Camping Trip to France and Spain September 2012:
Camping in France & Spain by Mairtin O Meara 2012.
It has almost been sixteen years since we had last prepared for a foreign camping trip. Our children are now all grown up and with four grand children we were considered daft taking off again on our own. Old camping trip lists had been forgotten or lost and we had to plan all over again. The plan! was to travel through France to the South of Spain staying in various camping sites on the way.
The camping checklist included: Camping gear, sleeping bags, cooker & 907 cylinder, table & chairs, cutlery crockery pots and pans, frying pan, pillows travel documents, maps, camera, lap top, mains extension lead, torch, clothes, towels, wash bags, suntan lotion, some medicines for the bad hip, Chemical toilet, fridge, a second camping gas cylinder, sleeping bags, some food, kettle, tea pot, tea bags, sugar, butter, crackers and some cereal.
The final day arrived so we set off for Rosslare and boarded the Johnathan Swift, the new Irish Ferries car ferry. The weather was beautiful and completely at odds to the appalling summer we had endured. Our first camping trip had been almost 40 years earlier and we had then boarded the original St Patrick with a dodgy Ford Anglia a “Pouch” frame tent and hardly any money. Times had changed somewhat. The new ship is a dream and extremely comfortable. The restaurants on board are both varied and excellent. The Staff are surprisingly friendly and courteous. Our cabin was on an upper deck and as a treat I had booked a sea view. Posh! After an on board shower we had a meal in the restaurant and then slept until we had almost landed in Roscoff.
Early the second morning while still on the ferry I had a look at the map to see where we were going to go. At this time of the year there would be no need to book a camp site. France from experience is full of camping sites and if there was an emergency I felt certain we would have no problem getting a reasonable hotel.
From speaking with a Spanish friend earlier in the year about what I was planning he advised me as follows. San Sebastian on the coast near Biarritz is very nice. In Bilbao there is the Guggenheim museum. Burgos is nice and has a nice new cathedral. Madrid is huge four million people and difficult to drive around he advised. In between there is Lerma and he advised eating lamb here. If I got caught out the “Parador Hotel chain” was very good. Central Spain he thought was not very interesting! If I was interested there was the Pilgrim road. Pamplona, Logrona, Burgos, Leon and up to Santiago (800 km) and I was told that people walked it in 30 days. This trip followed by a return trip along the northern Spanish coast line from Santiago would be a nice two week trip on its own. If going south I was to follow the A4 from Madrid to Malaga until you get to Bailent which is about 300km. Take Jaen Granada where there is a lovely Palace then on to Malaga.
Going back I had planned to follow the coast up to Barcelona then to Perpignan on to the Costa Brava which I was told was very nice and back in to France.
Day One Saturday September 15th:
Our first day in France brought its own drama when we had a puncture on a minor road not far from Roscoff. It did not take too long to change the wheel however getting a replacement tyre took a bit of doing. The first garage we called to did not have the correct size tyre and gave us an address to another garage a few kilometres away. The second garage on a Saturday was closed from 12-2 pm. It was 3 pm before we were back on the road.
From there we headed for Rennes and towards St. Nazaire. As evening was falling we decide to pull off the road to the first camp site we came across. It was near Redon and off the main road. The site was tiny a Municipal 2 star site with clean toilets a coin operated Douche = shower and a place to wash dishes with hot water on tap. Later that evening the lady called to collect the fee for the night. Two adults, one Trailer Tent, 2 shower tokens plus connection to electricity cost €8.50! Into Redon having firstly wisely saved the Sat Nav coordinates to favourites and without which we would still be driving the rural back roads. On the way to Redon we passed the most beautiful lake and Redon had wonderful boats in its tidal waters. The tiny site we stayed on had its own natural wonders all around it. That night I was amazed at how clear the stars were and how little I knew about them. Something new for my “To do” list! The “on site” toilet sounded like Fianna Fail and co-location and the shower was basic but effective with a push button start but no warning as to when it would stop, and it did, abruptly. The shower did give about five minutes of hot water and it was plenty to clean up under.
Day Two: Sunday September 16th.
