Gadget tips for a spontaneous French road trip

Megan Thomas tells us about a holiday for the more adventurous and romantic, and shows how you can follow in her footsteps.

I’ve just returned from a two-week road trip from the UK to the South of France, and did it with absolutely no pre-planning except booking onto a ferry from Dover to Calais.

“Why?” may spring to mind – my answer is simply: these days, you don’t need to plan, provided you’ve got the right tools.

“How?” is hopefully your next question, because I’ve got the answers right here.

Legal requirement: get a driving kit for France
Amazon sells a driving kit, and this is roughly £25 you will never regret spending. Amazon does free UK deliveries, so there is absolutely no excuse not to have your Driving Kit packed in your car before you embark on your adventures.

I left on my adventures with only one breathalyser, and was informed by someone I met that if I didn’t have two, I would get fined. I got lucky, but I wouldn’t want anyone getting fined for something as minor as this seems to be (seeing as, hopefully, nobody will need to actually use them!)

Once you’ve made this purchase, it means that the pre-planning for a road trip is minimal and you can pack up and go – driving from Arras, to Lyon, to Montpellier was easy knowing that my car was well-prepared and within French laws.

Download MAPS.ME
One of my favourite additions to our technologically-infused society is the smartphone. With a car-phone-charger in tow, and preferably also a separate battery pack for charging, all your best travel plans can be kept on your phone.

MAPS.ME is what I’d describe as a hybrid between Trip Advisor and a GPS/SatNav. When you’re connected to the internet, you download maps of places you plan on visiting – the whole of France, for instance. This app saved me when I took a wrong turn, finding myself in the industrial area of Bordeaux with no internet access.

Whatever you do, don’t rely on internet access always being available – always have offline options available.

You can download MAPS.ME from the iPhone app store or the Android app store.

More on navigation
Good navigation is essential if you aren’t precisely planning your destinations before you leave – which I found to be is a perfectly viable option, provided you’ve got this app to make sure you are never in a situation where you don’t know where you are.

If you have a SatNav for your car, make sure it covers Europe as well as just the UK – some do, some don’t. Even if you wanted to buy a new SatNav specifically for your trip, they are fairly cheap these days: for example, Argos sells the “Garmin Drive 50LM 5 Inch Europe Lifetime Maps” for £88.99.

Use Airbnb to find places to stay
Airbnb – which can either be downloaded from the iPhone app store or Android app store, or used online at airbnb.com – offers holiday homes and rentals. I consider it to be the easiest, cheapest way to find accommodation that precisely suits your needs in no time at all. Better yet, it means you can stay in a homely environment.

Each day, once I had decided where I would be travelling to, I’d simply type my budget and city into Airbnb and explore the many amazing houses and apartments on offer in the towns I was visiting. Before the days of Airbnb, a lack of planning could mean a lack of options.

This the perfect medium for spontaneous travelling, because Airbnb monitors its users diligently and you are unlikely to go somewhere you haven’t researched reliably. I found myself in central Marseilles, overlooking the Opera, and within walking distance of some of the most delicious snails and mussels I’ve ever tasted.

With these steps in place, your only concern will be finding a delightful spot to order a cold drink and a fresh baguette. The best way to find an authentic place is to ask your Airbnb owner (the person who owns the property that you will be staying in). All the pre-planning and research in the world can never match up to a local’s knowledge!

Our planning notes for the more cautious

  • Take a second phone or tablet computer to use as a backup.
  • Take a spare charger, and a spare battery pack. (Even if you can’t replace the battery on your phone, like with an iPhone, you can plug your charger cable into the battery pack to get an extra charge.)
  • Also consider carrying a SatNav (making sure it covers France, or the area you will be driving in).
  • Take a paper map to use as a last resort.
  • Ensure your car is roadworthy before you go, and that it has been serviced, topped up with necessary fluids and oil, etc.
  • Check your car breakdown cover to ensure that it covers you while you are abroad.
  • Check your car insurance covers you to drive abroad.
  • Check your travel insurance covers you to drive abroad.

Further information to keep you safe and legal
You should review the following information before you leave home, to make sure you stay safe and legally compliant:

Ohrid, Macedonia: A pearl frozen in time

Continuing our insider’s look at European destinations through the eyes of locals, we asked Angela Manevska, from Macedonia, to tell us about her country and what makes it special.

In the south-west part of Macedonia, hidden amidst the mountainous landscape, lies Ohrid, a city treasured for its historical value and breathtaking nature. As the main cultural and historical city in Macedonia, it gives you a combination of historical treasures and a peaceful beach getaway at the same time.

The average temperatures during summer are 19С (66F), making it a perfect location for both your beach rest and a pleasant evening walk.

Lake Ohrid
Located on the border of Macedonia and Albania, Lake Ohrid is estimated to be 2-3 million years old, making it the oldest lake on the whole European Continent. It is one of the most valuable stagnant water ecosystems in Europe, and has earned Lake Ohrid its title as a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Fun fact: NASA has even named one of the lakes on Saturn’s Moons Ohrid Lacus).

Known as the Macedonian Pearl, the Ohrid Lake acquired this nickname for its awe-inspiring beauty and aquatic rarities. The medicinal benefits and the therapeutic effects of the lake’s flora attract thousands of people every year. If you want to improve your body’s condition and feel refreshed, you can visit local spas and natural healing centres which work exclusively with products made from the lake’s fresh algae.

