Our First Camp in the Mountains: Orlu, Ariege

Camping. We all had a lovely time on our first camping trip so promised the smalls another couple of camping adventures before the end of the summer and rentrée.

A friend had spoken highly of Orlu, just south of Ax-les-Thermes, where there’s a beautiful nature reserve. I’d read a blog post of hers describing it and chatted with her afterwards and based on that wanted to visit. It wasn’t too far away so just right for a short two-night trip again) so we decided we’d give it a go.

The campsite I chose was the municipal site in Orlu: Camping d’Orlu. It was fairly easy to narrow it down because it’s the only site in that valley – unless you have a mobile home or campervan. Checking the website over and also reading various reviews, it sounded like it would work for us: the valley itself looked stunning and facilities-wise it had a playground, a pool, plus access to the river. Everyone looked happy in the photos. It seemed to fit the bill better than others and it was right in the place we wanted to be. What could go wrong?

Our First (and maybe last) Municipal Campsite

Actually, nothing really did go wrong. We just discovered that this kind of campsite, the busy kind where the world and his wife arrive to pack out their permanently-sited and privately-owned static caravans (complete with satellite TV), are not for us. Actually, I think we already knew that but our experience at the first site lulled us into a false sense of security where camping-with-the-masses was concerned. This site, while in a quiet and beautiful place, was busy. Too busy.

Two big things got on our nerves there. First, dog shit. What the fuck is wrong with dog owners!? We all love our pets. Just like we love our kids. But what we don’t do is let our cats or our kids shit on the footpaths everywhere. So what is it with dogs that makes this okay? There were a fair number of dogs on the site. To be fair there weren’t that many shits on the campsite itself, but a footpath leading into and out of the valley alongside the valley ran through the campsite and this was evidently where all the TV watching weekenders were taking their dogs for their shits. Ugh. It’s grim as an adult but when you have two small and inquisitive children who want to pick everything up, sometimes put things in their mouths (if not the things they just picked up then certainly their hands end up there), and also tend not to look where they’re going – jeez, the stress of even a short walk! No fun for us, no fun for them.

The second thing about this site: the cars. People were driving it felt like all the time. It was a small and densely packed site with a one-way system. Fine, but with two kids who want to play on the road in front of the pitch, that was another stress. I was a bit more relaxed about that than James (not that I want them to get run over, of course!) but to be fair to him there was a regular flow of cars past our tent.

Then there a few niggles, like the pool, which had been on the list of site essentials when making the choice. It was a nice spot and well-maintained, plus it had a paddling pool, but that’s no use if it’s closed. We arrived on Friday and fancied a dip but it was closed. It opened on Saturday at 1pm but the water was cold (24 degrees). The pool guy wasn’t happy about that either but there was nothing he could do. Later it was so busy it was impossible to swim and increasingly difficult to manage the two smalls, who just wanted to bob about in the armbands. Because the main pool was first too cold and then too busy, we splashed around in the paddling pool before that also started getting a bit too chaotic.

Some things we did like about the site were the playground, which was perfect for DD and DS. It had a baby swing – one of the first we’ve seen in France – a fab slide, a see-saw (which DD made alot of friends on) and plenty of shade. The other children seemed nice and DD had a great time with a few other children, mostly other girls, of the same sort of age. She protested every time she was told time was up and constantly wanted to go back and play, which is great – one of the reasons camping is a great holiday choice with children. (In a gite after a day spent trapsing around as a four it would be back to the house or apartment then TV, dinner and bed, most likely! Just like home.)

There were a few standard things you expect on a French site, like fresh bread or croissants in the morning (order the day before). The facilities were varying degrees of clean, depending on where you were on the site. The block opposite us was very clean and cleaned regularly, and there was plenty of hot water.

But it wasn’t just about the site. What about the area?

Orlu Nature Reserve

Although the campsite didn’t tick our boxes, the location was excellent. The village, Orlu, is in an area just outside Ax-les-Thermes called the Vallée d’Orlu and is a national nature reserve covering 4250 hectares. Access is restricted to those on foot: there are no roads through the reserve and no dogs allowed in order to protect wildlife. It’s soooo peaceful. To get there you drive down the valley passing through the villages of Orlu and Orgeix, until you come to the end.

Driving down the valley, it felt just like being back at Wales! Spooky but wonderfully familiar. At one point it’s eerily similar: there’s a bend in the road and a little stone bridge over the river that feels just one of the villages en route to Betws-Y-Coed from Llandudno. What a shame there wasn’t an equally Welsh-feeling campsite! What it is with all these sanitised sites?

Anyway, back to Orlu. When you get to the end of the valley road your choices are park up and walk or turn around and go back. If you’re lucky enough to have a motorhome you can park up and spend the night there.

From the car park onwards is a visitor centre (for next time) and some other activities and workshops, including an awesome looking AcroBranch (like GoApe in the UK but way better), some cafes.

Because we were only there for a couple of nights, we only popped up, essentially our reccie visit, and made a to-do list for another time. Things on my lists include the Le Maison des Loups (The House of Wolves) and a proper walk into the reserve beyond the forge, of which there are many. In the reserve proper (which is closed off to dogs) there’s plenty of wildlife, including marmottes. I’ve never seen one yet so that’s a definite Must Do. There’s also Le Sentier d’Arazet, a walk through a woodland path and musical installations. Of course you have to pay (details on their website) but it’s another on the to-do list as it looks fab.

In future-future (because it’s not advised with kids younger than five) I want us to walk to and spend the night at Refuge D’En Beys, which is 1970 metres up, in the heart of the reserve and high on the mountain. Maybe we’ll try it next year (well, one of them will be five.) I can’t wait!! Aside from those two things, there are tonnes of things to do around there. Tonnes of walks and plenty of cycling opportunities, once the two small are up to that (if they’re into that.)

So that was Orlu. Stunning.

Will we go back?

Despite the positives, I don’t think we’ll be going back to that particular campsite, which is a shame because the staff at the main office were really friendly and helpful and the kids had a great time. Perhaps if we visit again our of season – so not August – we’ll have a different experience?

We definitely want to go back to explore the nature reserve and surrounding area, so perhaps I can persuade James to give the campsite another go if we see it’s less busy another time. Most likely we’ll opt for another one. In such a wild place there must be a wild campsite for people like us!?

What’s weird about this whole trip though is that I don’t think I took a single photograph. Not one! In order to pep up this post I’ve use pics from original website and also some stock pics from Unsplash. Sorry folks – I’ll get my camera charged up for the next one!

What happened next?

Based on our experiences this time my new Find A Campsite criteria were dutifully extended to now include:

  • in the mountains
  • quiet
  • no cars
  • no dogs
  • plenty of shade
  • no static caravans

Is that even possible in France? You’ll have to wait until my next post to find out whether I managed it or not.

Spoiler: Of course I did!


Main image: Photo by Ian on Unsplash

 

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