The second day started at about nine am and we took off for St Nazaire. The west coast of France has a huge number of camp sites all the way down the coast. Many years ago O Meara Camping had couriers and camping operations from Carnac down to Ile d’ Oleron. Names that might strike you are La Baule, La Rochelle, St Jean De Monts, and Royan etc. Crossing the St Nazaire Bridge is an experience in itself and well worth the effort. The weather was magnificent and the bridge is an engineering masterpiece. It is remarkable how the roofs of the houses change colour once you cross the bridge.
In any event we headed for Ile d’ Oleron and after checking on the phone got the name of the site “Les Gros Joncs” where some thirty years ago O Meara camping ran a sited tent holiday similar to Keycamp or Eurocamp. As it was late and we had not found the site we pulled in to Camping Les Seulieres owned and run by a Dutch English speaking couple who had twice toured around Ireland. The site which is only 300 metres from the beach cost €20 for the pitch and electricity. Showers were free and the site had a number of touring units on it from Germany and Holland. For touring traffic the site had everything but for families with children it dod not have a pool.
One of two things I noticed on the Road today was the number of 2 berth Camping cars or Motor Homes. Elderly French people take out second mortgages to purchase these extravagant motor Homes and then park up in areas assigned to them that I am not particularly fond of. Perhaps it is a Trend! I was camped most nights beside one of these units whereas years ago it would have been a caravan or a trailer tent. The second thing I noticed was how well behaved young presumably French children are as they eat out with their parents. I was impressed.
The Island of Oleron is an interesting place to visit and has plenty of camping sites. The Island is located at the mouth of the Charente River and is the second largest island of the French coast after Corsica. The island has a wonderful climate and has 18,000 inhabitants hugely boosted by the number of visitors each summer. It seems the island came in to existence some 7000 years ago when part of the continent broke off from the mainland. The Romans camped on the island for more than 400 years. The island is famous for its oysters and for salt.
Day 3 Monday September 17th.
We left “Oleron” with regret as really it was a lovely site and the island had a lovely feel to it. I set the sat nav. for Bordeaux and set off. For the first time we travelled on auto route and the high average speed meant we covered ground very quickly. I wanted to finish the day on a site like the site we had years before in Arcachon so I pulled off the motorway south of Bordeaux heading for the coast. I had planned to go to a 3 star site on the Atlantic coast but ended up in a 5 star. The site is called Le Vieux Port and is used by Keycamp, Eurocamp, Euro sites, Trigano and up to half a dozen other site operators. The site has an amazing amount of facilities including its own shop but it lacks intimacy. There were mobiles from O Hara and Rapido but almost no touring traffic that gives a site its sense of place. The sea was 800 metres away but I must be getting old! The sea was magnificent and just as I had remembered it, beautiful but dangerous. The dunes and beach are magnificent here but care is necessary. The site has its own pools and yes there are a number of pools both indoor and outdoor and also a separate spa area. The site has swimming pool, slides, deck chairs etc yet amazingly both of us agreed we would prefer the two star camping site in Oleron. This site is not a touring site. Nobody made us feel welcome either at check in or on the pitch. The site only cost €23.50 a price I was surprised by considering the facilities on offer.
The site web site is www.natureetloisirs.fr
Day 4 Tuesday September 18th.
We drove from the French coast to Spain which was only 80km distance away. The road infrastructure is now so good that it is seamless driving between the two countries. Spain is a mixture of rich and poor tidy and dirty. The drive from France was pleasant passing from mainly woodland in France to Sunflower fields followed by I think grain and finally vines in Spain. We arrived north of Madrid at a site called Camping Costa Jan N 41 42 11 9 W 03 41 018 a real touring site where we were served a beautiful meal that night. The site is a touring site but was extremely quiet and only a few Dutch and Germans for company. The entire journey was about 400km and there are tolls along the way as you pass through the Pyrenees. I thought the tolls were for the quick passage a small price to pay on a once off basis.
The camping site has plenty of showers and toilets and washing up locations and also has its own swimming pool. The site is also open 11 months of the year and is signposted off the main road fortunately as I was unable to properly use a sat nav. coordinates.
Day 5 Wednesday September 19th.
