and you should too. Find a front windscreen sunshade and side car window shades on Amazon.

If you are driving down in your own car, it's worth bringing a car fridge or at least a coolbox to ensure a regular supply of chilled drinks. Find an electric warm/ cool box on Amazon. Many petrol / gas stations in Provence also sell ice.

In Provence, the combination of hot weather, steep hills and heavy traffic may cause the engine of even a well-maintained modern car to over-heat, especially if you have the misfortune to get stuck in one of those huge coastal traffic jams. Watch the temperature gauge carefully when driving in summer.

Grim as it sounds, a quick solution if the engine is getting too warm is to turn the air conditioning off, open the windows and turn on the car heater full power for a short period.

Use as high a gear as you can and avoid slow-moving traffic. Just pull over and turn off the engine rather than sitting in a jam for a long period: French motorways have rest-stops, or aires, at regular intervals and these frequently have toilets, picnic tables and other services.

Click here for a map of aires throughout France (in French). If you prefer a book to take with you, try the Guide officiel des aires de services camping-car or, for aires specifically in Southern France, the (less up-to-date) Guide des aires de service Méditerranée.

Carry some spare coolant, or at least some water, in a can and, if you have an older car with the coolant refiller cap on top of the radiator, NEVER open it without allowing the engine to cool first.

Unfortunately the popular tourist spots in Provence are vulnerable to car break-ins. French hire cars sometimes have distinctive number-plates, making them a special target.

There's nothing much you can do about that, but do remove any obvious window stickers and don't leave car-hire brochures, tourist maps or, indeed, anything attractive to thieves on the seats (a French newspaper lying there instead might help you pass as a local). Do not park facing oncoming traffic; this is illegal.

Lock everything in the boot / trunk and, even so, take everything with you that you can't afford to lose. In town it's worth paying extra for a supervised off-road car-park.

Insider tip when driving in FranceIn Provence (as, indeed, all over France) the lunch break is sacred, and that applies to traffic wardens as much as anyone else.

Consequently some on-street parking meters don't require you to pay for the period between noon and 2pm - although some cash-strapped towns and cities such as Marseille have been removing this privilege

And, speaking of lunch, it's worth taking a picnic with you if you intend to go exploring along France's maze of backroads. The rigid rsstaurant meal times mean that you might find it difficult to find somewhere to eat if you're not in the right place at the right time.

Jacques Tati in the film TrafficLast but by no means least, a significant hazard is local drivers, who go fast, like to sit close on your tail, overtake in dangerous conditions such as on a hill or blind corner and perform illegal manouvres. (One of the first things that the Insider saw on arriving recently at Marseille-Provence airport was a local car reversing on to a roundabout, down the wrong side of the road.)

Watch out for speed bumps in urban areas to combat kamikaze drivers, and for double- or even triple-parking Marseille is especially notorious for this.

Pictured: Jacques ("Mr Hulot") Tati in his classic 1971 comedy, Trafic / Traffic, which gently mocks the foibles of French motorists. Find Trafic / Traffic on Amazon.

According to statistics from the Fédération Française des Sociétés d'Assurances, the French Federation of Insurance Companies, PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côte-d'Azur) is easily the region with the highest road accident rate in France. This said, France as a whole has a road accident rate a little better than the US (but considerably higher than the UK).

 

THE FRENCH ROAD SYSTEM

France has three main types of road. The autoroute, or motorway, network is identified by the letter A followed by the route number in white letters on a blue background. Sometimes you will also find, next to the blue French sign, a green sign with an E followed by a (different) number. These are European routes which cross borders.

Most - though not all - of France's motorways are toll roads (this is signalled by the word péage on the motorway sign). You press a button and take a ticket at a machine as you enter the motorway and pay at either a manned booth or another machine as you exit.

