30.07.2008 - 30.07.2008
I thought I'd pen this article for people considering camping in Europe - France particulalrly as it may provide some clues as to what to expect and how to find what you want. My family and friends might be a little bemused as for the need for this, but I've linked this post to a travel forum for others to benefit from.
This is not in any way definitive, but it should give a little preparation to those considering camping in France. I also think that pictures are invaluable - something I've struggled to find on the web so far.
Dead easy. Practically every town and village in France has campsites either right by it, or a few Kilometers away. Many have a "Municipal" campsite - these are generally cheap, but crowded, As a general rule of thumb - if there is scenery, tourist attractions, or pretty towns, there will be lots of campsites in the area.
Along the roads in and out of each town/village/area you'll see road signs with "Camping" writen on them and icons of a tent and a caravan. Frequently the sign will have the name of the site/s and their star rating. More on star ratings .....
In our experience (a mid 30's couple), unless you are travelling with kids and want lots of facilitles it is best to avoid 3 star and above sites. Don't get me wrong, we've stayed at some very nice 3 star sites in Normandy, but you'll generally find you are paying for lots of things you'll never use / need. You'll also frequently get the "Butlins" feel.
We have found , so far...
Unrated sites: Tends to be a field with electricty in limited areas, a basic shower and toilet block, and access to a freezer. Some of these sites can be fantastic. The prettiest we've stayed at was an unrated one on the Dordogne.
Camping on a farm: Not tried this yet but drove through one. Much like unrated sites. The toilets looked even more basic but this will vary wildly between sites. Some of the best views to be had for sure.
Up to 2 star: You tend to get the addition of a pool, bar / restaurant (usually with limited opening hours), much smarter shower / toilet blocks, access to a washing machine, abundant power, access to a freezer (for your blue ice blocks), "Static-home" like accomodation available, daily bread orders, well marked pitches.
3 star and above: These are run much more "professionally". Pitches are separated by neat hedges, the pool/s often have water slides etc, there is normally mini golf, activities for the kids, restaurant, bar, take away (steak frites, chicken frites etc). Everything else from the lower star sites is included.
Our conclusions are:
2 star and below: You tend to get far more "friendly" hosts. Often they live on the site in a caravan or static trailer. Prices are cheaper. The sites are usually more picturesque and you tend to find the guests are mainly mature couples or families with toddlers (no need for water slides for them yet!). Using the freezer for your ice blocks is usually around 40-50c per go. Often they'll have a "trust" system - you put your money in a bowl when you use the freezer.
Catering can be limited, but nearly all sites offter a system where you order your bread and pastries for delivery on site the next morning. The site we are currently at in Provence will take pizza orders for the whole site and ring a bell when they arrive (we don't all want to cook every night!, especially after a bottle of Rose in the sun)
Unrated: We've had a great stay on an unrated site on the Dordogne. The host was not in the slightest interested in taking deposits. He was even hard to find when it came to paying! You helped yourself to his chest freezer in his garage. There was electricity, a basic shower / toilet block, and that was it. The location was beautiful, and unusually, as you were basically in a field, you could BBQ - something that is banned pretty much everywhere unless you use their own special facilities due to the obvious fire risk.
3 star and above: On the whole - we have generally found these hateful places. They are usually plonked out of the way and are huge. Completely self sufficient and cut off from the rest of the world. These seem hugely popular with families with lots of young kids. There is plenty for them to do. Consequently there is never a quiet moment. These sites tend to get the most road signage.
Nothing is for free on these sites. On one site they refused to let us freeze our blue ice blocks, but instead, charged 1.5 Euros a time for a frozen bottle of water - which is no where near as efficient as proper ice blocks. Frequently we would be refused large plots / pitches as they were reserved for caravans and campervans, yet we'd pay the same rate as them and get put in a tiny "tent" pitch. Wi-Fi is normally several Euros per hour and only if you take your laptop near the reception/bar area.
These are efficient businesses catering for large family holidays.
A side note on the Muchelin green Camping France guide book - the vast majority of sites it lists are 3 or 4 star. If you want 2 star and less, you need to drive to your chosen area and then bumble about a bit looking out for camping signs. The best option is to go to the Office de Tourism and they'll give you a list of all local campsites.
Wi-fi - we have found this varies wildly. The French are catching on to the fact that wi-fi can be a deal breaker for a lot of travellers now. We've found several 2 star sites that offer free coverage accross all their pitches. Worth looking out for. In every instance we've been to a 3 star site advertising wi-fi - it's been chargeable, and does not cover the pitches - you have to go and sit at the bar - where they sell your beers for 3 Euros a pop. Expensive wi-fi!
