Last year, as I wrote in an earlier post, I really struggled with the long 8-week summer holiday. This year? Well there was the four week buffer at the beginning, with DD at the Centre de Loisirs part time and DS at crèche, meaning just four weeks to fill – and also only four weeks where it would be virtually impossible to get things done. My predictions re working being a total write off were pretty accurate but deciding not to beat myself up about it on the basis that everyone else living here is also probably off work in August, really helped me to relax into the swing of it. And it helped that the majority of my clients are also France-based, so either off enjoying a holiday themselves or busy working to provide those holidays to others.
With rentrée just around the corner, I’m actually feeling quite down about it. We’ve been having a lot of fun together. Camping was really lovely; a chance to really slow down and focus on quality time together, free from the distractions of the modern age. And over the last 8 weeks the two smalls, DS now 2.5 and DD now 4.5, having really grown and also become close, I think. Where one was a baby and the other was a slightly disinterested sibling, I now have to children who I think are friends: they play together, laugh together, and show that they care for each other (they fight a bit too, but they also seem to be able to work it out – with a small amount of encouragement – and move on pretty fast). It’s a special thing to see them grow together in this way. I think they will miss each other when life starts to speed up again, so hope we can recreate this ambience at the weekends and in the holidays to come.
For my part I’ve had a bit more time to reflect and it’s been nice to turn my attention back to this blog. We’ve been getting out and about, doing touristy things as a family, exploring the area, and I’ve enjoyed writing about some of the things we’ve done over the summer (most of which is still in draft, but hey, we’ve been too busy doing stuff!) I enjoy writing about tech stuff for my work blog over at Languedoc 121 Tech, but really I moved to France for the life, not the work. After many 40-hour corporate weeks I’m trying to resist the temptation to throw it all in and work-to-live, not the other way around.
While riding this wave of enthusiasm, I’ve signed up to a few blogging networks. Whether they’ll lead to an increase in traffic or not is anybodies guess – but what the heck. But, if you’re new here and came via Bloglovin or any other blogging network, I hope you like what you find and enchante!
It’s the summer holidays and we live somewhere breathtakingly beautiful. In the UK we were always off camping for the weekend, usually to Wales, sometimes to the Lakes. We would walk, rest, read, revive and restore ourselves. Then we had DD, then DS, and then we left the UK and moved to France. We were busy and didn’t have chance to get away. Consequently, the summer holidays dragged on and on. We missed our little camping trips. That wasn’t going to happen again this year, so we decided on a few two-night stays way, to give us a much-needed change of scene and also as a way of checking out other areas we might like to live, since we’re doing so badly at finding a house where we are now! With a few changes to our original Welsh-holiday setup we were ready to go for our first family-of-four camping trip.
What camping used to look like
We managed two camping trips with DD: one when she was about 18 months old and another later that same year when she was a little older. The first was less than a success: the temperature dropped to minus something that night which meant we’d heat the stove and we’d all drop off to sleep sweltering hot then we’d wake up once the fire had burnt out, all freezingl. DD somehow managed to sleep pretty well until 5am but then was wide awake and crying. Just what you want when you’re the only couple with a small child on a mountain biking weekend away with the club of mostly child-free by choice 30 somethings (okay, we weren’t the only couple there with a small child but our friends were in a camper and so were much more soundproofed!) I was as tired as hell the next day and James was ready to go home, which really took the edge of my mountain bike ride, as did the torrential rain that followed. It was really good fun – not.
The second time was much more relaxing. We had a few days with a toddling DD at the lovely Graig Web campsite would no doubt have gone again if I hadn’t been the world’s most grumpy and uncomfortable pregnant mummy to be. And after that, once DS was born, we were preoccupied with our move to The Continent. And now here we are.
Finding a family tent
Another barrier to a big camping trip was that we didn’t have anywhere to sleep. We decided we needed to “upgrade” the tipi for something more… wildlife proof. Here there are ants, snakes, and – maybe not worst but certainly most annoying of all – mosquitoes. Our tipi, being single-skin canvas was bought on the basis of having a wood burning stove, keeping us both warm and dry in autumn, winter, and spring, and cool, if it ever got warm enough to want to be cool, in summer. Pests were not on radar. Nor were two small children.
