Your guide to a pleasant drive from the U.K. – even with fussy little ones – and a delightful, budget camping adventure in the south of France.
There are many good reasons for taking a holiday in the south of France, but the 12-hour drive down from England is not one of them. However, over the course of our stay, new French friends and our German neighbors offered a number of coping strategies, including the one we adopted for the return trip — travel overnight.
We ate, late on our last night, in the Restaurant au Café de Fraises in Grimaud, a few kilometers inland from the newly built harbor at Port Grimaud, but already high in the Southern Alps. The town is an ancient and lovely ville fleurie, with restaurants from the basic bar tabac to very lush. (This is still the Côte D'Azur). Most towns have a number of fête days in the year and this was one of Grimaud's. From our table we could hear a trio playing Django Reinhard, and in the main square, over the boules area and under some plane trees, was a South American pipe and guitar band.
We left Grimaud at 10:15pm, and the boys were asleep by the time we hit the first AutoRoute. They woke properly at 7am the next morning, as the sun rose and we drove fast through the flat country with the little hills and the villages with churches where each yard was gained at tremendous cost during the Great War. The place names — Cambrais, Arras, Lens, Bethune — bring memories of the Soldier poets, and mud of the First World War battles of the Somme.
Advice from the Front Seat
On this sort of journey it is important to make sure that all passengers are comfortable, and can adjust their own temperature as required. Take plenty of snacks, and plenty of water, within reach of the driver. The passenger is in control of the back seat (of course), and should be prepared with teddies, blankets, and biscuits. There is no place for a hero as far as the driving is concerned. Keep to short shifts, stop and stretch regularly, take it easy. Even with frequent breaks, we made a very fast passage, and enjoyed a tranquil journey and breakfast in Calais (coffee or chocolate, juice, French bread and jam – the works). Contrast this with the diversion tactics on the way south: "Look, more combine harvesters!," "Here's a book!," "Ten minutes to the next dinosaur biscuit!," "What shall we sing next?," and "Aaarrrrgggghhh!"
The South of France We Love
We stopped this year in Cassis; this is the home of the alcoholic blackcurrant cordial. The dramatic les Calanques coastal cliffs are worth an explore. Take a boat from Cassis or drive to the area, but don't leave anything in your car. Later on, enjoy the stylish evening promenade along the harborfront. Then we camped at Le Pont d'Argens, just past St.Tropez and just before Frejus. Everyone loves St.Tropez for its pastel facades, narrow streets and the sheer amount of money on view (much of it floating in the harbor.) But there are prettier villages, on the coast and inland, and the traffic is always shocking, so we turned hard inland and lunched in the Gorge du Verdun – every inch a match for the Grand Canyon (as St.Trop is for Las Vegas.) Flowing between the ancient town of Castellane and the newly formed Lac de St.Croix, the river cuts through tree-lined valleys (up to 2,000-feet deep), and some marvelous bolted limestone — don't forget your rock boots and quick draws.
Family Camping à la Française
There are great campsites in France, and they bear no relation to the corners of fields where we have erected our tent in Britain. There are toilet blocks, they have hot showers and power, there are shops which will arrange local excursions or bicycle hire, and Madame la Proprietresse hosts welcome parties and puts on bands and boules tournaments.
Camping Le Pont d'Argens (Route Nationale 98, 83370 Frejus, St. Aygulf [phone] 33 4 94 51 14 97; [fax] 33 4 94 51 29 44) is a two-star camp and caravan site. The rating appears linked only to cost, not to facilities. At around 26 € (US$32) for our car and family of four per night, and with one of the nicest beaches around (only a 10-minute walk across fields and sand dunes), who's counting stars? The site is 70kms. from Cannes, 35kms. from St.Tropez and perhaps 45 minutes by car from Nice.
On the way into Frejus (two minutes by car, only a few more on roller skates or hired bicycle, using the cycle lanes) is an out-of-town Casino. This is the best sort of hypermarket, where we bought the necessities of life (often going under our kids' indecipherable pseudonyms – Ploppsies, Smoops, Sirtaki) as well as all the luxuries (real chocolate, mosquito-repelling candles, and loads of cheap wine) and then enjoyed paying for it on plastic. Hurrah! Beware, that in common with many smaller French towns, credit cards are not welcomed at most of these establishments. We made full use of the plentiful ATMs in banks and supermarkets to make direct account withdrawals in French Francs.
The sea front at Frejus is typically South-of-France-disgraceful — high rises, pavement cafes, and a beach that looks like an Antarctic seal colony but smells of coconut. Head for the centre ville instead, through massive crumbling city walls, and you are in a quiet and fascinating Roman market town founded by Julius Caesar himself. We ate at the local crêperie with the successful town football team, and drank cidre bouchée, the rough Normandy cider often served in china bowls. It's usually best to avoid eating in the market square (or other obvious attraction) unless you can afford to pay top dollar – the food will otherwise be very poor value for money.
Why We Return
On one evening a few years before in Cassis, a waitress carried our crying 2-year-old with her as she went about her work, while we ate our first civilized meal for days. We had to beat a hasty retreat when the boy filled his nappy, but the experience is typical, so we returned. You will travel to the South of France for the 'Sea & Sun'. You will return with memories of the hinterland. From Marseilles and the Carmargue east, the country is really just as Monet, van Gogh and Cézanne painted it, with fields of lavender, olive trees, tiny villages and churches perched high on cliffs and hillsides. And the cooking, from simple bouillabaisse or pizza au feu du bois, to the traditional Provençale olives, garlic, herbs and tomatoes. Mmmmm. If you are keen, you could look at Grasse (France's perfume capital, based on the lavender fields) or tour any of the (rather excellent) chateaux – those at Bandol are worth a look for the fine rosé wines. Look out for the villages — Villefranche sur mer (fishing port with unspoilt fortified village above) and Eze (just another perched village with pretty streets and stunning views) — and find local museums and galleries everywhere.
Our time with the French has renewed our enthusiasm for excursions en famille. Battered by years of British disapproval and partitioning, it is such a relief to go out in a country that loves children, tolerates their excesses, and soothes harassed parents. We will be back for more.
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