Tag Archives: camping

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

 

Advertisements

First Family Camp in the Pyrénées-Orientales

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

A field, a tipi, and a wood burner: child-free, all-weather camping

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.

Scotland in May – Camping with DD: All smiles before a night of minus temperatures

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.)

Our favourite site: no neighbours and a “weather-proof” 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.

And so we ended up at Camping Lac du Vinca.

Our Campsite & the Surrounding Area

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.

Our Family Tent and Pitch

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.

A screenshot of a 5-star review with the title "Nice spot for a family camping trip"
My Trip Advisor Review of Camping Lac du Vinca in the Pyrenees Orientales

Disclaimer: This article contains affliate links, which pay a teeny amount of money to me if you click on the link and then make a purchase.

Summer Holiday Survival Guide 2018

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 large blue tunnel tent surrounded by tall conifers with camping chairs and stove on the ground outside
Our Family Tent: the HiGear Zanobia Elite 6
A yellow globe zucchini cut into three pieces
Sweet and Tasty: Homegrown Yellow Globe Courgette (Zucchini)
Four children looking down into container of water
Studying the day’s catch: a freshwater crayfish