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Summer is all about getting on the road and touring through some of France’s idyllic villages, historic sites and unspoilt countryside. It’s hard to beat this trip, following the Seine Valley from Paris to coastal Honfleur. This superb route combines all the pleasure of the drive with gastronomic delights and as much history and art as you wish to take in along the way. Check out the highlights on this three-stage trip.
Fly into Paris and book yourself into a city centre hotel for a few days of sightseeing before picking up your hire car. Summer in Paris is a delight, offering pleasant strolls along the Seine, leafy parks, boat trips, leisurely al fresco dining and impromptu art galleries attached to every railing in the city! First-time visitors will want to climb the Eiffel Tower (and possibly book lunch at Restaurant 58), explore the dark interior of Notre Dame de Paris, enjoy city views from the white marble Sacre Coeur and get tickets for the Louvre.
Pick up your hire car, and make sure it’s going to add to the fun of your travels. The Audi R8 is ideal for such a scenic trip, with its all-wheel drive system and low-slung coupe body hugging every bend of the winding Seine Valley. I would go for the new Spyder, which blends engineering perfection with all the joys of open-top sports car driving, but then I’m a sucker for feeling, smelling and engaging with the scenery, particularly in such beautiful surroundings.
There are numerous routes from Paris to your first overnight stop at Vernon. The A13 allows you to open up the throttle and feel the wind in your hair, while slower routes offer more bucolic surroundings as the roads cross to-and-fro over the meandering River Seine. Detour off to the magnificent Palace of Versailles if you have time (but do pre-book your tickets or you will spend hours waiting in long lines).
You’ll pass through green forests, timeless villages and flat farms, all looking like they haven’t seen a lick of paint this side of the 1950s. Stop for lunch on a whim when you see signs for an Auberge (wayside inn). Take a chance on a set menu to sample delicious local cuisine; seafood, cheese, lamb and apples (Calvados) are the local specialities.
Vernon is known as the Gateway to Normandy and has some fine 12th century castles, churches, half-timbered cottages and museums celebrating Norman history. The Old Mill, stranded on the remains of an ancient bridge, is a noteworthy landmark. You’ll find plenty of luxury hotels in the area including the exceptional Moulin de Connelles, 33km away.
For most visitors, the main reason to stay overnight in Vernon is to visit neighbouring Giverny. This charming commune is home to Monet’s Garden, complete with a riot of colourful herbaceous beds and that famous green bridge over the lily pond. You can also tour Monet’s home and studio. It’s fun, even for non-art fans.
Explore the old commune and look out for the beautiful poppy field near the Musée des Impressionnismes before resuming your drive northwest to Rouen.
At this point, take the back road signposted for Les Andelys, one of the most scenic parts of the Seine Valley. This area is famous for its chalk cliffs overlooking the river valley and the Belvedere of Château Gaillard, built in 1196 by Richard the Lionheart. It’s places like this that make you want to extend this tour by a few days, for sure!
If you manage to tear yourself away, end the day in Rouen, perhaps dining at the Relais and Chateaux Restaurant Gill. The two-Michelin star chef, Gilles Tournadre, prepares wonderful pressed duck and Rouen-style roasted pigeon which alone will make this trip worthwhile.
The mediaeval city of Rouen is a destination in itself with its monstrous Gothic Notre Dame Cathedral, a favourite subject of Monet. Stroll along the cobbled streets, admire some of the 50 magnificent churches, and photograph the fairytale half-timbered houses. Highlights include the Gros-Horloge Clock Tower, the Abbey of Saint Wandrille and the Fine Arts Museum in this city of the martyred Joan of Arc.
Back on the road, you’ll see endless vineyards, distant church spires and plenty of farmland as you head towards the Normandy coast. You may want to dip your toes in the water and explore the upscale resort of Deauville with its Grand Casino and racecourse. It’s a magnet for high society French families who own some of the lovely seaside houses along this Parisian Riviera.
Alternatively, head to Honfleur, passing the many battle sites which commemorate the Invasion of Normandy and the D-Day Landings at Omaha Beach. This is your journey’s end; a place to linger for a few days and visit neighbouring Bayeux, with its historic tapestry, or the landmark Mont Saint-Michel, before reluctantly returning your Audi R8/Spyder in nearby Le Havre.
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