Le Camping

Someday soon – but not yet – I’ll be too old for camping holidays in France. ‘Victoria’, my venerable Land Rover 110 is permanently kitted out with Easy Loader and J-Bars and it only takes a couple of minutes to stow ‘Beeswing’, my sea kayak up aloft. I have a rooted aversion to lazing on beaches so I figured long ago that it would be good to occupy myself practising bracing and wet exits while my lady soaked up the sun and devoured the novels she doesn’t have time to read the rest of the year. Sometimes, though, the will has to be taken for the deed. What with severely inclement weather, back twinges and long alcoholic lunches the kayak hardly came off the roof on the last trip! Nevertheless, the boat’s presence was advantageous in that 1) it enabled me to bond with a fellow kayaker who just happened to own a Michelin two-star restaurant. 2) Surmounted by a 19 foot long projectile the motor is a breeze to locate, even in a vast hypermarket car park. 3) We stowed all our clothes in ‘Beeswing’s hatches on the return, leaving more room for shedloads of wine.
In case the term ‘camping’ conjures up images of a spartan activity fit only for boy scouts and Himalayan mountaineers let me hasten to enumerate our inventory of under canvas ‘don’t-leave-home-withouts’ that’s been refined over many years.
I’m no great fan of frame tents. Yes, I know they provide a family-sized floppy version of bungalow bliss but I hate their instability in even a slight degree of wind and I do not have a PhD in civil engineering – a sine qua non when it comes to assembling the damn thing. Years ago I borrowed one and embarrassed myself in stereo – first, when my Cleesian performance in erecting it brought tears of mirth and roars of “Encore!” from fellow campers and again, at the end of the week, when I inadvertently packed up the car keys inside the tent and had to reprise the whole sorry performance in reverse. After this experience I bought a small mountain dome tent, of the ilk that would stand in a tempest on the side of Everest. I used it for years, until a wild wet night in the Dordogne forced me to share my mini-castle with four other campers whose flimsy shelters had blown away. This caused me to invest in a more roomy residence.
My current tent is a Khyam Super Vis-à-vis, a grown up version of the dome concept, with sleeping compartments either side of a central ‘corridor’ that’s big enough to accommodate a table and folding chairs and doorways front and rear. With standing headroom in the middle (nice to be able to get dressed standing up) the Vis-à-vis offers palatial housing for two people on an extended holiday and reasonable comfort for four. If there are only two of you the other compartment can be used as a ‘spare room’. Soundly constructed, with a flysheet of rip stop polyester and inner tents of breathable polycotton it remains impressively leak and draught proof and can be erected in under five minutes, thanks to a patented pole joint system, outer first so the inner tent doesn’t get wet even if it rains stair rods.
Double, but with individually tuneable sides to allow your SO to attain that perfect degree of firmness/softness that will obviate a re-run of the ‘Princess and the Pea’ fairy tale.
Sleeping bags
To choice. Down for she, hollow synthetic for me. I’ve done enough yachting to know that moisture and down don’t mix. Take decent pillows, the kind that will give you a good night’s sleep.
Portable toilet
Don’t laugh, the modern ones are leak proof, pong proof and hygienic. Anyhow, beats searching for a campsite loo in the middle of the night.
The camp kitchen
Cookers x 3. Gas barbecue – a windshield is essential. Small Camping Gaz stove with a radiant top – for the Biaglietti espresso maker (Italian two-can job), a must if civilized standards are to be kept up. Trangia windproof stove (runs off gas or meths) with steamer.
For boiling water the Kelly Kettle is your only man. Known to fishermen for many years – invariably as ‘Paddy’s chimney’ or “the Kerry man’s volcano’ – this brilliant device boils a litre and a half of water in under 4 minutes, using waste combustible material such as twigs or dried grass, or yesterday’s ‘red tops’.
One of the best things we ever bought was a small Camping Gaz fridge that works off mains, bottled gas or the car battery, to choice. Chilled Sancerre outdoors on a summer’s night – instant bliss!
Other ‘must-haves’ include decent glasses and a few good corkscrews – take one it invariably gets mislaid on Day Two.
Cherbourg isn’t the ideal destination unless you want to visit the famous but clichéd Mont Saint Michel en route. It takes a long time to get off the peninsula so if you want to strike out quickly into the heart of Brittany, St.Malo or Roscoff is preferable. St.Malo is an utterly charming town, one that will repay a stay of a day or three. There are some excellent restaurants.
