Monday, July 30, 2012

Camping en Français

Adam and I decided to buy a tent before coming to France, and of course, we had ourselves convinced that by camping only a few times over staying in a hotel, we'd have the thing paid off. Sadly, we had only pulled the thing out once last fall during our Alsace trip, but this time, we had plenty of opportunities to make our purchase....along with all the other crap we bought at REI....worthwhile. And thus began the weeklong journey of living the camper life, the longest duration either of us have slept in a tent and cooked off a mini stove, night after night.

We had more intentions to camp last year, but always threw our hands in the air while searching for truly bucolic spots. Camping in France seems to be synonymous with pools (or even better, INdoor pools) spas, wifi, tennis courts, and my favorite, la 'toboggan aquatique' (water slide). Um...are we going to Six Flags or the wilderness?! Even with the sites with the least amount of ratings and amenities, you still get a pretty little lawn all to yourself surrounded by perfectly cut rectangular bushes and a baker who delivers your bread each morning. I guess that's cool and all, but the whole idea is to get back to nature, right? I just suppose that this is as rugged as most French want to get so that's what us nature loves have to deal with.

After finishing a long day at Mont St. Michel, Adam and I looked at the sky and determined we would be rain-free for the night. To our excitement, we found the Michelin Guide to Camping France while getting our groceries that night and thought, FINALLY! We can easily hop in the car, flip to the region we're in, then pick the most remote looking place to satisfy our backwoods craving. The guide has ratings of 1-5 tents (amenities) along with 1-4 trees (shade) so we decided to stick to the least amount of tents and the most amount of trees we could find. The 'remotest' site we found in our area that night had two tents and two trees, so we thought, hey, this will do, let's see how these ratings pan out. When we arrived, we got a sweet spot by an old moulin (mill), but also next to the playground. I mean, we have no complaints, but this is some of the fanciest car camping I've ever done.

View 1 from our tent. Yes, cool old stuff nestled amongst vegetation!

Then view 2. The playground. At one point, a bunch of German kids all lined the bridge and started dancing and singing the Macarena. Could it get more surreal?

Oh yes, it could. Here's the pick-up spot for your bread. We heard the bread guy HONK at exactly 8:30 a.m. Seriously?! We're in a place of vacation where people sleep in. Why do we need to be so dramatic about the bread? Needless to say, we didn't make it out to get ours ; )

 REI wine glasses...who said these would never come in handy?

...and did we mention the pool? Reminder, we are in Normandy and there is a palm tree in this picture!

That was night one, and now we knew what two tents meant.  The next night, we were excited to head inland a bit and picked the most random spot in the middle of nowhere (or at least nowhere according to our limited knowledge of French geography) located along the Sable River a hour or so southwest of Le Mans. With no campers allowed, 1 tent and a two tree rating, this either had to be perfectly secluded, or just plane sketch; anything 'municipal' and 'down-by-the-river' has its own undertones of shadiness, agreed? But, in fact, we came to a nearly empty, quite manicured, and simply charming campground nestled within the town of Avoise. We were truly sick of driving by this point, day 5 of road tripping, so we decided to hunker down here for two nights. This was my favorite of the 5 campgrounds we stayed in. Not quite as woodsy as wanted, but everything was so clean - showers, bathrooms, dishwashing station, etc. Unfortunately, no bread wagon came to this location.

Note to self, next REI purchase - camping table. the suitcase may be a bit difficult to throw in the pack for the next trip.

View from the tent

Avoise, France - the campground is literally about 100 yds to the left in this photo.

Avoise again- we decided this was the town that all those pictures on puzzles come from

Tons of houses throughout the town sported their own personal veggie gardens. Sweet, right?

We discovered the surrounding area was laced with various trails taking you though the city, nearby farm fields, and forests.

One such path took us to an overlook of the town. There's really not much more to the town than what you see here.

'Down by the river' all of a sudden had a more serene/cheery meaning.

The next three nights, we did the same, figure where to drive that day, find at least a 1-tent rated campsite, then hit up a McDonalds along the way to download some maps and get that good cup of coffee (note to self, it isn't worth getting the cheapest instant coffee for the campsite unless you really want to make McDonald's coffee taste amazing - the instant crap we bought literally tastes like burnt brown). We made it all the way down to the Loire Valley, snaked back up to Versailles to take care of some paperwork for next year, then straight south to our final destination in Lauzerte. That last night on the road was the first we actually came to a site that was full! We were turned away and as we peaked in we agreed this was way too fancy a place for us anyways. It was crammed with campers and screaming kids and even had it's own pizza wagon. We realized, too, that we had hit the first big day of the French summer break, and a full campground was bound to happen at some point.

We did, in fact, find another place for the evening, but it really made me wonder about how truly popular camping was in this culture. The more we drove around the country, the more we realized that just about every town had some sort of campground. Maybe it's not as noticeable in the states, or towns are just too spread out, or I've just never looked for them before, but there seemed to be an exponential amount of campgrounds everywhere. And wow, the amount of campers on the road! I know this country is on holiday, but I'm guessing at least a third of them were destined for some campsite. Looking up some stats, the numbers were astounding:

I found a source that claimed that France has over 8634 campgrounds, the most of any European country and second only to the US. The stats for the number of US campgrounds are all over the boards, but I was finding numbers around 14,000 (though one site claimed they had 24,000 sites in their database). Even if we said the US has almost three times as many camping spots as France, the density of the latter is simply astounding. With France at around 260,558 sq mi, that puts campground density at around 1 campsite for every 30 sq mi., and with the US at around 3,794,101 sq mi, you only get around 1 campsite for every 158 sq mi. France is about 5 times more dense with campgrounds! And can you imagine all these sites crammed into an area 3/4 the size of Texas?

