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.

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