What to look for when choosing a campsite in France

Before I came to France I’d never been camping. I came to it relatively late in life but I’ve had about five years of experience of camping with a tent, a mobile home and latterly with a campervan. I don’t like tents because there’s no thermal or acoustic insulation and they’re prone to be troubled by wind. Mobile homes have none of these problems but I wouldn’t want to buy one and I have found them to be expensive to rent. A campervan is a good compromise. I appreciate the flexibility, freedom and relative comfort you get with a campervan and the fact that the cost of an overnight stay is pretty cheap. Here are some of my suggestions for what makes an ideal campsite:

1) It’s got to be easy to find

On one of my first camping trips, my wife and I drove down to the Auvergne, to a campsite near Sarlat. After a very long motorway drive I was not ready to deal with finding the site, as it was hidden amongst a labyrinth of small roads. I was also unprepared for negotiating the final few kilometres up a steep, uphill, road full of blind bends. It was so narrow that each passing vehicle gave me a near-death experience. The site itself was beautiful but I’m still having counselling about the drive. No, forget about your hidden gems, your bijou pastoral Edens. I want a short drive along very big roads, full of helpful signs written in large friendly letters.

2) I want to park when I get there

My worst experience was arriving at a campsite in Houlgate in a campervan. It was impossible to turn around because the road was too narrow and someone had parked awkwardly by the entrance barrier. Parking was forbidden along both sides of the road. I had to go to the office and pay for a pitch before the owner would open the barrier and let me in. He then made me do an awkward uphill drive in reverse to the designated pitch. He stood in front of the van and kept giving me hand signals all the way. I had to restrain my impulse to signal back. I want a parking space close to the campsite entrance that’s big enough to park in properly and allows me to turn around and clear off if I don’t like the look of the site.

3) I want to be welcomed

Many years ago, when I studied marketing, I came across a concept called ‘customer delight’. This is something that is not translatable into French, it’s not the words as such. It’s just that the neuronal architecture of some site owners is not equipped to process the concept.

Top of my list of god-awful receptionists was a couple of girls doing a dual reception routine at a beachside campsite in Normandy. One appeared to be about 13 and the other about 18.  The older girl seemed to be there to supervise the younger one. It was the 13-year-old who was tasked with actually seeing people onto the premises. Post second-lockdown it was possible to pay for a €1 coffee with a card but there was a €30 minimum card limit at this campsite. When I queried this the senior receptionist went into scold-mode and told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had to pay in cash. She had something of the fanatic about her. I paid up. Then junior subjected me to a marketing questionnaire. The conversation went something like this:

“How did you find out about this site?”
“I’ve been here before.” I said.
“Did you find it by searching on the internet?”
“A recommendation by a friend or family member?”
“A recommendation by someone you don’t really like?”
“A press, radio, television, SMS, or social media advertisement?”
“It came to me in a dream.” I said and made my excuses and left.

Did anybody get the reception procedure right? Of course they did. My ‘best reception experience, albeit in unusual circumstances,’ moment came right after the end of the first lockdown. It was at a campsite in Ouistreham. As I approached the desk I was greeted by a woman smiling a smile so warm I could see it through her mask.

“I ought to give you une haie d’honneur” she said.

I smiled back, not having a clue what that meant. It turned out that I was her first post-lockdown client. When I looked it up later and found out that it’s some kind of group salutation. I appreciated the sentiment but I couldn’t figure out how she was going to do it on her own.

I went back to the same site a year later and met a different receptionist who was not quite as effusive but extremely welcoming. It can be done, there are good receptionists out there. I’m not looking for a profound emotional experience. I just want to be welcomed like a human being.

4) I want a nice spot and if it’s possible I’d like to choose it myself

I want a pitch that’s big enough to feel lonely in and close, but not too close, to a toilet block. I want a power point that’s easy to hook up to, a water point with a proper tap that I can turn on and off and proximity to a place where I can empty the chemical toilet. Grass, not sand, not mud and, definitely not, gravel. I want the pitch to be perfectly flat and I want it surrounded by high hedges, dense enough to stop a charging bull.

5) I want to meet people but not when I’m camping

I want as few fellow campers as possible. You can get some very odd people on campsites; those that try to talk to me and those that don’t want to talk to me. I don’t want people with children, especially when they bring them along camping. My pet hate though, is people with yappy dogs. This is because I’ve got one of my own. He’s all right when we arrive but after 45 minutes he begins to see the whole site as his territory. If a small bird lands on a nearby branch, if a fly lands on the toilet block roof or if a leaf trembles in the breeze, he will bark, whine and whinny until I give him a treat to shut him up. I think he knows how to game the system.

Meeting the locals is a different matter. By locals I mean the shopkeepers, market stallholders, barmen, waiters and ice cream sellers. They, for the most part, are welcoming. You may, however, run into someone who shouldn’t be doing what they do for a living.

At an ice cream parlour, a few years back we arrived, at a time of day, when business was pretty slow and we were the only customers. At first the owner was quite friendly and chatted to us. Then I said something I shouldn’t have. I told him I used to be a teacher. The conversation went on quite amiably until it emerged that I used to teach accounting. In his mind accounting equalled finance and finance meant capitalist greed. In particular the kind of capitalist greed that blights the life of cereal farmers. It turned out that our ice cream entrepreneur was a former cereal farmer who was now forced to work after retirement age to augment his pension of €900 a month. He kept going on about the price of wheat being set in Chicago and, basically, that it was all my fault. Fortunately, we had our dog with us. He finished our ice cream rapidly while holding the vendor at bay with an aggressive stare, giving the three of us time to make a run for it.

6) I want a beach

A beach is a wonderful place to go for a walk. There’s loads of space. There are no cyclists or people on electric scooters. There are few runners and the dogs you meet tend to be well behaved. You have to put up with scantily clothed people who are too old to be allowed to take off most of their clothes in public, but I just concentrate on the seascape and the skyscape. Dusk on a beach can be beautiful.

7) I want weather

I want weather that’s pleasant and unobtrusive. Sunshine, not too strong. Temperature, warm enough for a short-sleeved polo shirt and shorts and occasional refreshing breezes. No wind of any kind and gentle rain after nightfall to prevent people partying.

8) I want somewhere I can shop, have a drink, an ice cream or a snack

Actually, I’ve gone off ice cream. The main thing I want to shop for is alcohol. I don’t know how it happens but no matter how many bottles of wine, whiskey, brandy, calvados beer or gin I pack before departure we always run out of booze after a day or two. There’s no more miserable sensation in the world as being forced to drink a glass of tepid water for an apero. France, thank god, is crammed with places that sell alcohol. You must consume it though, in moderation.

Have I ever found my ideal campsite?

It doesn’t exist but I have come very close. The key notion here is best expressed by probably the three most beautiful words in the English language; ‘out of season’. July and August are the months for locking all the doors and standing by the front window, scowling at all those irritating people not out there working. I am very grateful that September has a habit of coming around quickly.

Philip Cahill is a retired accounting academic living in Caen, Normandy. In 2020 he published his first novel ‘Noystria’, an account of life in 26th century Normandy.

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