My Summer 2020 France trip started two days after the official British FCO ban on anything but essential travel to France was lifted on July 4.
The trip ran from July 6 to July 27, 2020. Events in this Covid-19 world are moving fast so some of these experiences might not apply. But I thought it worth writing a full account because who knows? History might repeat itself.
I booked Eurotunnel for a morning departure on July 6 and set off early with my partner for Folkestone. There’d been a slight price rise from the previous week but it was easy and quick to book. We felt like pioneers.
Summer 2020 France: Eurotunnel’s hiccup
The Eurotunnel terminal was almost deserted and a sad sight with every outlet except Starbucks shuttered. We’d naively reckoned we could buy the headlight stickers you need in France to redirect your headlights at the terminal. But don’t worry if this happens to you as well. There’s a solution when you arrive in France.
Not everyone was wearing masks in the main terminal building but a one-way system at Starbucks was in place for ordering and getting that much-needed coffee. No need to hurry we thought. The board announcing departures was saying ‘Wait for call’. So we waited then moved to the departure zone. Too late. Everyone was waiting for the next shuttle. It was not a good start as we’d planned to visit Fontainebleau Palace later that day. No marks to Eurotunnel for that error.
The Eurotunnel trip itself was easy, though do remember that all the toilets on the train are closed. And if you need those headlight stickers, maps, warning triangles, in fact almost anything you’ve forgotten there is a solution. Stop at the very useful service station just after leaving Eurotunnel on the road signposted to Calais.
The car park was full of drivers fixing those newly bought stickers, which are of course, designed to confuse unless you’re a sticker-locating mechanic. Then we drove out to the main roundabout where there’s a choice of motorways to Paris and other destinations.
Then it was on to the autoroute and the drive to Fontainebleau where I’d booked a hotel. A couple of kilometres after we left Calais we saw the last UK car we were to come across for a couple of weeks.
Summer 2020 in France: Fontainebleau
France began easing restrictions at the end of May and by mid-June many of the hotels were open. But many are open on a very restricted basis. We had booked at the Hotel Le Richelieu in Fontainebleau but still had to ring the bell when we arrived as reception was deserted. The hotel was very empty and their restaurant was closed on a Monday. There were bottles of hand sanitiser everywhere; the room sporting a kind of shabby chic/industrial design decor was spotless.
We walked into the centre of town which was buzzing. Apart from a few people wearing masks, life seemed normal. A meal on a sunny pavement at the Bistro des Amis felt very far away from London.
Breakfast at the hotel the following morning was just as it had always been though there were more individual packets of food than before. We served ourselves; the waiter brought coffee.
Driving through France
We drove down on Monday/Tuesday July 6/7. The autoroutes were remarkably clear, apart from those near Paris and Clermont Ferrand. The A77, imaginatively named as the Autoroute des Arbres (Autoroute of the Trees) was so traffic-free that we could slow down to photograph some of the road signs which show what tree it is you’re passing. The French are very good at relieving boredom on a long drive.
Returning was slightly different. We came back on Sunday/Monday July 26/27. On Sunday, driving north, we were passed by Belgians and Dutch driving like fury to get home. The southbound lanes were clogged; full of those driving south for their holidays. Monday saw just the odd Belgian or Dutch going home and the southbound lanes clearer.
The moral of this tale? Avoid weekend driving, particularly the start and end of holidays and on those busy dates: around July 14th and August 14th.
Summer 2020 in the Auvergne
My French house is in the Auvergne, near Le Puy-en-Velay. Since 2000, the city has thrived. Le Puy with its strange volcanic outcrops with religious buildings or statues perched on the tops, is the starting point for one of the most popular, and well organised, pilgrim routes leading to St. James of Compostella in Spain.
Our nearby local village is one of the first stopping points outside Le Puy. We arrived at maximum pilgrim rush hour time. The local bar was full of walkers; business was clearly booming which makes sense. A self-guided walk along well-marked paths from village to village in this remote region is about as social distancing as you can get.
Outdoors in the Auvergne
Everywhere we went we saw bottles of sanitising liquid. They were even fastened to gate posts and fences at the open-air vide grenier we indulged in which makes perfect sense. Everything at such a sale is in cash; items are picked up and put down again, or in my case haggled over (usually totally unsuccessfully) and put into a large bag. I am a complete push-over when it comes to vide greniers, car boot sales, brocante, etc.