After extensive research, reading reviews, trawling websites, Facebook lurking to see what tents friends had and recommended, I took the executive decision to buy the HiGear Zenobia Elite 6 from Go Outdoors (which seems to now be out of stock and replaced by the Eclipse, which is of an almost identical design). In years gone by, while in thrawl to my corporate job, I’d probably have made quite a different purchase (hence the Tentipi) but having a limited budget made it quite a different proposition. I wouldn’t have thought of HiGear except that friends had recently gone down the family tent route and recommended it. Since I know they’re both pretty discerning when it comes to outdoor gear I decided it was a pretty solid recommendation. And that’s how I ended up with the Zenobia. We toyed with the idea of getting the inner for the tipi but we decided that 500 quid was a bit steep and ideally we could use more space. With a budget of 300 quid the Zenobia fitted the bill and had pretty good reviews. Good enough. Not so much Go Outdoors but that was a chance we were going to have to take, given HiGear is their own brand. Postage was a bit steep – £39.99 on top of the cost of the tent – but I managed to pick it up for a great price and even with the postage we were in budget. And it came with a carpet too. Very grown up!
Choosing a campsite
Another reason it had taken us so long to get our camping shizzle together is that we tend to like a certain kind of campsite. In days gone by we were always looking out for remote and quite wild locations, happy with or without hot water, even toilets. There were a few sites we liked but only ever at times when most other people were away somewhere else: with the Welsh mountains’ proximity to several major cities there was a tendency for campsite to turn into giant drinking parties, especially on public holidays – and we hated them when they were busy. We also rejected any site that was good for caravans, so any sanitised site with electric hook up available or, god-forbid, static vans. Oh My Days, noooo! We would not be seen dead on one of those sites (actually, I camped at a few like that and had a perfectly nice time but that was on mountain bike weekends with “The Girls”. For James, if it had a no-fires policy it was a no. And no, chucking a few cheeky sticks onto a barbecue is not the same as having a fire.)
Such sites being hard to find here in France, a new campsite in a new place is always a bit of gamble. With kids, however, and now we’re on The Continent, camping takes a different turn. We are all about sites that are bursting with facilities. Okay, maybe not bursting, but at the very least our list includes: a play area (parc de joue)? check; hot running water and showers? check; a swimming pool (or access to a swimming lake)? check; allocated pitches? check! We still love the mountains though and I struggled with the idea of booking somewhere close to the sea with more of a “holiday camp” feel. But I’m sure I’m just getting warmed up to it and it won’t be long. Maybe next year.
Choosing a location
So having decided that we were ready to brave a well-managed site with good facilities, we then had to decide where to go. Given France is vastly larger than the UK and we don’t know any of it, how to narrow it down?
Apart from having a well-needed change of scenery and chance to just chill for a few days, we definitely feel it’s time to explore some new areas. Remember, we came here to find a house, and that hasn’t gone so well. We’ve ended up renting, which we didn’t want to do, and having seen many, many shoddy and overpriced houses, we’ve also started searching for land with a view to building. Given we’re not doing much better in the search for land we’ve decided it’s time to start searching further afield. First though we need to figure out where we might want to go. Hence our little mini-trips branching outwards from our home and planned in all directions.
In May we spent a few days with my parents in Ceret.
I wanted to write about it but the opportunity has passed. If we go there again I’ll make sure I try a bit harder and share my thoughts about the place. In short, I liked it. I’d read a bit about the fairly recent history of the area when I fell into a WWII reading rabbit hole last year, discovering Love And War in The Pyrenees: a really fascinating book that makes grim and humbling reading.
That aside, it was nice to be somewhere a bit… smarter – and busier. To say it’s quiet here is an understatement. It’s not just that there’s not a lot going on. It’s also that there isn’t anyone here! The houses are run down, they’re overpriced, there’s no work. It’s really quite dead. We like that but because of that it’s always quite exciting to spend time somewhere that has a bit of a buzz about it. And then leave, of course.
Rather than going back to Ceret I decided it would be quite nice to explore the next valley along, which is therefore a bit closer to our home, making it easier to get to and easier to abort our trip if for any reason it wasn’t going so well.
Vinca is a small village just off the N116, which is the main road running from Perpignan into Andorra via Prades. It’s on the edge of lake that was formed in 1976 as a means of serving the city below with water.
The campsite itself borders the section of the lake that is to the West of the N116. When we first pulled off the main road we thought I might have cocked up with the site choice, as we could see camping cars from the road. Luckily that was the municipal site and our site was a bit further away from the road, tucked away at the other end of the village. It’s a 3*** site, which by UK standards means a well-equipped site, usually with a simple pool or access to a swimming area, hot running water for showers, a laundry room, usually a kid’s play area, and often, in high-season at least, a snack bar/buvette.
The area is good as it’s fairly close to the sea (about 30 minutes) and also close to the mountains. I wasn’t expecting we’d do much on our first visit: usually the first time anywhere we have a good look around, pick up a tonne of leaflets, scour the map for interesting places to go, and make more touristy plans for subsequent visits.
