Camping the French way: Baguettes and wine
A family finds that the country’s good life extends to the fireside
“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.
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.