They say travel broadens the mind. Meeting people from other countries and coming into contact with other cultures can be an enriching experience. Camping and caravanning in France definitely broadens your horizons. On many of France’s enormous variety of campsites you will meet fellow campers from different countries in all regions of the planet, and come into contact with people from all walks of life. Camping is not just a hobby for families counting the pennies, it is surely a lifestyle choice, not least because of the freedom this style of getaway offers. Few other holidays have such a wide appeal – your next door neighbours could be doctors, professors, factory workers or engineers. They could be a retired couple or a young family. The variety is part of the attraction.
Living in relatively close contact to other campers is a great way to teach your children respect for others. They learn that the Dutch tend to eat their evening meal very early, that the Spanish eat late, that the French allow their dogs to sit under the table in a restaurant, that the Germans get up early and that nearly everybody is keen to practise their English.
Having enjoyed countless holidays throughout Europe since the mid-1960s, we have many fond memories of the people we have met or observed. There were always willing hands to help us man oeuvre our caravan if we were stuck. There was the famous occasion when the champion boules team on a campsite in the Dordogne got more than a bit agitated when our sons – 40 years their junior – threatened to take their crown. We remember fondly the family we camped next to in Portugal who couldn’t speak any more English than we could Portuguese, and yet our three-year-old son spent hours playing with their similarly-aged daughter, and somehow managed to communicate very well. Part of the fun of any camping holiday is its unpredictability as you never know who will be camped next to you.
HOW TO CHOOSE A CAMPSITE
There are over 8,250 registered campsites in France, plus a further 1,400 farm campsites or aires naturelles, so knowing how to pick the campsite that is best for you can seem a bit daunting.
France has almost three times more campsites than the UK (being three times the size!) and, given the fantastic variety of sites, you can be sure that there are several sites that will suit you. Everybody has different tastes – inevitably, the sites you choose when your children are very young vary from those you’re more likely to choose once they become teenagers and they prefer an interesting range of activities offered by many sites. When the children no longer travel with you, your parameters change all over again.
Your choice might depend on whether you have a motorhome or a caravan or a tent. Certainly many travelling with a motorhome appreciate proximity to a town, so they can walk to the shops, bars and restaurants without taking the motorhome out all the time. Similarly, some choose the luxury of an on-site restaurant or takeaway so that they don’t have to cook every night. If you prefer a very quiet site, check the number of pitches and avoid establishments offering lots of activities and evening entertainment.
Your choice is bound to be influenced by the number of stars a site has been awarded, but be wary because the star rating is not always a reflection of the quality of the services. The French have recently introduced a new classification system which has to be renewed every five years. All sites had to register and be inspected by the start of this year. Only 74% have so far been re-classified. These campsites have been inspected and assessed by the French authorities and awarded star ratings from 1 to 5.
The rating system (see ‘Camping by Numbers’) is based almost entirely on the number of services on offer rather than the quality of these services, although the campsites with the higher star rating do tend to provide better quality facilities. Unfortunately this is not always the case and there is no measure for quality of management or cleanliness.
Nearly all campsites offer some accommodation and many are offering ‘glamping’ in gypsy caravans, safari tents, yurts, cabins in the trees or even cabins floating on lakes. The choice is expanding rapidly and the quality of the accommodation has improved dramatically over the last few years.
Pitch sizes vary tremendously and in areas such as the South of France, or in prime coastal areas where land prices are at a premium, the size of your pitch can be as small as 70 to 80sqm.
The new star system only stipulates the size of the total area available per 100 pitches, so a 5 star rating is no guarantee of a large pitch. Choosing from the star rating alone is not possible.
There are several guide books dedicated to camping in France that you can use, but only one or two give a full appraisal of the campsite. The inspections are often carried out by a number of different people so assessments and descriptions are not necessarily consistent. Most guides also charge for an inspection or to be featured in the guide so some of the best campsites may not be included.
FACILITIES TO EXPECT
It is the freedom that staying on a campsite gives to children that made our own holidays so successful – and freedom is why we keep on returning, even in our sixties. You can get up when you want, eat when it suits you and you don’t have to get dressed up each evening. You can sit and eat your evening meal in your swimming costume and nobody cares.
Choosing the right campsite for your family is important and a bad choice can mean you simply don’t get the best out of your hard-won holiday. Our own tastes have inevitably changed over the years. When the children were very small, access to a sandy beach took high priority. As they got older, camping on or near a river or lake was essential. For many families a good swimming pool with water slides is important. Couples often prefer a quieter site, although many still enjoy a swim and appreciate being able to eat in the site restaurant rather than going out.
Many guide books are little more than a directory of the campsites with a very basic list of services and facilities. Remember that the star ratings, in particular those set by the French authorities, are purely quantitative and quality is not rated.
France has the largest number of campsites of any country in Europe and the largest variety in terms of size and facilities. There is therefore something to suit everybody. They range from small ‘campings à la ferme’, with half a dozen pitches and a toilet and shower, to small villages where the facilities cater for every need, perfect for families who want to chill out and not go off-site too often.
It is a myth that camping and caravanning is only for the hardy outdoor types who don’t care about their creature comforts. Hot showers and decent toilets are now the norm on sites, rather than the exception. Admittedly, poor weather conditions can always spoil your enjoyment of a camping holiday, but a large number of sites have indoor games areas, indoor pools and bars to offset the discomfort.
The amenities on French campsites are very good and allow the visitor to enjoy a comfortable holiday. Apart from improved toilet and showering facilities, the majority of campsites have good children’s play areas, offer table tennis either indoor or outdoor, and a boules pitch. The majority of 3, 4 and 5 star sites have a swimming pool, and the larger sites have beautiful aqua complexes often with an indoor pool as well.
The larger sites organise daytime and evening entertainment, particularly in the high season, and even smaller ones lay on musical evenings or family barbecues. A large number of campsites offer some kind of takeaway meal service, admittedly usually only in the high season – but then quite a few, especially the 4 and 5 star sites, have their own unique restaurants or diners of some kind, with reasonably priced set menus. We all remember the jokes from school trips, and yes, there are still a few sites that have one or two ‘hole in the ground’-style toilets, but they are the older style sites that haven’t been upgraded.
Pitches on French campsites do vary in size, ranging from a rather tiny 70sqm to a very generous 200sqm. Generally they are divided by hedges or low shrubs, although some do have a more open-plan aspect. We always recommend people with exceptionally large outfits, over 7.5m long, to book sites in advance.
British campers and caravanners really do appreciate the level of comfort they find in France and continue to visit, eschewing hotels and hostels, in ever-increasing numbers. We have visited France practically every year for over 50 years and still find new places and new attractions to explore. Never stayed on a French campsite? The experience is highly recommended.
From France Today magazine