We later discovered the real rural camping is actually listed as "aire naturelle de camping" or "camping à la ferme", but even these are required to house bathrooms, sometimes electricity and at least one shower. Not going to complain, that warm shower every morning was quite nice, so even if we do finally find the more rural camping, we can still feel refreshed in the morning and alleviate ourselves from having to use that little REI plastic shovel of ours ; ) In the end, it was all a great experience camping frenchie style... and a part of me is kinda glad we didn't have to get too crusty to enjoy nature just a tad.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Nous Sommes Retournés! (We have returned)

 Hello fans,

Yes, we have made it to France a solid two weeks ago and have FINALLY settled ourselves in the south for the summer. Let the blogging continue. As for me personally, I'm about 95% back to normal. A touch of soreness here and there, but other than that, no other complications. I've just hit the two month mark and am slowly starting to get stronger and lift heavier things, and I guarantee Adam's grateful since he's been the one hauling all the luggage this whole time. When we hit the ground, running errands in Paris the first couple of days, we were both absolutely exhausted, so out of shape. But then again, that's what happens when you realize you haven't done much physical activity since around sometime in April. At least walking more than 10 minutes no longer feels like a workout where I need to rest. Thank god, or I could never survive Europe!

So what have we been doing with our lives since our arrival? Hmm, good's been a blur. Let's see, about half of that time we were fighting jet lag as we crashed with our friends from the American Embassy in Paris. Then, the rest of that time constituted us checking out the summer sales, buying a car (it's a short lease), meeting our British landlord for next year's apartment, buying French renter's insurance, getting lease papers signed, storing half our luggage at the school, getting yelled at over the phone by the Prefecture while trying to figure out how to renew my visa (No, I can't make the appointment over the internet, your website doesn't work! you won't make the appointment for me?, I tried that website and it doesn't work!...and what is the point of your job again? i didn't say that last part, i don't know that much french ; )  Actually, my phone cut out on the woman, so now I probably look like and even bigger bitch to her, sigh), and hitting the road for a whirlwind tour of what else this country had to offer besides Parisians.

For the past 10 days, we've been living out of our car being complete nomads, driving from place to place with no real plan in mind. Ok, that's not completely true, but it's close. The first part of our trip was geared towards the Normandy coast, and at that point, we at least had in mind the destination of Honfleur with a hotel reserved for the night. Our initial plan was to camp when possible, but Normandy doesn't seem like sunshine too often, and we more or less had to plan our nights day by day according to the weather. The next two nights called for rain, so we were forced to scrounge up the courage to call a random Chambre d'hôte Farmhouse (yes, we wanted a different experience than a hotel) to reserve a room for the next two nights near Arromanches, one of the British landing beaches from the whole DDay Scenario. The beauty about the countryside of France is the amount of 'Chambre d'Hôtes' that exist. Literally translating as 'bedroom of the host', these are quaint, historic country homes, old mansions, or farms that have rooms available. You tend to see signs speckled all along the road for them, so you always have a sense there's a backup plan if you need somewhere cool to crash for the night. It's quite similar to the American idea of a B&B, but at times much much cheaper.

Honfleur Habor
Life on the Farm - Living quarters for this Chambre d'hôte

Using the farm as our base point, we paid our respects and visited the DDay beaches, memorial, and the new museum at Utah Beach (we actually met the architect last year who participated in the school's lecture series). Luckily, we had beautiful blue skies during all of our beach time as well as the following day at Mont St Michel which gave us hope to finally use our tent. And that's when the bad habit started....being exhausted from driving, and needing nothing more than a coffee and the internet to figure out where we'd sleep the next night, we pulled into the nearest McDonalds. I must admit, I've never been to so many McDonalds in such a short amount of time in my life, but it became a regular occurrence, a piece of home. Stop, get some good (yes, good) coffee, snag the free wifi, check the weather, pick a campground, load some maps on the iPad, then stock up on toilet paper in case the next campground didn't have any. It became routine. And the McDonalds here are actually cool. They're like designer cafes with funky furniture and cool light fixtures and no more of that yellow and red clown crap everywhere. Classy fast food. I'm loving it.

DDay US Cemetery at Oklahoma Beach

Utah Beach Museum

Adam in a bomb crater at Point Hoc

And that's how we lived for the next week. We bought a campground guide book and planned our route of travel based on the sunshine and the amount of remoteness of the sites. Our experience camping is a whole other post in the making, but let's just say that the French idea of camping was not quite the same idea as ours.

In a nutshell, from Normandy, we headed south to the Loire Valley for a couple days, visited Saumur to see its Castle, stopped at a couple caves (one in a country chateau, the other actually inside the face of a cliff) to taste and stock up on wine, then made our way back to Versailles to finish up some paperwork for next year's lease. Then, hitting rush hour traffic, on a Friday, at the beginning of the French summer break, we started our (what should have been about 7hr)11 hour journey south to our final resting spot for the next 5 weeks.
Strolling along the banks of the Loire River

The Castle at Saumur

Hillside Art Galleries and Caves (yes, the cave where wine is stored)

We must have at least 2000km already under the tires, and I am totally fine not driving any more for a long time.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Jumping the Pond Again

After much debate about which airplane / airport camera pic to use, we settled on the above. And yes, we are currently in transit back to France, about to board the fifth leg of our journey from McCall, ID to Paris, France. It's been a whirlwind of a trip, and we look forward to crashing with friends very soon.

On all related fronts (health, wedding, summer) we are doing fanfreakingtastic. More soon...