Camping in France: French without fears, apart from the shorts
Sun, civilisation and swimming -- what's not to like, asks Eilis O'Hanlon, especially if the locals just cover up a bit
IT'S not only Ireland that has a problem with bad roads. Practically the first thing I noticed after disembarking the boat in Brittany was the ominous clunk as I crossed the cattle grid. A clunk isn't a sound any driver likes to hear, as it tends to suggest that something has fallen off which should normally be attached. The same goes for clank, thwack, and kerplunk -- basically anything that ends in K. So it proved, meaning I spent the next few hours being flashed at by French drivers keen to let me know that my car was banjaxed.
"Je sais! Je sais!"
It was a pity, because the crossing from Ringaskiddy to Roscoff on Brittany Ferries had been as carefree and relaxing as ever. My young son hates sea travel with the passion of the most committed landlubber, but even he takes the journey in his stride. Drive on board in Cork, have a bite to eat in one of a number of restaurants, fit in some shopping, then settle down for the night in a comfortable cabin, ready for breakfast next morning in French waters: it couldn't be simpler. Well, until technology catches up with Star Trek-style teleportation, that is -- and would you trust it anyway? Things falling off the back end of your car is bad enough; bits dropping off you as you're beamed between destinations would be quite another. No, for now Brittany Ferries surely remains the easiest way to get to France...
Here I am, though, clunking and "je sais"-ing my way through the rolling countryside south of the Loire to the Vendee, an area you can't help loving for its historic resistance to the French Revolution. They refused for years to recognise Napoleon as rightful leader, and Karl Marx even used the word Vendee as a shorthand description for a "focus of persistent counter-revolutionary activity". Any place which annoys the Communists that much has to have plenty to offer -- even without the sights and scenes which greet the present-day visitor.
We were staying at a campsite near the sleepy seaside town of Longeville sur Mer. Camping Les Brunelles boasts all the usual facilities and attractions -- pools, bars, restaurants, a fitness centre, tennis courts -- and turns out, more pleasingly still, to be a delightfully French affair. Well, it's French anyway. Delightful is a matter of opinion. Personally, I thought it a welcome change to be surrounded by French holidaymakers rather than the hordes of Irish and British or Dutch tourists who flock en masse to France every year in search of sunshine.
Why go to another country, after all, if you don't want to immerse yourself in the experience? I could stay at home if I just wanted the familiar. Here you can go all day without hearing a word of English. Though, of course, that does mean putting up with peculiarly French idiosyncrasies, such as the fondness of their menfolk for wearing unflattering Speedos at the pool ("mon Dieu, messieurs, discover swimming shorts like the rest of civilisation before it's too late!") and their mad passion for fresh bread, which sees hordes of them swarming en masse in the direction of any faint smell of baking, before returning happily to their caravans laden down with more baguettes than any family could surely consume at one sitting without causing major flour-based internal injury.
Head out into the surrounding area, either behind the wheel or on two of them, cycling being particularly irresistible in such an undemanding landscape, and the same sense of being in the real France, rather than a tourist version laid on purely for the benefit of passing strangers with ready cash, overwhelms the senses. The landscape is as varied as it gets, from endless sand dunes and dramatic rocky headlands along the 140km of beaches to marshes and the archetypal inland "bocage" of gently hilly woodland and pasture, and dotted everywhere with typically charming villages, each caught in its own honey-stoned time warp.
There is apparently lots for the more energetic visitor to do as well, from sand-yachting to sea-kayaking, but I wouldn't know about that. The weather's way too deliciously balmy in this part of the world in summer for me to want to over-exert myself.
Still, children must be kept occupied, so it was off to explore some of the numerous attractions. We especially enjoyed the Chateau des Aventuriers, where the treasure trail kept us puzzling over riddles for an hour or two in wonderfully atmospheric historical surroundings, and the quirky zoo at Sables d'Olonne. True, the rudeness of the woman at Richard the Lionheart's castle, Chateau de Talmont, who initially refused to accept the complimentary tickets which had been given to me by the Vendee Tourist Office, and then repeatedly scowled at me resentfully after relenting and letting us in, was an experience I could have done without; but even that, in retrospect, has its charms. Until some dumpy peasant woman has made you feel one inch tall for having the audacity not to be French, you haven't lived.
One destination they're particularly proud of in the region is the Grand Parc du Puy du Fou, a theme park which has been vividly described as like the "Horrible Histories" come to life. There are Roman chariot races and Viking raids and a stunt-filled special effects-rich storming of a medieval castle. You could easily spend a whole holiday in the park and never be bored. On Friday and Saturday nights in summer, there's also a spectacular "son et lumiere" (sound and light) show, documenting the turbulent history of the Vendee down the ages.
Personally, I'm happiest lazily sitting with a glass of wine in the evening as the sun goes slowly down, pretending to be a local who knows nothing of Ireland's miserable winters, and trying to ignore the disconcerting suspicion that the car isn't going to hold together long enough to take me home again. Mind you, I could always just stay here indefinitely if that happens. There are worse fates. A week really is nowhere near enough.
FOR information on the vendee see www. vendee-tourisme.com For Brittany Ferries call (021) 427 7801 or visit www. brittanyferries.com. Book by January 31 and you will be able to save 15 per cent on the cost of an inclusive holiday booking.Travel from €70 per person one way, based on a car with four passengers in a fourberth cabin, subject to dates and availability.
Sunday Indo Living