France is possibly the most motorhome friendly country in Europe. There are so many officially provided Aires de Camping Cars to choose from that you could easily meander through the country, doing a few miles every couple of days and never get bored. Many of the Aires are free of charge or cost less than 5€ a night and service points often cost 2€ to fill up with 100 litres of fresh water, dump waste and empty and clean your loo. Roads are generally well kept and, with a little exploring, there is beauty around every corner. You can probably tell that we love France.
Motorhoming is a massively popular hobby here and small towns have recognised the value of providing stopovers in exchange for additional income for their shops, cafés and restaurants. As far as we’re concerned, it’s a win-win situation. Food in France is more expensive than other countries we have visited but overnight stays cost so little and the food quality is so good that we are more than happy with the deal. The only downside to this idyllic place is that, contrary to popular British belief, it can get very cold in winter, even in the South. If you’re planning a trip here we recommend spring and autumn. All the beauty without the crowds or extremes of temperature.
So we entered France with a spring in our step and a delightful sense of adventure. We have many favourite Aires but we decided to find some more to add to our list. Camper Contact is our favourite resource. For about £5 a year you get an app on your phone or tablet that shows you the nearest motorhome parking spots with reviews and details of charges and facilities. Set on the map option it gives you a real sense of where they are in relation to your current position so, if you find yourself tired or fed up of driving, you can easily find yourself a pleasant spot for the night.
We stayed at Moissac for six nights. It is our current favourite place to stay, set between the Tarn and the Canal du Midi and in a truly delightful town. We spent Easter there, enjoying our Easter Sunday lunch sitting outside, sharing a bottle of bubbly and enjoying the brilliant sunshine. We used the tripod and the delayed shutter setting to take our photo, noticing too late that I seemed to have grown a green beard. Too many salads obviously.
Moving on from Moissac we stopped off for a night at Cahors, the capital of the Lot region. It will be familiar to fans of Peter May’s novels as the place where Enzo McLeod, the expat Scottish forensic detective lives. I’ve looked for him but haven’t seen him yet.
This is a fascinating and historic town, surrounded on three sides by the meandering river Lot, giving it a feeling of being on an island. We have visited here before and love it. You can wander the narrow streets, visit a number of historic buildings if that’s your bag, stop in pavement cafés to watch the world go by or just breathe in the atmosphere.
There is a fascinating museum of the Resistance here that is worth a look, especially if you can read some French. On the streets, you can see the Scallop shells showing that Cahors is on one of the routes of the Camino de Compostella.
Cahors provides two motorhome aires, one being the overflow to the first one. The first one is on the river bank and is free for up to 72 hours, including water and waste. There are only three pitches so you are very lucky if you get one. We stayed on that aire on our first visit three years ago. It’s convenient, very pretty and very noisy. The second aire is 150 metres away in a car park tucked away up a narrow road. This one has no service point, no view and is quiet. This was where we stayed this time and we preferred it for the good night’s sleep. You can easily pop back to the service point if you need to and take a walk along the river bank during the day without having to endure traffic noise when you’re trying to sleep.
The next morning we moved just five miles along the banks of the Lot to the little town of Arcambal where we pulled in at the aire, used the service point and took the dogs for a walk. We then swept the van out, washed the floor and did some necessary shifting of random items that had mysteriously made their way out of their designated places and spread themselves around the van. Anyone who has a motorhome will be familiar with this strange phenomenon. Finally, after a grand breakfast, we set the satnav to the strangely named town of Lanouéjouls. Neither of us can remember why this place seemed like a good idea. We still don’t know. Arriving at the Aire de Camping Cars we found a sign telling us that we needed to go to one of four outlets to pay our 5€ and collect a plastic card that would let us in through the electronic entrance gate. I set off into the extremely tiny town to discover that the Boulangerie was closed for lunch, the Marie (mayor’s office) was only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 10 – 12 a.m. and then I was stumped because I’d only memorised the first two destinations on the list. I saw a small hotel with an Ouvert sign outside and headed in there. This place was taken directly from the set of ‘Allo ‘Allo after everyone had left to get on with their lives. The bar was deserted except for an old man in a flat cap drinking coffee. I could see a couple of people in an office but they displayed no signs of life. After a few minutes, the man in the flat cap suggested I knock on the door to the office. I did this and two people ignored me but a third, rather reluctantly, looked up from her desk and came over. I explained, in French might I add, what I needed and she smiled winningly, then dashed my hopes by saying that they didn’t keep the cards. She had to think who might be open at this strange time of mid-afternoon when the whole of the South of France goes into a coma but she eventually told me to go to the Tabac, at the other end of the small town, where I could get what I needed. Off I trotted, feeling quite delighted that I had managed an entire conversation in French and managed once more to convey my needs to the lady behind the bar in the Tabac, pay up and return to the motorhome just in time to stop Shirley calling out the Foreign Legion to report me missing without a trace.
