Its almost a week now since we returned from Southern France and I have been procrastinating over writing an entry. Why? Well mainly because there seemed so much to write about and rather than biting it off one step at a time I have been viewing it as a mountain that I wasn't really keen to climb - it's a habit I should kick.
We left Antwerp on a fine sunny morning towing a trailer filled with bikes and camping equipment. It wasn't until we encountered an unexpected queue at the border that I realised that I had left my drivers licence and passport behind. Anxious I was as I smiled at the French border control, but they were too busy doing a thorough examination of a car being driven by some young ruffians. The ring around Paris was as expected, nasty! Some people plan their journey to ensure they circumnavigate Paris in the wee hours, there is certainly some logic in this.
We arrived in Vierzon and found the leafy municipal camping that lies on the banks of a main river just outside of the centre of town - a good in between rest stop. Pity the river was too polluted to swim in. I must admit that the quality and apparent abundance of municipal camping grounds in France was a surprise. As we travelled further south we found many in quiet rural centres and they were typically empty and had good locations. I think if I was to travel again by car through Southern France I would combine stays at small private camping grounds with slabs of time open for staying and moving between those run by the municipalities.
The two camping grounds we stayed at were located nearby to the Tarn River on the borders of the Tarn and Aveyron regions in Southern France. If you want more info check out http://www.lafrance.co.uk/public_html/information/midipyrenees/tarn.htm Our first campsite, "the Groene Uitleg" is an unofficial privately run show managed by two friendly hippies named Jacques and Jeanette located just up the road from Trebas. Our camp site was located on the lower reaches of their property next to a small river. It was good to be able to light a fire again, for me it always defines an important moment in a camping trip. Sitting down, staring into the golden flames and regularly mumbling "I hate rabbits" in a futile attempt to send smoke in another direction was the perfect salve for the tensions that seem always to accompany trip preparations.
The first few days camping were marred by lots of rain and a 24hr stomach bug which grounded most of the kids and me. The reward came shortly afterwards when Jacques suggested a swimming/picnic spot at ruins of an old castle/chateau not far away.
It was the perfect spot and the dream of any adventurous boy. Apparently the chateau was burnt out by the Germans when they retreated in WW2 and it now is in ruins, semi-submerged in a lake. The exploration opportunities were dangerous and irresistible and we returned three times during our stay to enjoy the environs.
Walking the countryside around the Groene Uitleg and also the following camp site at Albuque was just divine. The small bitumen country roads were lined with old natural stone storehouses (mostly in ruins) and patchworks of green and gold fields. Many of the fields were linked with old unpaved roads which are now no more than paths. The hand built stone walls that defined these paths are now falling into decay, a legacy of modern farming techniques and equipment which have different access requirements. I was very pleased with myself at having ordered and purchased the 1:25:000 maps of all the areas we were in, they were invaluable during our wanderings.
Perhaps one of the big surprises for me was how quiet the area was. All of the local villages around where we stayed were filled with abandoned houses, many with for sale signs. My preconceived ideas of sipping pastisse in some lively little street cafes were quickly dashed - the villages were dead and it was mid summer. Missing most of all was youth, it has left, drawn by the allure of money and action in the big cities. Now only the elderly, die-hards and farmers remain. However for me, the abandoned villages still had an allure, the result no doubt of a cultural footprint dating back hundreds of years. My views of our common future lead me to believe that there will be, in the not too distant future, a reversal of this exodus and that these villages will one day fill with vibrancy again.
For anyone who is interested in walking through such country (and not sleeping in tents), Yvonne and Michelle (the hosts of the second camp site we stayed at) have teamed up with the owners of six other old local houses to offer an amazing walking trip http://www.franse-valleientocht.nl