France, Travel

14 Days of ‘Fun-Filled’ Camping

Torla Stream

I used to love camping . . . as a kid. Bare feet, muddy dams, and falling into bed each night without a thought for my mum who’d be dealing with my washing at the end of the weekend. But it’s been a while since we’ve camped. We did the Gibb River Road in 2009 . . . complete with camper-trailer and sixty litres of Evian to satisfy my refined tastes . . . but when it came to long-term travel through Europe, the campervan was ruled out early. Our marriage wouldn’t survive years together in a confined space. We’re not snobs . . . and I’m definitely not a princess . . . but after ten years in construction camps and seedy motels, the standard of accommodation we prefer in our spare time is not a bathroom-less closet on wheels.

It was a couple of Perth friends who sold us the virtues of camping in Europe. They did it every summer. The campgrounds were cheap, friendly and spotless, and included luxuries like swimming pools, bars and pizzerias. It was nothing like camping back home, they said. So after a couple of brief (wet) spring excursions in our £25 tent we put the experience to the test over summer. With two weeks to fill between leaving friends in the French Alps, and meeting others in Portugal, camping seemed ideal for budget travel . . . and a little self-development in the areas of flexibility and spontaneity.

Day 1 and I clung to civilisation, for as long as possible, stocking our €3 Lidl cooler bag with pre-prepared meals and washing every last piece of clothing we had. It was early afternoon when we finally rolled out of Grenoble, a rough itinerary, a couple of donated chairs and a borrowed gas stove among the mountain stuff we’d accumulated in the tight-arse mobile. We barely made it halfway to our (roughly-planned) destination. But that was the point. Day 1 and we were winning at spontaneity.

We set up camp at the 2 Soleils campsite just outside Serres, our mini tent lost on the sprawling plot which would have housed three caravans back home. The weather was a perfect 20 degrees as we enjoyed a gourmet pre-prepared dinner, overlooking the stunning hillside, a blanket of pretty clouds rolling across the rugged cliffs. This was what it was about.

Yet there was a nagging dread in my stomach. Colby’s assurance there was no rain in those clouds didn’t quieten my fears. With no fly or tarps, and a van full of crap, we were in trouble if there was. Our only piece of rain-fighting equipment was the giant promotional umbrella our friends had scored from the Tour de France caravan. As a precaution we set it up next to the tent. It wouldn’t win an award for class but hopefully it would keep us (somewhat) dry . . . in the unlikely event of rain.

There was no warning before the laptop snapped shut on our bedtime episode of The Americans, the thundering roar of rain thrashing the umbrella and the tent poles warping under the strain. Curling up together, listening to the storm could have been romantic . . . if our sole purpose hadn’t been to keep off the sopping walls of the undersized tent. Six uncomfortable hours of accepting the fate of a damp, smelly two-weeks to come and the storm finally passed. Fuck camping.

I unfolded from the snail I’d wound myself into and emerged to survey the damage. All things considered, it was surprising the umbrella had held up at all, but it had even gone some way to minimising the ‘sog’. As a bonus, the howling gale would help dry out our wet bedding, so we booked a second night and dedicated day 2 to the preservation of dryness. A two-hour round trip to town saw the afternoon filled with debate around the most effective use of our newly acquired tarp; a sound investment considering it served no purpose that night . . . other than to turn the tent into a steaming sauna, and act as a giant sail in the cyclonic winds. For another six hours I clung to the half-deflated air-mattress, praying the next gust wouldn’t blow us, tent and all, into the valley below. Fuck camping.

An exhausted version of spontaneity prevailed on day 3, intentional and unintentional detours seeing us defy Google Maps, over and over again. The back roads presented stunning views of paragliders over Provence, endless lavender fields and spectacular gorges, before spitting us out into a five-kilometre freeway traffic jam . . . heading in the wrong direction.

It was 6pm when we finally hit the coast somewhere near Montpellier and with only four hours sleep in two days my meltdown-o-metre was running hot. But any hope of crashing early was dashed by the €55 tariff at the first random, middle-of-nowhere site we discovered. The camping budget simply didn’t stretch to that, even if the place did come with spectacular views of the main road, a pool and a security guard on the gate!

Fighting the crowds of French holiday-makers the meltdown-o-metre stayed at a simmer long enough to convince the receptionist at an over-priced, two-star park in La Grande-Motte, half an hour down the road, to allow us a one-night stay despite their two-night policy. (Thank goodness I’d learnt the art of overcoming the French “No.”) Turning up outside the locked shower block at 10:01pm smelly and covered in grit however, came close to seeing the lid tumble off.

We had sped past the medieval walled city of Carcassone twice in our previous, time-constrained, travels across France, and each time promised to return for a visit. It’s relatively short distance from La Grande-Motte, preceded by a good night’s sleep, saw us back in a good headspace, and allowed plenty of time to be selective about a campsite. Discounting two overpriced sites close to town, we settled for a picturesque campground on a river nearby.

The cold water, three kilometre hike to the showers and high-class plot in full sun were liveable, because this place had a much sought after ‘piscine’ . . . and provided an invaluable education into European bathing customs. With the temperature pushing 35 degrees, and the absence of a customary No Boardies sign, I embraced the opportunity for Colby to join me in the pool. The absent sign however, did not make for an absence of sausage-fest . . . and we were clear outsiders from the minute we stepped out of the disinfectant bath. White eyes shone through crisped faces, over books and magazines and along our every move. Pssst Pierre, look at these ‘etrangers’, they’re actually getting IN the water!

