We are in the Midi, more specifically we are in the Ardeche valley, the northern tip of Mediterranean France. It is geographically spectacular and the flora is distinctly Mediterranean. The ecoregion is called the Garrigue; rocky limestone terrain densely covered with soft leaved scrubland of juniper and stunted evergreen Holme oak trees. We see our first plantation of olive trees. There is sage, lavender, rosemary and thyme – herbs de Provence in the wild.
We’re driving alongside the broad slow flowing river Ardeche which winds through a soaring gorge of limestone cliffs and arches. The downside of all this wondrous nature is the number of campsites, adventure parks, kayaking centres and pizza restaurants. It’s like a massive Eurocamp with all the attendant visitors. The river is overwhelmed with snaking convoys of multicoloured kayaks. We enjoy the scenery, pausing to take photos, but we keep moving.
Jo has found, online, a possible overnight parking place in the medieval village of Aigueze, set upon a hill next to the Ardeche river. It’s an attractive Aire parking site a short walk from the village centre. But, horror of horrors, in contravention of Campervan Rule 1, there is, unusually for an Aire, a €5 overnight charge. However, it’s quiet, shaded under trees, and the best site around. Somebody will visit us in the morning to collect our fee.
Aigueze is a fine example of a Midi medieval village of cool, narrow rock paved alleys and small stone cottages with colourful wooden shutters. They’re draped in vines or wisteria and surrounded by potted flowering plants. The central village square is abutted by the church and assorted cafes, restaurants and the ubiquitous boulangerie. There’s a petanque playing area. It’s all shaded by a huge plane tree. We sit at a café and drink Belgian beers whilst watching an enthusiastically contested game of petanque where the old boys repeatedly strike their opponents boules with remarkable precision.
We clamber down a rocky path to the Ardeche river and swim in the warm waist deep water. I can see big brown trout swimming in the slow current. There’s a thunderstorm brewing; ominous inky blue clouds approaching over the hills. The storm starts with isolated heavy drops of water – in minutes it’s a deluge. We take shelter under a rocky overhang, and in a brief lull, run back to the van, where we remain for 21 hours until the storm abates.
I have wonderful, bizarre and occasionally disturbing dreams that can slip in and out of reality. Around dawn, asleep in the storm battered van I dream that a gendarme and his female colleague collect our €5 parking fee. The gendarmes are both wearing the classic French kepi hat. He’s in his standard blue police uniform and she’s wearing a navy blue bikini. All perfectly normal. Then I’m awoken by a knock on the campervan door. It’s a young man requesting our parking fee. No, I say, I’ve just paid it. Jo looks at me quizzically as does the car park attendant. But I’m insistent. I just paid the gendarmes, I repeat. I’m about to expound on the woman gendarme in the bikini when the absurdity of it dawns on me. I pay up without saying another word. The storm ends, we swim again in the river and stay another night. The next morning, nobody comes to collect the daily fee, not even the dream woman in the bikini.
We continue south into the Luberon National park in the Vaucluse region, home to more picturesque hilltop villages. Jo is navigator par excellence but today she directs us down a narrow lane, over a bridge and into a 2 metre wide street bordered by tall dry stone walls. We are committed. The van is 2.3 metres wide with the wing mirrors out – 2 metres with them retracted. They gently wipe the moss on the walls as we squeeze through into the tiny hamlet of Gignac. It’s charming and offers French hospitality at its best; a friendly one eyed dog, a clean toilet, a communal washing line and a small green parking area with a compost heap strangely comprised mostly of oyster shells. The soil around here is South African red – potteries abound.
We are close to the mountain of Mont Ventoux, a col that has featured many times on the Tour de France. But it’s closed for works to improve access so unfortunately we are unable to visit. This year’s Tour is, as a result of the Coronavirus pandemonium, taking place, not as usual in July, but now in September. We are travelling along the route of its early stages where the road surfaces have been upgraded to smooth racetracks and we have plans to see a stage in the Pyrenees mountains – long cherished plans. Jo just has to look at the road surface to declare that the Tour is coming through here.
The medieval village of St. Guilhem Le Desert, is, I think, one of my favourite ancient hamlets. We’re up early and arrive there before anybody else. Jo, probably quite rightly, thinks the pre crowd tranquility dictates my high opinion of the place. It’s on the ancient pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain – someday we must ditch the van and do that walk. There’s another one of those enormous Plane trees in the village square – so big that a photograph from within the square’s confines cannot capture the enormity of it. As we leave, the peace is ear splittingly shattered by a French Airforce Mirage fighter jet, flying at only a few hundred metres high. The pilots must know they frighten people to death.