This days driving towards Madrid and around it on the M50 motorway, the only difference in the M50 in Spain is it is built a good few miles out unlike ours which was out of date within 2 years and needed millions to fix! Someone must have made money on that project. I was surprised driving around Madrid to see a shanty town. Spain does not look that prosperous just observing from the road.
After about 430 km we arrived at Camping Despensaperros at Santa Elena which is located on a natural park. Some battle took place here around 1200 odd between the Christians and the Muslims. The battle was serious enough so worth reading further if you have a mind to Google it. The site is a touring site and the cost for pitch, unit, and electricity was €22.20. In season there is a swimming pool on site that was covered over when we were there and also a beautiful drive up in to the mountains you just have to be careful not to go back on the motorway. This site is the first site I was caught out on as it used the 2 pin electrical connection system. I borrowed a mains conversion unit that gave me electricity a fridge lights etc. The temperature was 31 degrees in late September so you need a fridge and plenty of shade. 12 volt coolers that are sold as fridges are not worth a curse in this temperature as the cooling only reduces the temperature by 20 odd degrees,.
Day 6 Thursday September 20th.
Today’s drive brought us only 150km down to the Sierra Nevada range of mountains just outside Granada. The mountain roads in the Sierra’s have to be driven to be appreciated. The sat nav. took me almost to the top following co ordinates for a camping site. I obviously don’t know how to use a sat nav. properly. What with learning how to use desk top, lap top, I phone, ordinary phone, digital camera, sat nav. .......I am exhausted. Sat Nav works well when you cod it. Send it off to some city in the distance with some arbitrary address and soon you have a companion to help you on your way. After much adventure we found a site up in the mountains at a cost of €22.50 for the night. Pitch, electricity 2 adults etc. The site was a 2 star site hewn out of the mountain and even boasted a small swimming pool. The site was extremely steep and the pitches were small. The site is right on the edge of the natural park. We had a meal that night and were served a plate of chicken, no vegetables or potatoes and it was delicious.
Day 7 Friday September 21st.
A shorter but mountain visually stimulating journey to Malaga was all it took and we finally arrived at our destination for a few days. Just the trip back has to be planned now. The options are to retrace a similar route or to go the coastal side of Spain and follow the coast from Barcelona to France. The decision on routes over long distances needs to be looked at with roads and mountains in the picture. If time is of the essence then the flatter journey is the quicker usually. Where borders are crossed and the motorway connection on both sides is also important. I have been advised that if going to Barcelona the quicker route is via Madrid!
Late September saw Spain hit with a mighty storm. I thought very little about the storm but decided on the return journey late in the day on September the 29th. I decided to follow the route from Malaga to Granada and then on to Alicante. I had not reckoned with the storms. Hopefully I will be able to show you some pictures taken with a mobile phone. It was like driving through a war zone. The motorway was closed and we were diverted for about 1 hour via small villages and local roads. The devastation was everywhere. There was even one shed with mud covering the roof. At the stage that I arrived the water had receded but the effects were everywhere to be seen.
It was dark when we got to Benidorm after about 500km of driving and there was no sign of a camping site. From my map of Spain I knew that there were many sites north of Benidorm. I had also planned to avoid the bigger urban centres and find a place close to the coast. The beauty of Freedom Touring is that you find unusual places usually easily enough.
The site we found was found in the dark, Camping Cap Blanch 5 km from Benidorm and 2 km from Altea and 10 metres from the beach! www.camping-capblanch.com The site cost €28.50 for the night including electricity. Discounts apply if you stay longer and the site is open all year. Stay 42-89 nights and that price comes down to €14.25 per night even less if you stay longer. Location in the site is also important as it is near a road and motor cycles tended to be very noisy. The toilet block was spotless but you needed to bring your own loo paper! The absence of loo paper is common in Spain. The site was full of expensive Dutch Motor Homes some parked up on ramps to level them and maybe a bit of posing was going on as to who had the most elaborate outfit! Camping was never like that. We were able to get a meal at 10pm and then settled in for the night. I could not hook up to electricity as I did not have a 2 pin adaptor. I only had a battery light and a charged lap top battery to keep me going. This site was chosen completely at random.
