En Voyage

Taking off in an old Peugeot to discover France in Summer: le camping et les callanques

Maybe it was not the brightest idea to choose the month of August for traveling. But I always feel a strong need to go on an adventure in the summertime. Dreams of swimming, walking and discovery filling my head, I find myself turning the pages of my old school atlas and imagining travel routes through Europe. I like the special atmosphere of August, when everybody is on holidays and a lot of the shops are closed – it’s like the silence of Sundays. The atmosphere of what the Italians call Ferragosto. People are relaxed and I’m happy to leave my desk and join them.

This year, the decision fell on France. I met my two traveling companions Antje and Renate in Frankfurt. We were to travel in a small Peugeot, packed to the roof with sleeping bags, tent and other camping equipment as well as maps of France, old guide books with fantastic black and white photographs of Romanesque churches and monasteries, and a brand new camping guide with all French camping sites classified by category and described in a few words.

We crossed the French border at Wissembourg and entered Alsace. We had no plans at all. Nothing was booked in advance; we hadn’t even discussed the route. The only premise was to avoid highways and take the smaller, local routes in the general direction of the South. Finally we would reach Provence and the Mediterranean Sea. We had three weeks.

We crossed the Alsace and stopped at Ferrette in the Sundgau, where Antje wanted to visit a shop that sold excellent cheese. We then followed Renate’s suggestion to avoid the Alps and drive along the river Doubs. By the third day we reached Burgundy where I insisted we stop at Cluny. I had always been eager to visit the remains of the famous abbey that I only knew from drawings, and whose huge Romanesque basilica was for centuries the largest church in Christendom. Secularized during the revolution, it was sold later and its stone was used as building material. Many of the buildings in Cluny and its neighborhood are built from the stones of the former abbey. Now archeologists take care of the ruin and the sections that have survived have been well restored and opened to visitors. In addition to the ruin the local museum shows virtual reconstructions of the church. On large monitors you could at least imagine the megalomaniac building with its five towers, huge narthex, five naves and two transepts.

The next day we drove through the hilly country of the Lyonnais and got lost while looking for a camping site. We had discovered we were better off with small camping sites: the less comfort, the more quiet. In France, you also have the possibility to camp à la ferme. Farmers open their meadows for a few tents and caravans. You pay little and often have the opportunity to buy fruit, vegetables or wine directly from the producer. But these places were not always easy to find. It was late in the evening when we gave up looking for farms and tried our luck at Yzeron, a small village on top of a hill. We entered the only bar and were welcomed by a parrot. People here were calm and ready to help and we immediately felt comfortable. The owners of the bar, an easy-going couple managed the local camp site, which turned out to have a fantastic view over the hills up to the city of Lyon. We accepted their offer of a place with pleasure.

On the highest point we sat in the evening sun having dinner, drinking wine and talking until darkness settled over us. Within a few days we three companions had become a sort of family, sharing the driving, setting-up of the tent, shopping, cooking, reading maps and cheering each other on.

We returned to the spot the next morning, now flooded with sunlight, and prepared our coffee. Preparing coffee had become an important ceremony from the first day on. We ground the coffee-beans by hand and then placed the espresso machine on our weak gas cooker. Afterwards the milk was warmed, followed by a second espresso. This took time and was the reason why we were never able to leave early. But what better start of the day than drinking an excellent cup of coffee in such a magic place?

In Lyon, and the much smaller town of Vienne, we met the immense traces of the Romans: theaters, thermal baths and temples. Roman ruins and Romanesque churches, they became our favorite sites. Sometimes we found them in a kind of symbiosis like in the church of St. Pierre in Vienne, built on the ruins of a Roman temple that became a museum in the 19th century. It was a strange and charming place, packed with Roman statues, mosaics and masks, and surrounded by Roman sarcophagi used over and over again throughout the Middle Ages.

We then followed the river Rhône and reached Provence at the beginning of our second week. Having passed Orange we left the Rhône and found our perfect camping site by chance, near the village of Bédoin at the foot of Mont Ventoux. It was well-hidden in the middle of a dark pine forest and therefore only known by a few people. They formed a secret society, of sorts, but they let us in. The site was looked after by an old man, Monsieur Bernard who had dedicated his life to it and passed his days talking to his guests, many of them coming here every year. There was Danielle, a teacher from Paris who vocalized on la Traviata each morning in the shower the morning, carrying across the valley. There was Thérèse, a secretary from Dijon who invited us for dinner and gave us a rich preview of all the local attractions. There was Gustave, a shy middle aged man who always greeted us politely without saying more than a half a dozen words — it turned out he needed his energy for climbing the Mont Ventoux road by bicycle. In a few days, they all seemed like old friends.

