The trip to the Pyrenees and back via the coast and the Dordogne was loaded with nine campsites in eleven days with some gourmet fireside food thrown in courtesy of some great French weather. We set off two Thursdays ago with no route and no plans. Here’s what happened.
Camping la Forêt (Arcachon, Gironde)
Slept under Europe’s biggest dune. A 105 metre high lump of sand that looked so out of place that I came to the conclusion that it was a leftover from a desert based war epic. A huge artificial mound built out of balsa wood, painted the colour of onion skins, and then sprinkled with sherbet.
When we climbed it the next morning and were hit by a hurricane strength wind, I realised why they’d put the campsite behind the dune and not in front of it. The way down was the best bit as we launched ourselves from the top like skydivers and ran to the bottom like mad people.
Camping L’Estival (Mimizan, Landes)
We didn’t get far that day. 40 kms down the coast in fact to a rundown farmyard campsite where a family with beach balls for stomachs were playing Boules by the toilet block while drinking pastis from the bottle. I love a bit of class.
This was the only thing of note about the site, except for the 200 metre boom irrigator in the field in front of us, which took me back to my days as a research scientist near Mansfield. I once wrote a 120 page document on the merits of boom irrigation versus subsoil irrigation in the potato fields of Nottinghamshire. Why, I can’t remember.
Camping Playa (Kokotia, St. Jean de Luz, Pyrenees-Atlantiques)
The originally named Camping Playa, located on a craggy headland above the beach had the initial charm of an abattoir. The 1950s bright yellow concrete bunker slapped onto the side of the cliff where the owner lived doubled up as the toilet block and felt like walking into a submarine. Dark and dank with the smell of wetsuits and budget deodorant lodging in my throat like an infection.
It added to the sense that this part of the coastline had seen better days. The old grand hotels near Biarritz now usurped by new gaudy pink mansions, built by people who drink vitamin water for breakfast, eat rice cakes for lunch and snort bags of cocaine for tea.
However once the wind ceased, the rain abated and the sun escaped from its dark envelope, it was very pleasant indeed. Even if the unevenness of the ground meant it was like trying to cook on the grassed over remains of a building site. But I succeeded in cooking a top notch beef tajine accompanied by Moroccan red wine and saffron scented couscous. Classy.
In the morning we drank coffee and looked out over the sea that had got out of bed like a moody teenager, pushing its sheet to the bottom of the bed to expose all its rocks and pools.
The beach though was disappointing, partly because of the four month’s worth of litter that had blown in from Mexico over the winter, that meant even the surfers had to pick their way through it on their way out to sea. So we gave it a miss and went to St Jean de Luz itself to shove steak and frites down our throats like two people who had never eaten before.
Camping Municipal Plaza Berri (St Jean Pied du Port, Pyrenees-Atlantiques)
Nestled in the Basque Pyrenees, St Jean Pied du Port is the meeting point of the three pilgrims walks from Puy, Tours and Vézelay, before they head to Spain over the mountains and onto Santiago.
The camping is the best yet with the showers, toilets and basins arranged in a perfect semicircle at the far end like beach huts on a promenade. We were the only tented campers (in total we saw three tents on our travels), the other occupants being a couple of Dutch mobile homes with their antennas pointed to the heavens to pick up some useless soap they simply could not miss.
The town was quaint and I imagined 17th century pilgrims crossing the streets dressed in robes going into the inns and taverns for a slice of cheese and a cup of wine to discuss their journeys with their fellow travellers. We stayed two nights here as it was one of those places that was difficult to leave with its heady mix of mountains, brebis cheese, Bearnaise wine and ancient religion.
Camping du Lauzart (Lescun, Pyrenees-Atlantiques)
The Rough Guide to France says that this campsite is as good as anywhere. I don’t always agree with guide books, or even use them, but in this instance, I did. Located on high mountain pasture and surrounded almost entirely by snow covered peaks, it’s the closest I’ve come to stepping into a photo from a calendar or a postcard.
It was warm as well, until the sun disappeared behind Pic D’Anie when the temperature, according to my Lidl thermometer, plummeted from 22 to 13 degrees in about ten seconds. We also had the added bonus of it being a full moon that night, so it wasn’t long before it illuminated the peaks like an eerie projection called Mountains by Moonbeam. Only this was real.
Camping au Pied de Aubisque (Beost/Laruns, Haute Pyrenees)
The D’Ossau valley is a classic U-shape with all the GCSE Geography features you may have learnt such as hanging valleys, truncated spurs, arêtes, and glacial debris. It’s floor was so flat that I could have used it as a spirit level for a new highway.
The campground was also new. So new in fact that I could still smell the protective cellophane from the toilets and sinks and it was probable that we were the first people ever to use them. In fifty years time, I might go back and tell everybody that I was the first person to ever crap in those toilets. To which they would look at me and think, silly old fart. Go back to the home old man.
Camping les Ombrages de L’ardour (Aire-sur-L’ardour, Landes)
A soviet style campsite on the banks of the Arros river. Large and flat with a toilet block that smelt like a military latrine. Dotted around the oak covered grounds were some ancient caravans that once carried the Red Army to Austerlitz. Squat rusting boxes resting on long ago punctured tyres that now looked like desiccated snakes skins.
We were meant to be camping in Pau that night but both the campsites had been shut down due to reasons unknown. This was a blow as Pau is a great little city. A mix of French, Spanish, Basque and British influences from the time when this part of France was a Brit enclave at the turn of the century. Plus you get a 180 degree view of the Pyrenees – not included.
Camping Municipal de la Pelouse (Bergerac, Dordogne)
We ended up in Bergerac. Famous for its wine and expats poncing about in Panamas. But the campsite was great: riverside location, leafy, near the town, good views, flat pitches, polite owner, hot showers.
My only criticism was that as a three star site, it attracted a crowd of lazy baby boomers in their giant mobile homes, all paid for by their generous pensions that nobody else in the history of planet Earth will ever get again. Lining up in their hundreds to look and laugh at us in our tiny tent. I didn’t worry that much though as they were probably dead by the morning from angina or pulmonary embolisms or aneurisms, or whatever old people die from these days.
Camping Bas Meynaud (near Brantôme, Dordogne)
Felt like an early version of CenterParcs without the roof. Or slides or annoying children. Very peaceful, and as I looked out into the fields on that last morning, it felt like looking into a previous century. No cars, no people, no mobile homes. It was a nice way to end the holiday and it was a quiet trip back to the homestead in Queaux. I have a week to tidy up my book, before I head off to Lyon for my birthday – 40 years of waiting.
** For more epic photos of this trip, click here