September 30th. The second day of the return started at 09-30 after a shower and quick breakfast and a look around the site. The entrance to the site we were leaving was directly opposite the sea yet I never got to try it out. Driving about 500 km on motorway brought us the French side of Barcelona. Motorway driving through the mountains is the only way to cover distance and we managed to average 100km per hour. Notwithstanding this average with pit stops the journey took us most of the day when you factor in time driving nowhere looking for a site in the evening. Two full days driving to get from Malaga to north of Barcelona.
Spain on the Mediterranean coast is much more fertile than what I had seen driving down through the centre or indeed driving back up from Malaga. Unfortunately all attempts to get to a camping site on the coast were thwarted by a cycle race that had the coastal route closed off to motorized traffic. Sites in Spain are difficult to locate and the sign posting is almost nonexistent. Sat Nav. Coordinates are a great help. Eventually we abandoned looking close to Barcelona and headed north to the end of the motorway to Malgrat De Mar really a dead end and made our way down to the sea. Sites were in abundance here. I chose the first site in a row as I was tired and needed to get in eat and rest. I checked in as usual and was staggered as the site with most of its facilities closed down cost €39.40 by far the dearest site so far. The electricity again would not work as it needed a 2 pin adaptor which I was able to borrow. The site boasted a beautiful swimming pool and the sea at the front door. Most of the accommodation on site was small caravans with awnings used by Spanish people who come out from Barcelona and seem to sort of live there. The weather had been so bad that any touring traffic was gone. The site is called Camping El Pla De Mar or www.elplademar.com and their charges are €8.10 per adult, €8.10 for tent/caravan, €8.10 for a car and €7.00 for electricity. I would not recommend this site unless the price was negotiated in advance. The location and natural beauty are fantastic especially as you can walk directly on to a magnificent beach. The showers and sanitary block were immaculate and there was no shortage of hot water.
October 1st day three: I could not resist having a drive on the Costa Brava that I had driven through almost 40 years before.Then I was driving a ford Anglia! I obviously did not remember the roads and you would want to be a mountain goat to feel safe on them. A narrow winding road with a steep drop on the sea side is what you enjoy or endure on this drive. Driving from Spain in to France this way and passing the old border post makes you realise how much things have changed in those 40 odd years. The drive is a must and would be magnificent on a motor bike but that’s for another day. The coastal drive added hours to the journey but I would have hated to have missed the trip. After a 400km drive we were between Toulouse and Bordeaux so we decided to take pot luck and turn off the motorway at Agen. As we drove in towards the town the Dordogne River was on our left hand side with a spectacular bridge going over it carrying the “Canal.” Sure enough we picked up a sign for Camping Le Moulin de Mellet. We followed the signs for the site and came across a family run delightful rural camping site with a little animal farm at the entrance. For the first time I was greeted with a firm hand shake and for €18.50 we were in for the night electricity included. The site boasts a swimming pool that was closed down but the shower and toilet areas were spotless and the site had a lovely feel to it. In summer time there is both a restaurant and small shop on site both were however closed and we had to drive in to Agen for a meal. The following morning was bright but there was crispness to the weather. Our next door neighbour was breaking camp and travelling on his own with a bicycle and single wheel trailer.
October 2nd day four:
Today’s journey was 440km odd and brought us through the rich vine yards of France from Agen up towards Bergerac and beyond through the Dordogne region. The land has at all times looked well cultivated and tilled unlike Spain. For lunch we left the main road near Poitiers and drove in to a small real French village for lunch. The tiny Cafe was full and for less than €13 each we had a starter that was lovely (I don’t know what it was) followed by steak and chips, followed by cheese, followed by ice cream and finished off with coffee. A large bottle of ordinary drinking water was supplied without us asking. The village is called “Donzenac” and the Cafe Des Sports is worth a visit. All shops were closed when we came out. For siesta I presume.
