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Driving in France: What are the French 'villages étapes'?

The Local France
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Driving in France: What are the French 'villages étapes'?
The village of Bergues, one of 76 villages étapes in France. (Photo by DENIS CHARLET / AFP)

You have probably seen them signposted at the side of a major road - but what, exactly, are France’s 'villages étapes'?

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It looks a little like the @ sign - but the symbol for a village étape at the side of a major road in France is a strong hint to turn off the main route and head, briefly, into la France profonde.

We recently discussed the various motorway services in France and what you can expect from them. We also mentioned that you’re pretty much a captive consumer if you stop off at one of them, so you do pay a premium for the privilege - and suggested that you might, if you were feeling particularly daring, head into the nearest town in search of fuel and a bite to eat.

Enter France’s villages étapes - or stopover villages. 

You’ll see them advertised at the side of France’s major national highways, or non-toll motorways - which in part explains why they are particularly prolific in the north-western Brittany region which, for historical reasons, has no toll motorways.

The scheme has been running for more than 25 years.

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To date, 76 villages in France - from Bergues on the Belgian border to Le Caylar, northwest of Montpellier - are united under the villages étapes banner to offer their services to weary travellers in search of succour. Or, at least, somewhere to refuel your vehicle, body and spirit.

The label of village étape is awarded by the Environment Ministry, and to qualify a place must meet certain criteria.

It must have no more than 5,000 inhabitants, be within five minutes’ drive or five kilometres from the main route, and must be committed to maintaining its ‘village character’.

As well as location, all qualifying villages must:

  • Offer traditional catering with a minimum number of seating
  • Have at least one hotel offering accommodation. This may be supplemented by quality guest rooms and/or a campsite;
  • Support other commercial activities, such as a baker, grocer, tabac, pharmacy, filling station;
  • Provide access to shaded parking spaces and toilets equipped for people with reduced mobility;
  • Provision a reception area for motorhomes, games and picnics;
  • Have a tourist information point.
  • Offer information on local hiking trails and/or historical monuments;
  • Be a pleasant and attractive place to visit.

Once awarded, the label is valid for five years, after which it must be renewed - a process that requires officials to visit the village to ensure it still meets the requirements.

In short, they offer a more traditional French experience than the fast-food chains found at service stations on the autoroute. 

So, next time you see the symbol at the side of the road, try it out. You'll visit somewhere you've probably not been before, and it may become a regular future staging post.

A word of warning though - there's nothing in rules that state that places must be open on a Sunday. 

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