Our overall experience so far is the lower the rating, the nicer time you'll have. Sites actually IN towns tend to be a expensive, crowded, and grubby.
Oh, a note on rivers - France has many! We though camping by the river would be a doddle. Not so. Practically every campsite we have looked at by the river is separated by a fence - safety for the kids one assumes. We did find one in the end - it was an unrated site.
Unrated - we've payed 4 Euros a day, plus 2.5 Euros a day for electricity.
2 Star: figure around 15-20 Euros a day with electricity (big tent, car, two people - same cost for camper / caravan)
3 star - we've paid 32 Euros a day including power. We've seen over 42 Euros a day on the coast.
Anyhow - onto where we are at the moment. This will give you an idea of what to expect. We are at a 2 star site in Provence, in the Luberon region. About 5 mins drive from APT.
(We are the green tent on the corner) Expect tarmac on 3 star sites - and a 1000 cycling kiddies zooming past all day
(power and water - these are dotted around most of the place - you'll need a good 20m lead to cover most scenarios. Adapters are available for a few Euros if they are the caravan style sockets)
(A modest, but cooling pool, with BBQ are behind (2 Euros for coal) - Expect this to be teeming with splashing and screming kids by 11am. Oddly , today, it's empty!)
(reception - cold beer, freezer, snacks)
(These are called "Comforts" - popular with families)
(Showers, toilets, dish sinks, waching machine, hand washing sinks) - very clean, hot showers. The whole of France seems to operate on the "press for 10 seconds of water" tap system.
(Cheaper, and nicer - most sites have a more basic field - you need one heck of a lead if you want power, but for that you get beautiful views and tranquility)
If you want cold beer, rose, fresh food, and the ability to shop for a few day's meals, you NEED a portable fridge - this one is 12v so I had to get a 240-12v converter for 24 Euros. I put 2 blue ice blocks in it each lunch time. In the heat here, they are 100% nescessary for the fridge to have any hope of keeping up. I have 4 blocks, and cycle them.
(Obvious, but essential - chairs and table)
(A pitch on an "unrated" site - with power)
(The view from our tent on an "unrated" site - again with power)
(A spacious pitch on a 3 star site in St Emilion - notice the hedges separating each pitch - seems nice at 1st but feels insular)
The question of bookings comes up a lot. We've found no reason to book ahead, particularly with the lower rated sites. Conversely, in July, we've found several 3 star sites that show "Complet" on their road signs (full). The site we are now in is filling up (30th July) but there is still plenty of room to move about. We've moved our tent once to get a getter spot. The hosts often can tell you a site is full on one day, and the next there will be 3 spaces - they just don't know - people often (like us) know how long they are staying for. So if you find a site you love, but it's full, or there are no pitches with power free, ask if you can pitch up in a corner somewhere until a better spot becomes available. We did this here. and moved the next morning.
Camping kit - stuff that we have found invaluable:
12v pump for our air bed - we see people getting hernias every day pumping away on a pump that is the size of a fire extinguisher. Air beds go down slowly, no matter how well made. They need topping up every couple of days.
12v Chilled cooler box - these fellas drop the internal temperature to 15 degrees below the ambient temperature outside. Given 12 hours they will chill beers, but to work well, they need supplimenting with the blue ice block things.
Folding table - want to spend weeks sitting on the floor?
Comfortabel chairs - the canvas ones pictures are USELESS. They look great, and every petrol station in the UK sells them for a few quid. The are NOT comfortable for more than an hour. You just sink in them and they do your back in. Buy some nice "directors" chairs. We've borrowed a couple of comfy plastic chairs from our very helpful host(ess)
12v Rechargable lamp.
And a suprise entry - we bought "tent lights" - three separate LED lamps on a wire - you can turn them on and off from your bedroom, and from the living area - they make the world of difference at night time. No more fubling around with your main lamp.
Picnic blanket - not all pitches are grassy - especially in the South. Expect a fair share of baked dirt.
Further things that have randomly popped into my head...
Toilets and showers have ALL been clean and nice so far. Some a little tatty, but nothing frightening.
Camping well outside towns means no road noise and a distinct lack of "plonkers"
Expect 70% of your camping neighbours to be Dutch or German :-)
I know I've missed lots so feel free to ask any questions in the comments area of this blog.