Camp­ing the French way: Baguettes and wine

A fam­ily finds that the coun­try’s good life ex­tends to the fire­side

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY WILL HAWKES travel@wash­post.com Hawkes is a writer based in Lon­don. Find him at @will_hawkes.

“You English,” the taxi driver says, “most of you can’t speak French at all. But you speak it re­ally well!” My chest swells with child­ish pride, but it doesn’t last. He has some­thing else to add. “But why is Bri­tain leav­ing the E.U., and who is this Nigel Farage?” I stam­mer. I stut­ter. I strug­gle to remember the French for, “It’s quite com­pli­cated. Can we talk about cheese in­stead?”

In truth, I’m hop­ing to for­get Brexit — and its toxic af­ter­math — for a few weeks. We are in Arge­les-sur-Mer, a sun-sat­u­rated town on the French Mediter­ranean coast just north of Spain, at the end of a long, frac­tious sum­mer in Bri­tain. We’re on a camp­site, La Chapelle, in a place full of them: Arge­les is the cap­i­tal of French camp­ing, with more than 50 sites crammed in around its golden, gen­tly arc­ing beach.

It’s a good place to for­get the real world, and an even bet­ter place for kids. This is how I spent two weeks ev­ery sum­mer as a child, in camp­sites all over France. My wife, Clau­dine, did like­wise, and we’re hop­ing our three chil­dren — ages 5, 2 and 3 months — will en­joy it, too. It’s hard to re­sist. French camp­sites are where North­ern Euro­peans come to cel­e­brate the Gal­lic way of life by eat­ing baguettes, drink­ing wine (Orang­ina for the kids) and loung­ing in ill-ad­vised swimwear.

That’s our plan, any­way. To en­sure all goes as smoothly as pos­si­ble, we’re not stay­ing in a tent. Mo­bile homes might have an im­age prob­lem in the United States, but their many con­ve­niences — shower, beds, cook­ing equip­ment, air-con­di­tion­ing, fridge — make them per­fect for a young fam­ily. Oth­ers, I note as we nav­i­gate La Chap­pelle’s neat, tree-lined grid of dusty tracks on ar­rival, have been braver: Plenty of peo­ple are camp­ing or have turned up in mo­tor homes of vary­ing shapes and sizes.

For all its mod cons, though, the best thing about our mo­bile home is the view of the Pyre­nees, green and gen­tly cur­va­ceous as they de­scend into the Mediter­ranean. There’s also a small, rather un­kempt vine­yard right next door. On the first even­ing, as the sky glows red and the crick­ets chirp, star­lings in a flock rise as one from a row of tall trees at the back of the camp­site and swoop in for­ma­tion to­ward the sea. When you’ve spent the day cor­ralling two small boys on and off planes, trains and in and out of taxi­cabs, that sort of ex­pe­ri­ence can­not be un­der­es­ti­mated.

The next day, I head off to the su­per­mar­ket to stock up on es­sen­tials — cheese, wine, a huge va­ri­ety of char­cu­terie — be­fore we set­tle into the rhythm of camp­site life. Over the next few weeks, each day will fol­low a sim­i­lar pat­tern. In the morn­ing, my old­est son Fraser and I walk down to the on-site boulan­gerie, where we pick up two baguettes for break­fast. Then the beach, one of three play­grounds or, most pop­u­lar of all, a huge, mul­ti­col­ored and in­flated tram­po­line at the end of our road, to while away the morn­ing. The boys take great plea­sure in run­ning as quickly as pos­si­ble across the dark green sec­tion, which heats up in the Rous­sil­lon sun.

Lunch (in­vari­ably bread, cheese, salad and what­ever else is in the fridge) is fol­lowed by (if we’re lucky) a nap, then a trip to the pool. At about 5 p.m., we head home for a drink, the kids’ bed­time and fi­nally din­ner, which is often fresh fish bought from the Ty’ Breizh fish­mon­ger: bar­be­cue-grilled, beau­ti­fully fresh sea bream, per­haps, or fat pink prawns.

