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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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