And the outcome?
I won’t go into too much detail about the site (I wrote a Trip Advisor review when we got back, and that says it all) and will just say we all had a fabululous time! The small beach, which was just perfect for the little ones, was barely a minute away from our pitch. We also had a steady stream of “friends” for DD in adjacent pitches, and she and DS had alot of fun interacting with their new companions. The first family – German – had two children who spoke German and some English but DD insisted on speaking to them in French, which was quite entertaining. They left after our first night but were replaced by an large (and sometimes rowdy!) group of French and Spanish women – relatives and friends – with a 6-year-old boy who DD spent the rest of the time we were there playing with. One of the reasons we didn’t bother going anywhere was because DS and DD were fully occupied and content on the site, and it was nice for us just to stop and do not much at all other than just hang out with them.
Despite having a really nice time in our little camp, we weren’t that excited about the area, at least from what we saw as we drove along the main routes. Prades was nice – quite busy and less shabby than Quillan but not as polished as Ceret – and next time we head that way we’ll go onto Villefranche-et-Conflent, which is an old fortified town which some interesting tourist sites. We were a little underwhelmed by Marquixanes, where I’d seen a number of houses for sale. They looked to be in good condition (nicely renovated stone houses) and at sensible prices so, but that may be because there’s the threat of an enormous road building programme looming over the area, if the signs alongside the route are anything to go by. After all my efforts with the Save Swallow’s Wood campaign at our old house, I don’t really have the stomach for another anti-road campaign!
But back to the camping trip.
DS was so sad when we left the site. He really had a lovely time. DD was devistated that we were taking her away from her new friend. I think being somewhere with a steady stream of children to play with, along with a nice swimming spot, is her (current) idea of heaven. We asked if they want to go again and it was a definite yes. So we definitely will. Now we have all the gear it’s just a case of deciding when and where.
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Before the holidays, determined to make a better job of it than last year, I started putting together a list of microadventures we could have over the summer. One of the things high on that list was riding the voie verte that is closest to us here: the 38km trail from Lavelanet to Mirepoix. My original plan involved an overnight camp, with James acting as chauffeur enabling us to ride the route in sections then spend the night in a tent before carrying on the next day. I originally thought three short rides with two overnights. Then I thought it would be fun to do this with friends. Then I decided the logistics of organising said trip with friends or even just between the two of us was giving me a headache and that I’d do it alone. Then I decided that it was too sunny and hot for any kind of bike ride let alone with children and a trailer, so sacked the whole thing off and tried not to be down about it. Did I let it go? Of course not.
Then we spent the morning up on the mountain at Bonascre where there are some pretty sweet looking downhill mountain bike trails. I got excited about riding my bike. I needed to ride my bike.
As luck would have it the forecast for the day after our visit to Bonascre changed from upwards of 30 degrees with full sun to an overcast morning topping out at about 24 with rain to follow. I needed something to do with the two smalls as James planned to work, so what to do, what to do? A morning ride then. Yippee!! In my head the route was 45km (I’m sure I’d read that somewhere) so I figured three rides of 15km would keep it nice and short for the smalls and also fit well around the weather forecast.
After an early start (as is usual these days) and a half-arsed attempt at breakfast, my two passengers were briefed and ready to go. I was worried that they’d both want to bring/ride their own bikes, only one of which has pedals, which would involve a whole lot of stop-starting, an epic amount of faffing, not least I still haven’t figured out how to attach their bikes to the trailer while they are also in the trailer. I was starting to get planning fatigue again so was relieved when DD said she didn’t want to ride her bike and just wanted a trailer ride. DS was not so readily convinced but I got around that by leaving his balance bike here accidentally on purpose. Oops, sorry. Car packed, children loaded and secured, bike unelegentally lifted onto the roof (I am soooo unfit!) and we were off.
The advice online is to start the ride in Lavelanet as then more of it is downhill than up. That certainly proved to be true for the first 5km or so. It was a breeze! The surface was good, there was plenty of shade (not that that mattered as there wasn’t any sun to hide from) and we were all happy to be off on a little adventure together. The last trailer ride was me and DS alone while DD was at maternelle – and he hadn’t liked it at all! But now with his big sister holding his little hand (cute), DS was calling out, “faster mummy!” too. Just brilliant.
I didn’t want to stop to take pictures because stopping and starting was a massive faff, so I had the camera round my neck and took pics as we came to the main crossings or places of interest. I did really well on that front for the first half of the ride, which was actually pretty easy thanks to the terrain and the surface. We quickly got to the 8km marker and I was starting to think we’d shoot for 20km and not the 15 I’d planned.