Eat­ing, playing, swim­ming, re­lax­ing. If that sounds a lit­tle dull, well, it is. But that’s the ap­peal. Camp­sites like La Chap­pelle are so­porific places. One even­ing, I stroll through the camp­site to get some­thing from the shop. Most peo­ple are sit­ting out­side, en­joy­ing the even­ing warmth with a bot­tle of wine. Some play domi­noes, some chat over food, oth­ers sit qui­etly and greet passersby. The dusty pé­tanque court is busy.

Our rou­tine is oc­ca­sion­ally com­pro­mised. One day, we take a boat to Col­lioure, an ab­surdly beau­ti­ful town set around a bay three miles down the coast, where the boys race around the 13th-cen­tury cas­tle, count­ing can­non­balls as they go, and we eat a meal in a restau­rant by the beach. The food (luke­warm fish soup fol­lowed by del­i­cately cooked but dis­as­trously un­der­sea­soned cod) is medi­ocre but the am­biance is un­for­get­table: A warm sea breeze blows into the lively, full restau­rant as waiters hus­tle here and there.

This is France, but Cat­alo­nia, too. One nap­time, I slip away from the mo­bile home for a swim in the gen­tle Mediter­ranean. Down by the beach, a fes­ti­val is un­der­way, with groups of lo­cals per­form­ing Sar­dana, a lan­guid but pre­cise dance, to the perky sounds of a cobla, an 11-piece band dom­i­nated by a high-pitched wood­wind in­stru­ment called the Cata­lan shawm. Yards away, amid a pine for­est, ta­bles are laid out for lunch; it is, I later dis­cov­ered, Arge­les’ 41st Aplec de Sar­danes, an an­nual fes­ti­val of tra­di­tional mu­sic.

Be­fore I get too car­ried away with the ro­mance of it all, though, I’m brought up short 50 yards down the street. There’s a flatbed truck car­ry­ing a small mon­ster truck, pump­ing out coun­try mu­sic to pro­mote an event that even­ing up the coast. “I’m in a hurry to get things done!” is the re­peated cho­rus as the bright-red truck, em­bla­zoned with the word “GRINDER,” sits in rare Arge­les traf­fic.

Need­less to say, we don’t go to the mon­ster truck event. Too much fun to be had at the swim­ming pool. Both boys love com­ing down the slide with their mother, and I love pad­dling around the main pool with their sis­ter, field­ing ques­tions about her from coo­ing old-timers and avoid­ing teens jump­ing off the blowup croc­o­diles.

If the pool is the fo­cus of camp ac­tiv­ity dur­ing the day, the bar takes over at night. One even­ing, France is playing a soc­cer match against Italy; a few peo­ple are chat­ting and watch­ing but they’re al­most ex­clu­sively English, Ir­ish and Dutch. One man sports a T-shirt cel­e­brat­ing French foot­ball ge­nius Zine­dine Zi­dane but when he comes to the bar, where I’m sit­ting, he or­ders two pints of beer in a Mid­lands English ac­cent. When France scores, there’s barely a mur­mur. The French don’t take sport too se­ri­ously — a big point in their fa­vor.

More ex­cite­ment is gen­er­ated by an­other even­ing’s en­ter­tain­ment at the bar. A few days later, I’m walk­ing past a re­cep­tion where a chalk sign an­nounces, “Samedi soir — Karaoke!”

“It’s this even­ing?” one mid­dle-aged woman says to an­other. “Yes, this even­ing!” her friend replies with ev­i­dent ex­cite­ment.

Such are the sim­ple plea­sures of life on a French camp­site. Too soon, though, our two weeks are over. The value of our time away is il­lus­trated a few days af­ter our re­turn, when in­ces­sant Lon­don rain means a planned trip to the park is post­poned. “When are we go­ing back to our French house?” 2-year-old Keir asks as he stares through the win­dow. Not soon enough.

HEMIS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

FROM TOP: The beach and port at Col­lioure, near the Church of Our Lady of the An­gels; beach­go­ers stroll along the stalls in Arge­lessur-Mer; a se­lec­tion of wares from fish­mon­ger Ty’ Breizh fish­mon­ger in Arge­les; prawns cook on the bar­be­cue at La Chapelle camp­site.

WILL HAWKES

WILL HAWKES

WILL HAWKES

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