Cruises on Lake Ohrid
Boat cruises are available at any time, taking tourists to various locations across the lake’s shore, with the final destination being the church of St. Naum. There are also private rowing boats that you can rent if you want to have a closer experience of the lake.

Historical places and architecture 
Natural beauties aren’t the only thing the city of Ohrid has to offer you. As it is one of the oldest cities on the continent, museums and archaeological sites can be found everywhere across the city within a few minutes’ walk. There are 170 archaeological sites, some of which date back to 6,000 years B.C.

The ruins of the old Tsar Samuel’s fortress can be seen from higher grounds in the city, and archaeological findings are exhibited across the city and in museums.

One of the most notable characteristics about Ohrid is its unique antique building style. It’s one of the few cities where you can book and stay in a historical hotel. Most hotels and private accommodations here are built in the same architectural style that is symbolic of the city, allowing you to experience the history of the place through their interior design and the food they serve.

Ohrid has significant religious historical value. The saying “A church for every day of the year” is well-known to the citizens of Ohrid, as there are 365 churches throughout the city.

Ohrid is known to be one of the first cities to build cave churches. They can be found in various locations around the city periphery, most of them only available with a boat ride. The churches hold some of the most valued frescoes, on which you can see the beginnings of Slavic literacy.

The church of St. Jovan Kaneo is one of the most photographed churches in the world. It stands on a rock high above the lake, and creates a dreamlike landscape at sunset. The view of the golden sunset rays hitting the millennium-aged lake waves is a sight to be seen, something that many have described as life-changing.

While you’re having a walk across the Turkish-style bazaar, you will come across “The Old Chinar” (Platanus Orientalis), a tree 800-900 years old with a 20-metre wide trunk. It’s a famous gathering spot for locals, and you can see musicians and performers all around, giving you the experience of the town’s spirit and the warmness of the locals.

Beach life and recreation
If you want to get away from the noise and city crowd, the beach Labino is a 10 min walk west from the church of St. Kaneo. It’s a small, calm beach place which is divided into a male part and a female part, but it also has a mixed part too.

While there are many deserted beaches on the shore of the lake, you’re best to avoid these: they are hard to reach, as the terrain is filled with reeds, and they are mostly covered with small rocks instead of sand.

Different recreational activities are available in Ohrid. If you’re up for a walk, the mountainous terrain allows you to have a wonderful hike through the untouched nature of the national park “Galichica”, and the many fishing villages can give you a unique fishing experience in small boats.

While you’re in town, make sure to try out local specialities. As a fishing town, the lake’s carp and trout dishes will leave you craving for more, and combined with the city’s homemade wine will make you want to come back for the experience year after year.

Majorca beyond the tourist traps

Aimee Wetherall is a British writer who has travelled all over the world and is currently living in Majorca. We asked her to give us an insider’s guide that goes beyond the typical tourist traps.

When it comes to Majorca, what’s clear to me is that the south of the island has so much more to offer than the Magaluf strip and boozy boat trips.

From the up-and-coming resort of Palmanova to the chic and trendy resort of Portals Nous, this part of Majorca is a welcoming surprise and a place I am happy to call home, along with many other business professionals, retired couples and Spanish locals.

Regeneration all around
Palmanova is Magaluf’s neighbour, and I have to say, from living here, that it could not be more different. The area has gone through some regeneration and is fast becoming a destination for couples and families who enjoy good food, nice beaches and comfortable, relaxing places to stay.

There are three blue flag beaches in the area to choose from, and opposite each one is a promenade lined with bars, restaurants and cafes. Playa Porto Novo is my personal favourite as it is a little quieter with a small marina at the end of the promenade. It is also opposite some of the nicest restaurants and cafes in the area.

Accommodation in Palmanova is generally 3 or 4 star and many hotels have been newly refurbished. The adults-only Fergus Style Palmanova truly lives up to having the word ‘style’ as a middle name. There are Bali beds, a rooftop pool with great sea views, and the bar area is chic and relaxed. This is the perfect place to unwind and enjoy a good book.

Best marina area
Although Palma has some of the biggest and most impressive yachts I have ever seen moored on the marina, the area of Portals Nous is where you can see them up close while enjoying a drink and local tapas.

Another bonus to Portals Nous marina is that the beach is right next door. Playa Oratori is a blue flag beach and a favourite with locals. The clear blue waters and white sands make you feel instantly relaxed while you soak up the sun in your own corner of paradise.

Local information – food and transport
I frequently take buses around the resort, and although they may not always be on time, the buses themselves are comfortable and relatively cheap. You can also buy an intermodal card on board which allows you to make 20 or 40 journeys within a year and can give you considerable savings.

A great thing about the south-west is that the area has embraced the Spanish tradition of giving people great value for money, with some restaurants offering ‘Menu del Dias’ or ‘Menu of the day’ at lunch time. This means you can get a three-course meal in the area for less than £20 per head.

When to go
The south-west can get busy and extremely hot in the peak months of July and August, so if you’re like me, and you favour the beaches a little less crowded and your temperatures in the early to mid-twenties, plan your holiday here for September.