Camping in the South of France
Join Europeans on a Popular Mediterranean Vacation
Many flee the baked concrete of Paris in late summer for long days of exploring the vineyards of the Herault region, picnicking under the umbrella pines, and enjoying the cool breezes and beautiful beaches of the Mediterranean coast. They stay in second homes in the Provençal hillsides, in the beachside condominums that have sprouted along the Mediterranean coast, and, by the tens of thousands, they join their European neighbors in holiday camping resorts.
This past summer our family of five rented furnished mobile homes in two such resort campgrounds near Beziers, France. This was not camping U.S.-style: no burned hot dogs for dinner or “get close to nature” experiences. The campgrounds in the south of France are budget beach resorts, with all the conveniences of a small village: a grocery store, a bakery for daily croissants and baguettes, a fish market, a wine shop, a reasonably priced restaurant, a bar, a laundromat, two big swimming pools, bocce courts, and playgrounds.
Supervised children’s activities offered free of charge included volleyball, archery, pool games, and golf. There were also games and swimming lessons for smaller children.
French camping is like summer camp for the whole family. And you sleep on beds with real mattresses.
The free entertainment changes nightly--from a variety show full of Euopean pop hits, to musical skits put on by the camp employees, to karaoke, to a magic show. Hundreds of campers turn out, from teenagers to parents with toddlers. It’s a lively night life, and you can walk “home” afterwards.
Of course, the main attraction is the gentle Mediterranean sea. The beaches are sandy, the sea is clear and cold, and the sun is always hot. (We had one half-hour rain shower and a few scattered clouds during our two-week stay.) Most vacationers make a day of it, reading in the sun, collecting shells, flying kites, or walking along the beach.
For a family of Minnesotans craving hot weather, French cuisine, beautiful countryside, and historic towns, the Beziers region was ideal.
Beziers is 150 miles west of Marseilles, so this is not the tony French Riviera. Valras and Vias, the campgrounds we chose, are both within a one-hour drive of many historic sites and charming villages: the famous walled city of Carcassonne; Gruisson, a circular village dating to the Roman era; Sète and St. Guilhem-le-Désert, one a fishing town, the other a small mountain village centered around a tenth-century Benedictine church. Other visits could include a trip to the French water slide park, Aqualand, in nearby Cap D’Agde, the Roquefort cheese caves near Millau, one of the numerous wineries in the area, or a bike ride along the Canal du Midi. Rivers run through the nearby Cevannes mountains, creating gorges that are perfect for afternoon canoe trips. Valras and Vias are also only a two-or three-hour drive from the beautiful Provence cities of Avignon, Nimes, Arles, and Aix-en-Provence.
Planning Your Trip
Researching and planning a camping trip to southern France is not difficult. We made reservations in February for our trip in mid-August. A few of the smaller campgrounds in the area were already filled by then. To ensure the most choice, request brochures and price lists in early winter and reserve by January.
Because lots of British, Germans, and Dutch camp in southern France, nearly all campground staff speak English. In fact, English is the common language among Europeans who don’t speak French. Since email isn’t as common in France as in the U.S., we found phone calls or faxes to be most effective.
There are several ways to find information on French campgrounds: Check the Internet at www.campingfrance.com or www.eurocamp.co.uk, the homepage for Eurocamp, a British company that contracts with over 150 campgrounds in Europe to rent furnished tents, mostly to British vacationers. We used their web site and pictures in their catalog (which they will send you) to get more detailed information before choosing a campground. You can rent a mobile home or furnished tent through Eurocamp, but the cost is lower if you rent directly from the campground itself.
The Michelin Guide to Camping and Caravanning in France lists over 3,000 campgrounds, 1,000 of which rent furnished mobile homes, chalets, and bungalows. Pay particular attention to the symbols for the amount of shade at a campground (the sun can be relentlessly hot), recreational facilities, distance from the beach, and, of course, prices.
You can also call the campground directly to ask for specifics about amenities and prices. Have a list of questions ready. Little or no information will be volunteered.
What to Take When Camping
Very little extra equipment is needed for a French beach vacation. The mobile homes we rented came fully furnished, including a bathroom with shower, a full kitchen, and all necessary dishes and kitchen utensils. If you want to take advantage of the local markets, the kitchens are equipped for real French cooking.
You must, however, provide your own linens, including dish towels, bath towels, sheets, and pillow cases. Both campgrounds rent sheet sets per week. We brought polar fleece sleeping bags (the space these took up in our suitcases was space created by clothes we left at home, since we practically lived in our bathing suits).
Each site we rented came with a picnic table and umbrella, so we ate all but one or two meals outside. The weather was always sunny and there were no mosquitoes or flies—even after sundown!
Costs for this Mediterranean vacation were extremely reasonable (please note that costs may have increased with the Euro, so see websites above for current prices). Prices in June are even lower than for the last two weeks of August, since schools let out in France at the end of June.
Beach activities abound if you tire of lying in the sun. Our kids collected shells on the beach, played in the sand, and snorkeled. There are also jet skis to rent, paddle boats with slides off the back, catamarans, even beach umbrellas and chaise lounges.
As for the adults, all the things we love about France were there—historic sights, outdoor markets, great food and wine, beautiful countryside—with the added pleasures of being near the sea and avoiding high hotel prices.