Roscoff, like its easterly counterpart Le Havre, is a bit of a kip. Nevertheless the latter provides rapid access south over the Pont de Tancarville and into a picturesque and interesting enclave of Normandy.
I am not one of those who rush to the Côte d’ Azur doing lemming impressions. I do not have the vehicle for such tomfoolery. Maybe if I win the lotto and buy a Ferrari my mindset will change. Until then I’m happy poddling down through Normandy, Brittany, The Vendée and the Charente Maritime at a paraplegic snail’s pace. My habitual eventual destination is the city of La Rochelle, the former Huguenot stronghold that draws me like a magnet. Verily I am a La Rochelle junkie, hooked on its history, architecture (old and new), fine restaurants and cafés, civilised shopping and the mellow yellow walls of the bastion that double the warmth of sunlight. There are good campsites at Ronce-les bains and la Palmyre, south of La rochelle and the municipal one on the south side of town is by no means bad.Sometimes I expand my horizons by heading on to Bordeaux for the vineyards, to Arcachon with its sky-scraping dunes and fine open market, or beyond, as far as The Dordogne – but no further.
My favourite route is to travel initially South West from Le Havre. There is a campsite near Pont L’Evêque with a fine château in the grounds said to have been occupied by the Nazi propagandist Goebbels in World War II. Given the personality of the warden on a previous visit some reckon Herr G never left!
I then strike out for the saintly city of Lisieux, downing as much cider, Calvados and tripe a la mode de Caen as I can manage en route. Next I swing east of Le Mans and up into the hills, arranging a lunch stop at a lovely auberge in Mortagne aux Perches before heading westwards once more down the Loire where a host of elegant châteaux and interesting towns await. Chenin is truly lovely; unless it’s nightlife you’re after. And I adore Saumur.
Then it’s on to Nantes and my bête noir, the huge bridge where car and boat catch the wind like a sail in a gale – the penance I must endure for the hedonism I regard as my due when I reach La Rochelle.
One one occasion, I did things differently. First stop after the plod from Cherbourg was Binic, a small resort on the Côte D’Azur. We found it by accident and loved it. Quiet and civilised in June, apparently it’s chokka with French holidaymakers in August, people sleeping in their garage having let their house! There are two fine beaches, where the tide whooshes in and out like an express train and one of the nicest municipal campsites I’ve ever seen, on the cliff tops. French campsites vary in refinement – the gap between worst and best is as wide as that between an untipped Gitanes and a Cohiba cigar. Luckily the grading system is pretty accurate and the facilities available in the upper echelon far outweigh Club Med and many a three-star hotel too. For those who are only mildly adventurous, Eurocamp and Keycamp have bases on many sites where you can book the package – you arrive to find a palatial frame tent ready erected, kitted out with everything except the Ricard.
From Binic we forged inland, to Lac de Guerledan, actually a widening of the river Blavet, not unlike Loch Derg’s relationship with The Shannon. There’s a Kayak Club at Mur-de-Bretagne at the head of the ‘lake’. The town also boasts one of the few remaining horse butchers in France, or it did the last time we were there. The countryside is soft and pretty.
Next day on to the coast, at the Golfe du Morbihan, a huge ‘inland sea’, speckled with islands, many of them privately owned. Bird life is abundant as they feed off the oyster beds. Kerners and Arzon on the less civilised south side would make excellent HQs for sailors or canoeists, particularly the former, which boasts a beautifully kept campsite adjacent to the slip. We also spent a few days at Camping du Lac near La Trinité sur Mer, an upmarket small seaside resort/yachting centre on the coast. In addition to paddling the Golfe, I spent some time exploring the exceedingly pleasant River Crach (pronounced ‘craic’), usually in the hours after dawn – at last I’ve found a bonus in my insomnia! The local oyster farmer gave me a trip on his boat, plus a dozen fines des claires and some dark strong Jenlan beer to wash them down with.
The Golfe du Morbihan is an area which I know will draw me back particularly as the weather turned nasty preventing us from exploring as much as we would have liked. Seeking some sun, we pushed on South to Saint Palais-sur-Mer, fifteen years ago a delightful village; now absorbed into the huge resort of Royan. Appalled by the change, we sought the sanctuary of Les Trois Canards, an exceptional restaurant at Arvert.
Returning homeward, we couldn’t resist a return to Binic. If we’d had another week I would have made for the Ile de Brehat on the Channel coast, spoken about with reverence by every Breton I met, particularly sea kayakers. Next time then and, preferably, soon.