As each Camping site was chosen at random we had 2 experiences in the one evening. The first experience as we came in to a town we followed the signs for a 3 star municipal site. We followed the streets as they swept through the town only to finally arrive at a site that was Ferme, Closed, yet nothing on the many signs placed by the local authority to tell you that. Nothing for it then but to follow the signs for Tours and swing off the motorway to a smaller town called Chatellerault. The site was signposted off the ring road and we duly followed and booked in to an almost brand new site with pristine toilet and shower block. The price for the night was €10.55 at Camping De Chatellerault 86100 Vienne. The downside to the price was trains ran next to the site and it had a number of brand new caravans and brand new cars beside the vans. In addition to the working vans there were also 2 brand new sports cars a Mercedes and a BMW. Fortunately at the time of typing the trains seemed to have stopped and we have the soft falling of rain. We are indeed getting further north each day.
October 3rd day five of return journey:
All things must come to an end so we travelled on motorways from south of Tours to Bayeux north of Caen a distance of just under 400km in just over four hours. If you need to make time the only way is by high safe average speed on the motorway. Bayeux is famous for the Bayeux tapestry that tells the story of William Duke of Normandy who wanted to become king of England. The tapestry is fashioned in almost 70 metre long piece of linen and depicts more than 600 embroidered people, 200 horses, forty or so ships and hundreds of animals and mythological figures.
In Bayeux we booked in to the Municipal camping site Camping Des Bords De L’Aure www.camping-bayeux.fr open from April 6 –November 4. The site has electricity clean shower and toilet area and there is direct free access to a municipal swimming pool. The site is also adjacent to a McDonalds and a supermarket and is within walking distance (500 metres) of the town centre. The site was adorned with beautiful flowers in full bloom in early October! The Bayeux site also has internet access and is about 30 minutes walking distance from the Normandy museum. This museum is a collection of weapons and machinery but my interest lay mainly with the huge range of colour photographs on display. Each museum I suppose is unique but I think this is worth a visit. Be careful it was closed between 12-2pm. The town centre had a 14th century house the oldest in Bayeux also worth a look.
In Bayeux we were met by our first real rain but that was I suppose inevitable at some stage. I had intended to camp in Arromanches on the coast but I was afraid that the site there might be closed. There were a lovely young Dutch couple camping in the rain in Bayeux in one of the new trendy quick erect cheap dome tents. I felt sorry for them. The wrong equipment or the wrong choice of tent or even expecting too much from a cheap tent can spell disaster. They just about survived the night.
As soon as we were set up I took off for Arromanches and the D Day landing area. The site in Arromanches was open and on inspection as nice as the last time I stayed in it some 20 years ago. It is also a municipal site. The Arromanches site is within easy walking distance of the beach and of course the place is steeped in history. The cost based on 2012 prices the same as in all the sites in this blog would cost just short of €20 which is unbelievable value when you consider where it is located. It is a must see area. Driving around I came across at least five more sites in the same area.
Close by just a few miles up the coast is Omaha Beach the famous landing beach used by the Americans and also some British commando's in June 1944 which lead to the liberation of Europe.
Nearby is the American grave yard made even more famous in the film “Saving Private Ryan” Both the graveyard and Omaha beach are must see areas. Small localised museums are also worth visiting. One fact that I thought put things in perspective was that “It took several companies until the 1950’s to remove the 150,000 tonnes of scrap metal that were the remains of the artificial harbour”
The Normandy area is an amazing place and for children and adults alike an education in history that cannot be surpassed. Here you can visit landing areas with the names Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, Utah and also Pointe du Hoc where the Germans had built a powerful artillery battery. The guns that the Germans’ used here were made in France, 1916 models, that weighed 14 tonnes each and with a range of 14 miles. On one of the earlier gun emplacement areas I saw where the guns used were made by Skoda.
October 4th day five of return journey:
Whilst in the Normandy museum I came across a brochure for Musee Airborne Saint-Marie-Eglise the first town to have been liberated on the night of the 5th-6th June 1944. This little village is on the way to Cherbourg and worth a detour for a while. There are two separate buildings in the museum and in one there is a C47 Dakota plane that actually dropped paratroopers in the area and towed gliders on the 6th June 1944. The second building houses s genuine Waco glider with mannequin soldiers inside to show how it was done. The glider is more canvas than anything else! This area was in the U.S. sector of Utah beach. It is here that John Steele landed by parachute and was tangled up on the church steeple. This event is featured in Daryl Zanuck’s film The Longest day.