And I must also mention the villages of Vogue and Condom. If only because they cry out for a series of puns. One minute we were in Vogue, the next we were out of Vogue. So fickle. And the village of Condom which was too small for me to get into.
We head southwest through the Languedoc Roussillon. There are weedy looking vines everywhere, on hillsides, in gardens and bits of cleared scrubland. It comes as no surprise to learn that this region produces about half of France’s vin ordinaire – table plonk to you and me.
It’s not all fine wine and glamour in the van. After a visit to the church with the biggest nave in Europe we have a day of chores in the sleepy town of Mirepoix; a stock up of groceries and fuel from Carrefour and a big laundry wash in their car park laundromat. Then we push on further into the Pyrenees.
For many years I’ve nursed a strong desire to visit the Pyrenees. It does not disappoint, especially now in the early autumn light. Our destination is the small town of Aulus Les Bains in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Our time in France is running out as we must do 14 days quarantine in England before my daughter Hannah’s wedding on 25th September. So there will be no long hikes up into the mountains. Instead we walk up to the Col De La Trape for a blonde beer at the Auberge. Then a winding return downhill through a beech tree forest alongside the river.
The following day we’re at Stage 8 of the 2020 Tour de France. With our Bromptons, we’re positioned on a grass verge at the bottom of the descent of the Port de Bales, before the final ascent, up the Col de Peyresourde. The Englishman Adam Yates is in the Yellow Jersey and there’s a Frenchman Nans Peters in the lead on his own. It’s a beautiful day. We picnic and retrieve cycle shirts, caps and flags thrown at us from the leading vehicular circus that is the caravan. Nans Peters and the low level race helicopter streak past us. What seems like an age later the peloton flies past on the downhill and I’m absolutely convinced that Adam Yates is spurred on to retain the Yellow Jersey, by my all too brief advice and support (go Adam go!!). Jo’s parents see us on the TV coverage – we are trans global for 2 seconds.
Our final destination is Arcachon Bay in the Gironde. For here lives young Ronan, a first cousin once removed. Just to the west of Bordeaux, the bay sits to the north of the Cote d’Argent – a 200km long, windswept, sandy beach backed by dunes which end with the biggest sand dune in Europe, which we climb. The views from the top, over the bay and Cap Ferret, are a fine reward for the arduous climb. We linger up here for a couple of hours then we run down – a technique of descent that we learnt running down the volcanic ash of Mount Etna in Sicily- lean right back and descend on your heels.
Arcachon bay and its environs are splendid. On our first evening Jo spots a narrow walled access road ending at a small beach. We park here for the night – and it’s a short distance from a bistro where local rose wine and Arcachon oysters are to be found. Then it’s back to the van for seafood soup and white wine before a stunning, lingering sunset.
The following day we meet Ronan and Laura. We cycle around one edge of the bay for 20 miles and enjoy more oysters. Arcachon is renowned for it’s fine and plentiful oyster farms. You can choose from sizes 2,3 or 4 and even buy them from 24/7 vending machines.
Our last evening in the coast is spent at the Aire adjoining the bird sanctuary. We dine with Ronan, Laura and Joe, a fellow nomad from Folkestone. Great coincidence; he once organised the Folkestone Ska Festival – a whacky but fun festival that Jo and I attended in 2012. Joe plans to drive to Turkey for the winter. He’s a lovely guy, we must keep in touch with him. Perhaps meet him again in Turkey.
We’ve spent 40 days in France and travelled almost 3,000 miles. It has been a revelation for us. The diversity of the landscape of course, but more notably the ethos of wild camping in France; the manner in which the French have received us with open arms. There’s an abundance of splendid free parking sites – the Aires, some with time limits of 48 or 72 hours. Many with clean bins recycling facilities, fresh water and toilets. And then there are thousands more sublime places in forests, by lakes and rivers, and on mountains where you are welcome to simply pitch up. They don’t provide all this just out of altruism. We’ve spent lots of Euros in their local economy; in shops, bars, patisseries (especially those), supermarkets, garages. And we’ve left not a trace of our presence in the countryside.
Contrast that with the UK where the recently coined term for free camping is fly camping – like fly tipping. To be labelled as some low life, nature trashing traveller is an ignorant and absurd prejudice. The vast majority of free campers we’ve encountered show great respect for the countryside. I’m disappointed and saddened by our short sighted and inhospitable ways.
Merci la France pour la joie de vivre sur la route!