The Aire at Lanouéjouls is purpose built with all services, including electric, and even a small toilet block for the use of the visitors. It has fine views of rolling hills and little else. If you want a quiet rest this is ideal. If like us, you enjoy visiting towns you didn’t know existed and maybe going for a coffee or a beer I would give it a miss. We went for a walk around the town, still in a coma two hours after our arrival, went back to the van and looked at one another. We passed the time playing cards and choosing our next stop then went to bed at a ludicrously early hour. I have been known to fantasise about living in a quiet corner of France. This experience has changed all that. The best thing that came out of that particular stopover was charged toothbrushes.
The next day we chose the little town of Massiac for our overnight stop. Reviews promised that the town had a bit of life and the motorhome parking was on the banks of the Allier River. Arriving there we found that the reviews were right, the parking was idyllic, the town reasonably interesting and we breathed a sigh of relief.
There was a supermarket to buy some provisions, some short but pleasant walks on the river bank and the inevitable entertainment of watching more and more motorhomes arrive and look on in dismay when they realise that the six provided parking spots are full. One of them even arrived after dark and seemed genuinely shocked that there was no space for him. We used a wedge to get us level on the river bank and then did a double and triple check that the handbrake was holding as we were only a short distance from the water. After a visit to Tourist Information the next morning we decided to move on again as the limited option of a three-hour trek up a hill to a small castle failed to thrill us. If you are fitter and/or younger than us you might like to try it but it looked like a steep walk for very little reward.
Next stop was Issoire. Other than the unfortunate name that must tempt every teenager to put a P in front of it on the welcome sign, this is a wonderful find. A smart area for motorhomes, each with their own parking spot, free services and a small supermarket less than 50 yards away gives you all the practical stuff and then a short walk brings you into the centre of the lovely town where you can enjoy all kinds of delights. We found an exhibition promoting local artists and craftspeople, including makers and repairers of musical instruments, jewellers and furniture restorers. It was entirely free to enter and we could make a little small talk with the artisans and admire their work. My personal favourite was Les Mains qui Sonnent, an artist who made tuned percussion out of old calor gas bottles.
I also enjoyed talking to a piano tuner and repairer, for old time’s sake. Shirley loved the work of an artist who created pieces from local lava stone and then enamelled it with intricate designs. We could imagine a piece in the garden of the house we haven’t bought yet but the weight, and probably the price, meant that it remained in our imagination.
After these cultural delights, we found an ice cream café and succumbed to a Dame Blanche and a coffee each. Just to add to the obvious signs that we don’t always manage to follow the healthy living plan for this trip, we also chose to have our Sunday Bunday on Saturday. Our perfect excuse for this fall from grace was the discovery of a wonderful patisserie on one of our dog walks and the absolute certainty that we would never find it again. We just had to grab the opportunity by the Religieuse.
Issoire is definitely our kind of place.
Improving our Lingo with Duolingo
Duolingo is a free online resource to help you learn a language. We used it in Portugal and Spain as absolute beginners and then, once we returned to France, discovered that you can take a test to see what level you should start at when you already have some knowledge of a language. We quickly discovered that some of the basics from schoolgirl French had been forgotten and were advised to do some revision. This was incredibly useful as the French classes we took in Edinburgh at the French Institute were more advanced, assuming a knowledge of the basics that we now realise was a bit vague. Since starting Duolingo we’ve been reminded of some useful stuff and some maybe not so useful. None of it so far has been new to us but we’ve had a few laughs. For instance, we were asked to translate this phrase – “Why is he washing his lemons?” We’ll leave it to you to work out when this phrase might be put to good use. So far we’ve drawn a blank.