Picture yourself sitting in the fresh air, warmed by the sun, sipping a local wine after a day’s swimming in a fresh lake, surrounded by mountains and sated by a good meal. That’s the dream that many of us have when planning a camping holiday in France. Get ready for the reality. It’s not bad… just different.
1. Your choice of accommodation will have a big impact on how you spend your holiday.
Campsites are divided into different areas for tents, mobile home and posh log cabins and your choice will affect more than just your comfort level.
If you stay in the tent area you will be surrounded by Dutch people, all tall, tanned and ruddy, as though they play netball every morning in the nude. Not bad company, except that Dutch sounds exactly like English played backwards which, if you’re unprepared, may make you may think that you are going mad.
The mobile homes are well equipped but tiny; this doesn’t bother me because I used to rent a flat in London so know what it’s like to be able to open the fridge with my foot while sitting on the sofa. No, the real problem is how closely the mobile homes are placed together. You could be enjoying an al fresco breakfast on your porch while one metre away your neighbour is evacuating last night’s bière. There are certain sounds and smells no one wants to experience while eating a croissant.
The log cabins are where the camp royalty stay. I’ve only ever gazed at the log cabins from the distance, jealous of their ample outdoor areas and real wooden tables. I can only assume that blue birds come in to tidy in the morning and that they have badger butlers.
No matter which accommodation you choose, or how much you pour over the campsite plan before booking your spot, you will somehow end up either next to the disco or the shower block.
2. The evening entertainment will destroy any illusions you have about French people being sophisticated.
The French like to keep this quiet but they’re actually as into karaoke as the rest of us. If you don’t believe me then you have clearly never spent an evening in a French campsite watching a parade of Français excercise their lungs to devastating effect. Expect small girls singing “Libérée, délivrée“, twenty-something Aurélie and her mates singing French party anthem “C’est la vie“, and 60 year old Jean-Luc crooning “Souvenirs, Souvenirs“. Nul points.
Other evening events include quizzes, live music and skits with hilarious dressing up antics. All and any of the above may involve my greatest fear in life: audience participation, which is why I can usually to be found drinking warm wine out of an old Nutella jar in my tiny plastic mobile home. There will be a disco which lasts for a seeming eternity; you will gratefully fall asleep, only to be woken 20 minutes later by horny French teenagers humping in the bushes next to your head.
3. Buying bread is complicated.
Bread is very important in France so naturally there are ways to get your hands on the golden, doughy good stuff. Just don’t expect it to be straightforward. On large campsites, you’re usually able to buy bread and pastries in the camp shop. (This seems to be a job for dads in the morning, as you often see bleary-eyed men wearing a hoodies, shorts and flip flops carrying a baguette.) Despite catering to hundreds of campers, the shop only ever orders about 20 pains au chocolat meaning they’re sold out by 7.35 am and your hopes of a holiday treat are dashed.
On smaller campsites you may have to pre-order your bread on arrival and pick it up each morning in the depot de pain. This is a charming idea (“depot de pain!“) but if you don’t calibrate your bread order correctly you’ll be rationing or over-eating bread throughout your holiday. Of course you can change your order the day before but this require a degree of forethought and planning that I, personally, find mind-boggling.
4. Sausages are omnipresent.
I’ve written before about how much French people love barbecues so it’s no surprise that the whiff of grilling meat will be a constant throughout your holiday. All this culminates in a grand, camp-wide barbecue where you pay a fixed price and get to sit on white plastic chair while stuffing yourself with fatty salty things and guzzling rosé wine. This is why you came on holiday, so enjoy it.
There may be other, lesser meats on offer but really it’s all about the sausages. In France there are two kinds: mergeuz and not-merguez. Merguez are alarmingly red, fairly spicy and utterly delicious. Other, pinky sausage offerings are probably chipolatas and these are what you feed your whining child who doesn’t like the red ones because they “hurt my mouth”. Ugh.
For people who aren’t fans of sausages (if this is you, please leave now because I have nothing to say to you) there are alternative food-themed nights, typically involving a regional specialties like moules, bouillabaisse, or escargots. Unfortunately, if you’re in the south west you may find yourself sweating over a hearty winter classic like cassoulet while it’s 9pm and still 30° out.
5. The swimming pool will be full of happy, screaming children.
Your campsite may be next to the sea or a beautiful lake but your children want to go to the campsite swimming pool because it has water slides and they don’t notice that it is an awful, hellish soup full of hyperactive, screeching teenagers. Ball games, flirting, diving and jumping – so much jumping – into the water, and all so very noisy.
One good thing is that French campsites usually have organised activities for kids, taking your angels off for the day and returning them to you at night, tired and happy. This golden time is when you get to use the pool. Just know that when they come back, they are never that tired and they want to go straight to the pool.
6. Don’t expect to have any internet connection.
“We have wi-fi!” boasts the campsite’s website. Technically, maybe, but campsite wi-fi is as weak and popular as a dying billionaire and you have as much chance of getting any as his third ex wife. After going through an infuriating signing-in process, you discover that the only place you can get a signal is in the campsite office, a 15-minute walk uphill from your tent. The groups of smoking, irritable men hanging out there aren’t interested in posters for medieval churches or potholing in the region, they’re trying to get football scores and texts from their mistresses.
7. There’s a strong chance you will buy some useless tat in the weekly marché.
Big campsites often organise a market once a week to allow you to buy local products like jam, lavender-scented honey, lavender-scented soap, flavoured olive oils and pottery, possibly decorated with lavender and olives and maybe even jam. You buy something despite it being overpriced because it’s from a small producer and you’re happy to support them. You are delighted with your quirky and unique souvenir, only to discover on your way home that they sell a cheaper but very similar product in the motorway service station. Now looking at your lovely lavender soap/jam/bowl makes you feel resentful so you put it in a drawer at home and don’t think of it again until next year’s souvenir joins it to grow dusty together.
8. You will really, really enjoy it.
OK, so there are plenty of annoying things about campsites in France but so, so many more wonderful things: scenery to die for, pretty-damn reliable weather, ROSE WINE, the weird little cheeses wrapped in leaves, intriguing mouldy sausages, cool lakes and clear rivers, Boules, relaxed and friendly locals (remember to say “bonjour”), extinct volcanoes, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, clean facilities, lots of activities for kids, RED WINE, all the beer, fresh air, fresh baguettes and if you’re lucky – very lucky – sometimes even a pain au chocolat.