International credit / debit / ATM cards without a chip, may not be accepted. The most convenient way to pay is to make sure you have plenty of cash (€uros, obviously) in small change. Some toll gates are for season ticket holders or credit cards only, so be sure you are in the right queue. A complete up-to-date list of motorway tolls is available on the French Motorway Companies website.

Bi-lingual French-Provencal road signThe routes nationales, or national highways, are non-toll main roads identified by the letter N followed by the route number in white letters on a green background. Confusingly, N roads are being gradually phased out and re-labelled as D roads (see below) - with different numbers.

The routes départmentales, or local roads, are identified on a small square sign with the letter D followed by the route number in black letters on a yellow background.

French signposting is somewhat erratic. Roads are likely to change their number when they cross from one département to another, so it's best to navigate by place names.

However, this too can be complicated: a sign may indicate the next small town along the route, or the next big city many miles away, or sometimes both (or, indeed, neither). As pictured on this road sign, place names in Provence may occasionally be in provençal as well as French.

It's therefore best to drive in Provence armed with a good map. The 1/200,000 scale Michelin map of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur is the best road map for driving in Provence. And it has the additional bonus of marking scenic routes in green.

French roads labelled bis are alternative, less crowded routes and often worth taking when travelling at peak periods.

Petrol / gas stations are generally unmanned during the long provençal lunch break and close early in the evening. The only option then is to pay by card, though the automatic pumps may not always accept international credit cards, so it's wise not to let your tank run too low.

Petrol station sign, FranceUnleaded (sans plomb) 95 and 98 octane petrol (essence) and diesel (gazole) are available at pretty much all filling stations.

Diesel is usually significantly cheaper (see below for details of the official French government site comparing petrol prices). LPG is a little less commonly seen.

Increasing numbers of filling stations now offer SP95-E10 grade petrol, which has a 10% ethanol mix. This will work in most modern cars as an equivalent to 95 octane unleaded, and is usually significantly cheaper than the other fuels. However you should check its suitability for your car before using it.

HELPFUL INFORMATION AND WEBSITES

The French Motorway Companies website, which has a comprehensive English-language version, provides extremely detailed information on motorway driving in France.

On this remarkably useful site you will find, among other things, the current French motorway toll charges, suggested routes, a speed limit map and an interactive map of tourist attractions powered by Michelin.

It also offers real-time traffic information and a day-by-day, hour-by-hour traffic forecast which warns of times and dates, such as half term, the Tour de France, or the grandes vacances (major summer holiday) when certain routes are likely to be very busy.

A couple of other websites will help you plan your itinerary. ViaMichelin has maps, traffic news and lots of links. Mappy shows the location of hotels and parking areas en route and gives you an estimate of the fuel costs for the trip, as well as the toll charges if you are taking the motorway.

If you read French, Le Prix des carburents is a must. Set up by the government in 2007, the site has an interactive map that tells you the cheapest petrol / gas station in your area or on your route.

Outlets whose turnover is more than 500 cubic metres a year are required by law to post their rates and, what's more, to update them as soon as there's the smallest change.

As a general rule of thumb, fuel is cheapest at hypermarket gas stations but prices can vary widely, so this site is definitely worth watching if you're planning to do a lot of driving.

Another French government site, Bison Futé, has a real-time map of national traffic conditions and anything that might affect these, including road works, accidents, public holidays and weather.

Traffic jam on a motorway in ProvenceIt recommends alternative routes to avoid the jams - a real bonus in Provence in summer in when all roads anywhere near the coast are likely to be packed solid. This site has an English-language area, though not all the search facilities are available in English.

Bison futé, by the way, means "cunning bison", presumably the name of the stereotypical little Native American who is the site's logo. It also refers punningly to the bis (alternative or secondary) routes which the cunning motorist takes to dodge the traffic.

News for driving in France In May 2016 the Bison Futé website was scaled back - partly, the French government claims, because its usefulness has been superceded by apps but probably mainly as an economy measure

The website remains online for the time being, but with limited information and updates.

 

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