If you want somewhere remote, try the Auvergne, the glorious region in central France.
Summer 2020 in France: Restrictions again
On Monday July 20th, with a rising number of covid-19 cases in France, the French government re-introduced the wearing of masks. The French took it in their stride. There was no fuss, no ridiculous outrage about loss of persomal ‘freedom’, and from that day on everyone wore a mask in public.
The shops enforced the rule (except in the case of one lady in Tinel who looked so daft that the staff left her well alone). I’d gone in just before her without a mask to be met by an assistant asking me to put one on. I clearly looked quite normal.
The Château of Fontainebleau which we visited on the way back enforced the rule absolutely, anybody not wearing one is asked to leave. However we didn’t have to pre-book, unlike some attractions in France.
Summer 2020 in France: Hotels and Restaurants on the Journey Home
This was a little different from our drive down to the Haute-Loire. With the new restrictions, the hotels were playing it very safe.
Our first stop was the Hôtel les Grands Chênes, just outside Saint Fargeau at Les Berthes Bailly. It’s a delightful place, with well-sized bedrooms, good bathrooms, a swimming pool and badminton nets set out in a very large garden. No masks outside, but step inside and they were put on immediately.
Breakfast was served in a pretty yellow-walled dining room. Bread, butter, hard-boiled eggs, cereals, fruit (in individual plastic containers), cheese, ham and yoghurts were all on one table but we had to go up to the table to order them. Rachael, the English owner, and her assistant then handed them to you on plates. Coffee or tea was served directly at the table. It was slightly strange but easy enough.
The second night was a bit more of an adventure. We had booked at the Best Western Les Beaux Arts in Compiègne, just north of Paris. We arrived at the hotel to find the doors firmly shut, though lights were on inside. Eventually I telephoned the number I had at the top of the email they had sent on Friday. A slightly bewildered but charming Frenchman answered. He seemed surprised, but gave us the code to get in via the side entrance. An envelope propped up on the counter contained the key and instructions on how to get into the garage (free on this occasion). There was one other envelope. It felt odd and ghostly to be in an almost completely empty hotel.
The restaurant was, of course, shut, as were the TWO restaurants across the river. But a short walk into the town centre brought a good choice and the evening was saved.
The next morning we came down to be greeted by the manageress who was serving a free breakfast express to us and to the one other guest. She showed me the email she had sent a couple of days before; it had clear instructions on it (below the formal booking acknowledgement) of what to do when we arrived. I hadn’t read that far. She was upset, not surprisingly. I was mortified, not surprisingly. The obvious point? READ YOUR EMAILS! And be prepared for the unexpected.
Here’s a guide to budget hotel chains in France.
And good value hotels in Antibes/Juan-les-Pins in the south of France if that’s where you’re headed.
Or perhaps a quick trip to the Normandy D-Day Landing Beaches? Try any of these excellent hotels and bed and breakfasts.
Summer 2020 in France: DFDS Ferry
We came back to the UK from Calais by DFDS ferry.
A word of advice on the general check-in at the port: allow a bit more time than usual. The UK Border Force are working at the passport booths, but only two of them were open and they are slow. There was a desultory search of the back of the trunk (presumably for hidden people). Was this a way of showing us what it will be like from January 1st, 2021, we wondered? Probably, except the search might be more than desultory when we aren’t allowed to bring more than 2 litres of alcohol into the UK.
The ferry was very empty, and this was peak holiday time normally. It wasn’t just that DFDS were having to operate a reduced capacity due to social distancing. The Brits just aren’t travelling at the moment in any numbers to France.
We saw just three cars with UK number plates on our trip until we reached the autoroute running into Calais where we saw around a dozen.
On board the ferry there were bottles of sanitising gel everywhere but few people bothered with masks. There was a free meal thrown in; you just had to pay for any drink apart from water.
More about Ferries to France.
Summer 2020 in France: Overall Impressions
Allow more time to check in for ferries and Eurotunnel both in the UK and in France.
Many of the big attractions have re-opened or are about to re-open. But check on whether they require pre-booking before turning up.
Think of taking a picnic or check whether you can buy food at the attraction. Many of them how have specific picnic areas, but restaurants generally remain closed at attractions.
Take masks and be prepared to wear them!
Go for it; don’t be worried. It’s easy and the French are very welcoming.