Travel between London and Paris is very fast and very affordable: flights can be found for under £50, and the Eurostar will whisk travelers under the water in just over two hours. But all this efficiency eradicates any exploration of the terrain and history that lies between the two cities. A road trip strips back the march of progress and recasts the space separating them as an indispensable part of the journey. This route, taking the less-common ferry between Newhaven and Dieppe, encompasses nature, art and history, as well as opportunities for great nightlife. It moves through rolling chalk hills, prehistoric settlements, lively beach town, and the coastline and cities that inspired the Impressionist painters. So slow it down a bit and seriously consider driving from London to Paris on your next trip.
[Also see our travel article “Top Ten Reasons to Visit London“]
Devil’s Dyke, UK
Fifty miles south of London stretches one of England’s most recognizable landscapes. The South Downs are a range of chalk hills that undulate across 260 square miles of fields, woodland and white chalk cliffs. Drive down the A23 from London and into the National Park, follow signs to Devil’s Dyke, and you’ll come to what the landscape painter John Constable described as “the grandest view in the world.”
The Devil’s Dyke is the UK’s longest, deepest and widest dry valley. Its heights provide a spectacular panorama over the Downs and onto the ocean beyond. Local folklore holds that the valley was created by Satan when, angered by the number of churches in the area, he dug a great channel to allow the sea to drown all the local parishioners. Fortunately a false dawn startled him before he could finish his work, and he fled, flicking a final clump of dirt over his shoulder which is now the Isle of Wight. Geologists, on the other hand, claim it was formed by river erosion during the last Ice Age.
As well as these distant beginnings, the Devil’s Dyke holds glimpses into periods of local human history. The view from the top of the valley reveals the outlines of Bronze Age burial mounds and other prehistoric settlements. The rampart remains of an Iron Age fort perch on a hill’s shoulder. And during the Victorian age Devil’s Dyke briefly became a thriving tourist attraction, and the decaying remnants of a Victorian funfair are still there now.
The UK’s National Trust website has several walks which encompass these historic sites, while the English Heritage website has a short video that provides an introduction to the mythological and natural history of the valley. As you explore you might also encounter roe deer, foxes, kestrels and buzzards.
From Devil’s Dyke it’s a short signposted drive into Brighton, a vibrant city on England’s south coast. Brighton has a reputation as a bohemian enclave of artists and activists: in 2010 the city elected the UK’s first ever Green Party MP, and for decades it has been a hub of the country’s LGBT community. It is also one of Britain’s most popular seaside holiday resorts.
The city is composed of several distinct districts. Sexualities of all stripes mingle everywhere, but a more conventional gay scene can be found in the bars and clubs of Kemp Town. Further up the hill, the North Laine district feels a little like central Barcelona, as its colourful streets are lined with theatres, cafes, bars and hundreds of creative and independent shops; residents have fiercely resisted the invasion of any big chains. And Brighton’s seafront has been one of the UK’s top seaside attractions for over a century. The sea laps pebble beaches while Brighton Pier stretches a bling-covered limb into the ocean. By day the beachfront activity is centered around arcades, funfair rides, water sports and seafood snacks, and at night a string of bars and clubs spill out onto the shoreline.
Étretat and the Alabaster Coast, France
Drag yourself away from Brighton and drive west along a winding coastal road to Newhaven, where ferries cross the English Channel to France and the town of Dieppe. From here travelers can take a detour along the Alabaster Coast of Normandy, a stark canvas of white chalk cliffs towering over the blue ocean below. The soft chalk is continually eroded by the wash of the waves, carving dramatic rock formations from the cliffs. The resulting shapes are most spectacular at Étretat Plage, a beach framed by three giant stone arches and sentinel needles of rock jutting out of the ocean. These striking features inspired the Impressionist painters Boudin, Manet and Monet.
Étretat is about 50 miles west of Dieppe, and from there travelers can then take smaller roads through rural towns to the city of Rouen. This will add around 60 miles to the total journey, so an alternative is to drive directly from Dieppe to Rouen, which are only 45 miles apart along the N27.
Moving inland, Rouen is a historic French city with a pretty Medieval Old Town, composed of narrow cobbled streets weaving between elegant wood-and-stone houses. At its center rises the tallest cathedral in France, dominating the skyline with its jagged gothic tower and 13th-century stained glass windows. This cathedral was the subject of 30 paintings by Monet, one of which hangs in the city’s Musée des Beaux Arts, among France’s best non-Parisian art galleries. As well as Monet, Pissarro and Gauguin both experimented with scenes in and around Rouen, and the city’s streets are dotted with small art dealerships.
But the city’s history has not always been so calmly cultured. Built by a Gaulish tribe around the fifth century, it has been overrun by Vikings, occupied by the English, destroyed by fire in the middle ages and by Allied bombardment during World War 2. Most dramatically of all, Joan of Arc was burnt alive in the town’s central square in 1431. A tall cross marks the spot, and a wildly eccentric modern church, dedicated to St. Joan, stands beside the site of the execution.
If exploring this violent history tires you out, Rouen has a couple of great restaurants at which to recover. Gill is a two-starred Michelin restaurant in the center of town, while La Couronne claims to be the oldest inn in France.
Chateau de Versailles, France
From Rouen, drive south-east along the A13 to delve further into France’s turbulent history. The Chateau de Versailles is the greatest remaining emblem of France’s ancien Régime, the opulent and oppressive aristocratic system which ruled the country from the 15th Century until it was overthrown by revolution in 1789. The Chateau was the primary residence of the French monarchy through these years, and each King commissioned his favorite artists and architects to embellish its various structures.
The palace’s grounds are vast and it can take thirty minutes to walk between sites. Alongside the baroque palace there are elegant and understated gardens, the smaller Italianate buildings of the Grand Trianon and the secluded residence of Marie Antoinette. All are spellbindingly stylish, although it is hard not to envisage Marie leaning from a balcony and sardonically crying: “The poor say they have no bread? Well let them eat cake!” This story is entirely fabricated but feels very appropriate upon encountering the extravagance of Versailles. The king and his court were eventually forced out by a phalanx of women who, incensed by the price of bread, armed themselves and marched from the Parisian marketplace to Versailles.
Today the palace continues to be overrun by the masses, resulting in enormous queuing times – even the purchase of a pricey all-access pass only slightly reduces these – so it is worth trying to arrive as early as possible. The palace’s excellent website makes it easy to pre-plan a visit.
Upon leaving Versailles it’s only a 14-mile drive into central Paris, which, depending on traffic, can take as long as 45 minutes.
More reading suggestions from Traveler’s Digest:
See the drive from London to Paris on the map:
By Bike: Cycling from London to Paris
In 2012 a new cycle route opened between London and Paris, making pedaling between the two cities a straight-forward alternative to sitting behind a windscreen. Named L’Avenue Verte, the route is a well-marked weave of roads, paths, bridleways and old railway lines linking the London Eye to Notre-Dame cathedral.
The route guides cyclists out of London’s grey maze of alleys and three-lane highways, eventually reaching the open green meadows of the North and South Downs. It also makes use of the Newhaven to Dieppe ferry crossing. A small detour can be taken if you’re keen to include Brighton in your itinerary.
As it leaves Dieppe, L’Avenue Verte picks up an old railway line which is traffic-free and a pleasantly easy ride between hedges, fields and pretty dairy farms. While unquestionably quite a distance – around 200 miles of cycling – the route is challenging only in the contoured landscape of southern England. Once in France, the terrain is flat and, depending on how many miles you cover in a day, relatively easy going. The only reason to drive in a car instead is that the route misses out many of the attractions described above.