On the way to the museum we stopped a little late at Osmanville for midday lunch at a Les Routiers restaurant. Perhaps because much of the starters were gone we got a reduce rate? However starters, main course, desert for two and one coffee cost €23.00.Before I forget I have to tell you that the cost of the camping site in Bayeux was €17.59. Cherbourg is only 100km from Bayeux and connected by dual carriageway.
The entire trip was 5571km probably because I detoured so much. All the sites were different and all were chosen at random and sometimes late in the evening. All the sites had good washing and shower facilities. Camping is still the way to travel in France especially in touristic regions even in September October. Normandy must have a hundred camping sites. Camping is but a means to an end.
I intend to publish this trip on the web and perhaps get people to think again about their holiday choices. On this trip the range and diversity of experiences could never be replicated on an organised holiday. Get your own tent, trailer tent, caravan even motor home or as they call them in France “Camping Cars” and enjoy a holiday that is really different.
Camping on the Costa del Sol:
Firstly Spain has plenty of camping sites close to the coast literally hundreds. Inland sites become a bit scarcer. The Cost Brava has numerous sites as does the entire Mediterranean coast all the way down to Estepona where O Meara Camping ran an “Air Camping holiday” in the 1970’s.
Camping Los Jarales is a typical southern Spanish coastal site. This particular site is between Fuengirola and Marbella and for an ordinary site it has a raft of facilities. It boasts a supermarket, electricity, swimming pool, crazy golf, restaurant, 50 metres to the bus stop, gas, laundry, parking, internet access, bar, cafe etc. The camping site can be accessed off the main road. Camping Marbella Playa is in the same general area and boasts much of the above without the swimming pool but right beside the beach! Both sites have restaurants on site as well as all the other necessary facilities. Both sites are large and shaded as indeed even in late September shade was needed. Long term users and there are many give the sites an untidy look as people struggle to get shade with whatever is at their disposal. Some of the pitches with expensive motor homes or caravans were covered with tarpaulins or gazebos to give protection from the sun. Electricity costs €4.25 for 10 amps and €7.30 for 20 amps per day. The 20 amp load presumably would allow you to run an air conditioning unit! The minimum pitch price in Camping Marbella is €28.55 in high season. There were not many campers using tents at this time of year but there were some. I noticed a few family dome tents, a frame tent, a 20 year old trailer tent, some smaller dome tents and a Rapido folding caravan, all units that O Meara Camping have stocked. A discount of between 20%-50% was given for stays over 15 or 30 days outside of peak season.
Driving: The standard of driving was terrific. Signposting was excellent. France has higher motorway speeds 130km with 110km in the rain which is sensible. Speed limits in villages are kept tight to the village again unlike Ireland where the limit is way outside the towns (for planning only reasons I am advised). France also has a higher 70km speed limit and I reckon if we changed most of our 60km to 70km we would have better driving. On a 4000kn journey I did not SEE a single speed trap neither did I see any excessive speeding. I did experience high continuous motorway speeds. In some villages the speed limit in the centre comes down to 30km with a flashing 30km speed limit but only for a very short duration unlike the entire quays in Dublin. At no stage did I not know what the speed limit was, unlike Ireland where it is simple to unintentionally break a speed limit, where there are so many variable limits even on the same road, with no obvious reason. Cameras on French motorways are announced! and you’re a fool if you are caught and reduced limits are obviously necessary for safe driving not just a limit for limits sake.
If anything the standard of service and cleanliness has improved. The staff on board was at all times cheerful and helpful. Food on board is still very expensive in the main restaurant but there is a terrific Cafeteria area. Lunch in the cafeteria saw us getting fish and chips that were as good as any we had eaten anywhere. The Oscar Wilde ship, the cabins and the journey are part of what makes the adventure complete. Irish Ferries have really competitive rates if you can travel out of high season. There is none of the silly baggage rules and awful queuing both ordinary and priority that Ryanair use. Car travels with whatever is inside without question. Not been asked to put your bag in to a metal container to see if it will fit or can more money be extracted from you. Irish Ferries even give you a sticker for your hand luggage as you leave your car so you can easily return to the same place.