By now the sun was out and I realised I had forgotten the suncream. Actually not forgotten but dismissed because we were half way out of the village when I realised I didn’t have it – and we trusted the meteo. Fools. Now DD was hot and hungry. Time for a snack stop. We pressed on, past La Peyrat, to the junction with the D620 just before Sainte-Colombe-Sur-l’Hers where I hoped there was a picnic bench. There was. We crossed over the road and stopped under a shady tree for a snack. My kids are so spoiled: I’d packed apples. Just three of them. And water. They did the job. DD of course wanted more so after a happy little jump around the picnic table we continued on.
It was at this point that my legs started to feel like lead (I was pulling about 40kg in combined child-trailer weight), I was worrying a bit about the suncream, and the track surface turned from leg-friendly, trailer-friendly pedal turner to bumpy farm track and ever-so-slightly up hill. Not as easy goibg as before. DD was still mithering for food but DS was soon asleep, thankfully. I called James to report on our progress and requested lunch at the park in Chalabre for 12h30. Confirmation received, I started to fantasise about food, which is a bit tragic given I’d only ridden 11km by this point.
Full sun, some shade and still a terrible track, from Sainte-Colombe onwards was some welcome almost downhill again. I say almost because mountain bike plus trailer doesn’t roll too well on a rough track, so there was quite a lot of pedalling. DD helped to keep me motivated by whining from the back about being hot and hungry. I pedalled on. DS continued to sleep despite bumps and also the squeak that had developed, and eventually we arrived at our destination: Chalabre.
I didn’t get any photos from there, unfornately. We were too busy tucking into our picnic! I like Chalabre. We spend quite alot of time there these days – it’s where DS goes to crèche. I like it there. For anyone attempting to ride the voie verte in a day and looking for a place to rest midway – or a place to camp (there’s a municipal site as well as a nice but unofficial spot by the river) – you can do worse than the stop there. You’ll find some shops (chemist, grocer, butcher, boulongerie), which are open in the mornings and afternoons (usually everything is shut for lunch, so you’ll struggle between 12h30 and 2h30), and some cafes. The best place for a picnic is down by the river, where there’s also a little park. The park is tucked away under the big red metal bridge, which is the continuation of the voie verte towards Camon, over the L’Hers river. The park has shade and is a good place to contain small children while also allowing them to let off some steam in the playground, where there’s a climbing frame, slide, and a see-saw. Because it’s right next to the river, which you can walk down to to sit on the bank and have a paddle, or have yourself a proper cooling off just a few meters down where it gets a bit deeper. For grown ups sans children there’s a picnic bench there and, again, big trees so plenty of shade.
After eating our picnic and having a little play, we headed home. In the end we’d ridden 17km and just under half of the route. This makes the rest is manageable in a single day as long as I plan a decent midway stop. Now all I need is another un-sunny day. I’m sure one will be along at some point but until then we can settle back into good-weather-mode.
So far so good. Since I last updated the blog the French long summer holiday, les grandes vacances, started and we’re now the best part of four weeks in. We learned a few lessons last year that set us good stead for making a better job of it this year. Thanks to better planning James and I have managed to squeeze in a few hours of work meaning it’s been much easier to do a lot of fun things together as well.
Thankfully the crèche remains open during July, so it’s been business as usual for DS, and by enrolling DD into the Centre de Loisirs for two full days a week she’s had plenty of active play and also maintained something of a routine. In English-speak the Centre de Loisirs is the out-of-hours/holiday club, so it’s not school – there aren’t any formal lessons – but there are organised activities. There’s a small fee to pay but much of the cost is covered by the commune so it’s minimal. They stay all day (half days aren’t an option) and are provided with lunch and groups are split along similar lines to the schools, with places for three-to-sixes and another group for the older ones (up to 10, I think). I’d heard about it last year but was bogged down with all the admin involved in registering a new business and getting my carte vitale sorted out so didn’t have the mental bandwidth or the confidence in French to find out about any of this, I just heard other parents talk about it when asking them what on earth they were doing with their children during the holidays!