The 35 degree temperatures made for a pleasant exploration of the walled city, the Canal du Midi (a 241 km section of navigable waterway between the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean sea) and the numerous lock systems, some of which date back to their origins in the 17th century. The effects on sleep and perishable goods however were not so favourable and by day 6 we were looking forward to heading back to the mountains and cooler weather.

Passing dangerously close to the sickening tourist-bus trap of Lourdes, we headed into the Pyrenees. It was only here it became clear just how big a part of French culture camping was. Every campground seemed to advertise ‘no-vacancies’ while showcasing the epitome of French holiday-maker. Smoke wafted from kettle-shaped grills between the rows of 80’s style caravans. Families gathered around the stone covered bocce courts and laughter filled the air. It was the busiest twenty days of the year and our search for somewhere to pitch our tent was almost in vain. So much for our plan to slow down for three days, but then ‘plans’ were overrated . . . or so I’d been told.

Like a cruel taunt from the universe, the intimate campsite we’d pre-planned, complete with hot water, toilet seats and free Wi-Fi throughout was available only for one night. So with heavy hearts the following morning was spent searching for an alternative. The €10 per night tariff at tent-land up the road, offered the slightest consolation even if it did mean dumping our tent among the masses. But the showers were hot, and the mountains rose up around us like a picture postcard. Things weren’t so bad.

Day 8 and the pace didn’t slow. The mountains beckoned and the bikes were dragged out for a long-overdue ride. And with an overflowing bag of laundry, two-day wait for a machine and an upturned 3000 piece jigsaw puzzle in the back of the tight-arse mobile, the evening offered nothing by way of relaxation.

I unfolded from the foetal position on day 9, stretching my feet into the waterlogged ‘foyer’ of our (barely) two-man tent and lathering myself in the condensation I’d been successfully avoiding. Toilets without seats. Sinks without plugs. Cold water. Slow Wi-Fi. I was over it. It was time to book a hotel. Fuck camping.

I tapped my finger restlessly on the desk in the common room, Olympic commentary crackling away in French. It was all I could do to restrain myself from strangling the kid buzzing in my ear like a bee, the world’s slowest Wi-Fi still searching for booking.com. The universe chuckled. No hotel for you. I slammed the laptop shut. For the first time in four months I just wanted to go home. Instead, we loaded the van and, with no idea where we were headed, we drove.

Balanced on the imaginary line between France and Spain my focus shifted. We were chowing down on ham and cheese baguettes, staring out at the Col du Portalet . . . not cancelling plans because of some work crisis like we had for the last fifteen years. Bring the wet tent and cold showers. We just needed a couple of days in one place to regroup. So on the recommendation of a friendly Frenchie, we headed for the Ordesa National Park.

I couldn’t help but feel we weren’t receiving the warmest welcome in Spain. No doubt the British passport and GB plates hadn’t done us any favours after ‘the vote’. And the relief I’d felt at finding a vacant campsite disappeared with the buzz of the motorbike we’d been following as it disappeared around another crumbling switchback. The van strained under the grade.

Underwhelmed, I stared at the half-arsed plot we’d been allocated, perched on the edge of a cliff and hanging over the ablution block . . . three kilometres below. Just fucking grand.

“Now, now,” Colby warned. “It’s these places that usually turn out the best.”

And he was right. The scent of freshly brewed coffee hung in the air the following morning, the sun playing across the jagged cliffs, and tent-city a distant memory. The silent tree-lined terrace became our solace for two whole days, seeing us venture out only to indulge in the luxuries of the bar . . . and make the necessarily evil trek to the shower block. Vultures circled in the sky, nesting in overhead caves. Day 12 and we’d discovered the essence of camping.

Life was good again. The tent might get a bit wet and the ablutions may have been miles away, but we’d regrouped and recharged. And on day 13, when the rain pelted down again, we were prepared. The cosy cave we’d strung between the tent and the van, held in place by a clothes airer, flapped in the wind. We smirked at our Steptoe setup as we dragged out the gas stove . . . and unwittingly feasted on salmonella casserole . . .

The rain thundered on the tarp as Colby dropped his head into his hands. I couldn’t tell if he was crying tears. The climb back from the bathroom had all but killed him and there was no reprieve before he had to roll back down. He’d never survive the night . . . and no one here spoke a word of English.

I stood in the bar, flapping my arms at the only French-speaking staff member as if it would bring back the the broken French I’d lost in my panic. I’d never seen Colby this sick and my mind danced between the possibility of a more sinister illness, and what the French word for ‘vomit’ was. The tears glazing across my eyes drove home my point, and complete with giant umbrella I was soon destined for a refuge room alongside the toilet block. It was for one night only, but it would do . . . anything would do . . . because on the stroke of midnight it was my turn to celebrate our proximity to the bathrooms.

It wasn’t until the following afternoon that we hauled our sorry arses back to the soggy squat we’d abandoned the night before. Flopping down onto a mattress, we hoped the rain would hold off until we’d mustered the energy to crawl back into the tent. The Vultures circled overhead, more unnerving that usual. Still, I’d rather be here than stressing about calling in sick the next day.

We finally rolled into Portugal . . . a day late. And staring up at the bricks and mortar to be our home for the next two weeks, was like rolling through the pearly gates themselves. A roof. Running water. And four floors of luxury. The tight-arse mobile had done a sterling job getting us here. It had facilitated flexibility and taken us places we wouldn’t have otherwise found, but with a real bed in sight, I couldn’t cast it aside quickly enough. I stepped into the second kitchen, my stomach not quite convinced by the leg of Iberian ham displayed proudly on the marble counter. But this was going to be good . . . as soon as we could find the hot water system!