There are two worlds at a camping site: there’s the no frills version (ours), full of improvisation, sleeping on thin mats, sitting on the ground, hanging our food in the trees to keep it cool and to protect it from ants, without success. And there’s the caravan version, where our neighbors brought half their household. They may have been more comfortable, but we were having great time, and wouldn’t have wished it otherwise.

Every evening found us with a bottle of wine. We were exploring the country by its wine, visiting the local coopératives, the shops of the local vintners associations, and, as a climax, made an excursion to the cellars of the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape. After a whole day of wine tasting, it was essential to spend a whole day walking it off. In Provence there are both mountains and gorges. We chose the nearby Gorges de la Nesque. After a steep descent we reached the ground and a small chapel. Traces of hermits who lived here under the rocks, even traces of prehistoric settlements could be found in these gorges.

Here was a world all its own. The medieval chapel seemed to be a place of pilgrimage up to today, the altar, with a simple statue of St. Michael, was covered with prayers and wishes written on small sheets of paper. I, as a protestant, would never address my wishes to any saints, but this small place really called for devotion. We sat there for a while in silence. What should I pray for? Or about?  Nothing really; or maybe it  just seemed like too much.

On our way back to Bédoin we spontaneously decided to visit Mont Ventoux by car. It was a hard climb for our small Peugeot. But finally at the top the view was breathtaking, all the way to the Mediterranean, clearly visible in the distance. We stood there in the evening sun, watching the shadows falling over the patchwork country side.

After a week near Bédoin, it seemed to be getting only harder and harder to leave, but we wanted to spend our last days at the seaside. It was not far, and we arrived at Aix-en-Provence around noon, walked through the city, drank coffee – losing track of time. When we finally reached the coast, though, we had no luck. The camp sites were full, and reception offices closed; we were too late.

So we slept at the beach. This sounds idyllic, but it was not. Until two in the morning we heard the sounds of a beach disco. At five a tractor came to clean up (the driver was polite enough to leave a small circle around us). At seven the bars opened and a group of young guys started to prepare the beach: to set up tables and chairs, sunshades and deck-chairs. Nevertheless we went swimming with the first rays of the sun, and celebrated our coffee- brewing. We left at nine, when they began to charge an entrance fee.

The following day was dedicated to Marseille which we were all three really curious to visit. Notorious for its high crime rate, it has become more attractive during the last few years, although some people still find it ugly. The first thing we noticed was the striking  natural harbor surrounded by rocks (well chosen by the Greeks who founded Marseille around 600 BC!). We walked around – as much as you could in one day – and discovered charming back streets and inviting squares. We were slightly disappointed at Belsunce, the African quarter (but it was le mois d‘aôut – what did I expect?), and finally we decided to take a boat-trip to the offshore islands.

Leaving the city on a radial route, we passed a building that we already knew from photos: Le Corbusier’s famous Unité d’Habitation, built after World War II with means of the support of the Reconstruction Program and finished in 1952. Conceived with great care as public housing, the apartments have since become private property. We stopped and walked into the large entrance hall. The portier beamed; he seemed happy to have visitors and proudly presented some phrases in German. He showed us an apartment that was still in its original state with its pure lines and basic furniture. The apartments were all on two floors, with kitchen and living room below and bed rooms and bath on the second. Modern as it was in 1952, you would nowadays miss some comforts – there were no refrigerators for instance. Nevertheless you could feel how thoughtfully it had been constructed. Little shops, restaurants and a kindergarten made it feel like a community, and it seemed a shame to find this fine public housing now all in private hands.

At the end of our visit we found ourselves on a beautiful terrace on the roof. What a view about the city and its bay! A perfect place to bid farewell to the sea.

On our way back we passed the French Alps and Switzerland spending our last night together in a hut in a high mountain meadow high in the Black Forest. We slept in the hay-loft. It was getting cold and we could suddenly smell autumn.

Back at my desk in Vienna – it was now September and raining outside – my head refused to return to reality; pictures were wandering through my thoughts. It took days. I was still thinking of our breakfast on the stones in Yzeron. Of the evenings there, when it became cold but the stones were still warm. Of the evenings in Bédoin with the stars above us. Of swimming in the sea in the early morning and the hot cup of coffee afterwards. Of Marseille where I knew I would return to learn more of this city fisherman, of the France still so tied to Algeria and Tunisia across the Mediterranean. And to discover the craigy falaises fanning out in both directions, the hidden calanques cut deep into the rocky coast..


French camping guides:

The Guide officiel Camping Caravaning is updated annually. It includes all French camping sites (also farms) with addresses and short descriptions (to be ordered at www.campingfrance.com or in bookshops like Freytag&Berndt, Kohlmarkt 9, 1010 Wien).


There is no special guide for Camping à la ferme. Have a look at 

http://www.gites-de-france.com www.gites-de-france.com and ask for the local guides.

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