Having decided to investigate ahead of the holiday this year, I went along to ask about places and prices and generally scope the place out. I had pretty much decided that she would be going – it’s a nice looking place, a relatively new building with a large lawn area, plenty of shade, some climbing frames and other outdoor gear, plus it’s convenient given DS’s crèche is only a few minutes away – so it was really just about finding out what paperwork I needed and getting her name down! James was not so convinced (I’m not sure he’d even considered it until I turned up with the forms) but I made my case and with the go-ahead from him ran it past DD, who seemed quite into the idea of being able to play with other kids all day rather than being stuck at home with us. On the first day, with varying degrees of trepidation we all went along. (I should add this wasn’t a totally cold start: James had taken DD one Wednesday afternoon before the end of term, so they’d both met some of the staff and the other children and she was familiar with where she was going, and having had a nice time she was quite looking forward to it.) We received a warm welcome, one of the staff showed us where to find a peg for her hat and bag, and then took us into the main room where the other children were busying themselves. There were toys, play areas (some dens), some stencils and coloring pens out on one of the tables and a small group of the older children playing a card game together. One of her English friends was there, which was a brilliant stroke of luck. DD’s friend was also looking a bit nervous so after pep talking them both DD prized herself away from me and joined her friend at the table to do some colouring. Time for one last quick goodbye from me and a sharp exit!
James pretty much paced all day hoping she was alright and was keen to get her as soon as the day officially ended, so at 4.30pm there we were. Bad timing, apparently. I took DD’s sad face and clingyness to be a sign that she’d had a difficult day but it turned out that the upset was because we’d come to take her home and she still had playing to do! Plus they were just about to sit down for le goûter, which involved a squeezy compote, a drink, and a small piece of cake – nice. Who’d want to go home and miss out on that!? She wanted to join in so went off with the group into the garden while we sat and waited, all the while restraining DS who also wanted to get in on the cake/compote action but wasn’t allowed to join in.
The next day her friend wasn’t going to be there and from what she said they’d spent the whole day together and she hadn’t made any new friends. That would mean spending the day with a cohort of entirely French-speaking children, most of whom already knew each other from the village school. As expected she was a little nervous going in but soon drifted into an activity so away we went. Before leaving I asked whether she wanted us to come for her earlier or leave it until after le goûter and it was a hands-down 100% after le goûter – so that was that. We returned at 5 and all was well. Another successful day.
With this and another regular activity, which we we’ve been able to keep up, we’ve had a pretty steady routine on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, which I think has helped us get to this point without feeling too overwhelmed. On Thursdays DS had crèche and I had some meetings to go to, so we’d drop him off then James would come along with DD and they’d play in the park while I did my thing then we’d all head back to get DS and it was just the afternoon to fill: a regular Thursday but with some one-on-one time with DD, who would usually be at maternelle. Fridays were a definite holiday day with everyone at home, so a little more hectic but it felt like a three-day weekend and it’s been nice to have that time to wind down a bit.
This time last year we were four weeks in and already tearing our hair out wondering how do other parents cope with these eight long weeks. But the answer, in the absence of grandparents and extended family, is the Centre de Loisirs and crèche. Even with the two days at the Centre de Loisirs it’s been way more relaxed than term time as it’s a later start and both children are in the same town, so much less back and forth, saving time and money.
With the extra time we’ve also been able to accomplish some really nice “firsts”, including:
first family camping trip. I can really vouch for the HiGear Zenobia Elite 6 and like it so much we may even make a video review next time it’s up.
first time swimming with arm bands (feet off the floor!) for DS
first vegetables from the garden (two different types of courgettes plus cucumbers, chard, and haricot vert)
first time putting her face in water for DD (she’s been scared of getting her face wet ever since we took her Puddle Ducks at 9 months so this was a Big Deal)
first time catching a cray fish
first time feeding caterpillars and watching them turn into butterflies (they were cabbage whites)
first snake sighting! (this was on the path outside of DD’s school on one of the last days of term)
first invitation to a school friend’s birthday party
first bike ride, just me and DD, with her hitched up to my bike using the old Trailer-Gator I bought for my eldest nephew 10 years ago!
And probably a whole host of other more mundane things too. Lots more blog fodder for when the time allows.
But what of the next four weeks? Well, pretty much the whole of France is going to be on holiday so I’ve decided I’m not going to beat myself up about getting next to nothing done. Is anyone? We have a couple of other camping trips lined up, if we can just figure out some good dates with the camp sites, plus some day trips and play dates. Then, with the heat and now both smalls confident splashing around in the water with their arm bands on, I envisage spending as much time as possible in a lake or river keeping cool. They play so happily outside, the time flies by.
I had thought about some bigger adventures, wanting to do a small overnight trek to a mountain refuge and back, but just thinking about the organisation – and in this heat – I’ve decided that’s the kind of trip to make when they can walk all the way and also be persuaded that they want to do it, rather than being dragged into the unknown. Family camping with all the mod-cons is a good option for now.
Now to let a few pictures do the talking…
a blog about family life in France, discovering a new place, new people, and learning a language