I suppose it's time I came clean, I'm a cycletouring softie. Not for me nights camped in the desert,or trying to sleep in some South American cow shed. No I need to know I'm going to get a good meal and a shower at the end of the day. Now if you're going to combine this with lightweight camping there is only one place I can think of to go, and that's France. What follows is a guide that hopefully will help you survive a holiday and leave you hungry for more.
Everyone knows that France is the Mecca for cyclists, the home of The Tour, but it also has the finest range of cheap campsites in the World. At Breton Bikes I'm always getting E-mails from people wanting advice on how to cyclecamp in France, and my reply is usually to buy a campsite guide and set off, but for a bit more detail read on.
The French have long had a love affair with camping, the result is that most larger villages have a campsite that offers hot showers and a patch of grass to camp on. There are many larger sites, and swarms of them around tourist traps, but it is these "municipal" sites that allow a cyclist to cross any part of France and be sure of a campsite at the end of the day. As a rough guide you should find a site every 20 kms or less. They all have good basic facilities and are generally better for cyclists than the disco ridden four star establishments you get near the bigger tourist attractions. The other wonderful thing about these sites is that they are dirt cheap. A typical nights camping will cost between £1 and £2.50, the different prices having little to do with the standard of the site, being a reflection of the amount of subsidy the site gets from the local area. You see the French have the philosophy that the campsite may well lose money, but will bring people into the area to eat in restaurants and spend money in shops - oh! for such an enlightened policy elsewhere... There are two ways of finding these sites. On the Michelin 1:200000 scale maps, Michelin approved sites are marked with a white triangle in a black circle. These represent only about 20% of the sites, and the others are likely to be just as good. My personal advice would be to buy one of these maps in your home country so that you know a couple of sites to start your tour, and then go to a papershop (Maison de Presse) and buy a copy of the "Guide Official 2002 Camping Caravaning". This lists all the official sites in France, over 11000! Armed with this you can explore anywhere in France. There is however one fly in the ointment, many of these sites are open only in the French holiday season which is ridiculously short. You can generally reckon any site will be open between the beginning of July to the end of August, most are open between the 15th of June to 15th September, but outside these times it is essential to ring each site ahead to check if it is open. There is nothing worse than arriving at a campsite at the end of a hard day, only to find it closed and the nearest open one another 40 kms away - you have been warned...
There is a campsite guide on-line hereÖ
The French have a totally undeserved reputation for being rude and obstructive to tourists. This probably derives from the antics of waiters in some of the more touristy parts of Paris. As a cyclist you have a head start anyway, although the French think you are slightly mad to be carrying all your gear on your bike, they still respect you as fellow cyclists and treat you accordingly. It's odd that in a country where the national sport makes cyclists cover 200+ kms a day for weeks on end, they still consider cycling 40 kms with a loaded touring bike a great feat of endurance. To gain instant approbation from the crowd just ask one of them to pick up your bike... In many thousands of miles of touring in France, I've never had a bad moment with any French person, on the contrary they fall over themselves to help in any way they can,their most annoying habit being trying to give you directions even when they haven't a clue themselves.
CYCLING IN FRANCE
In France you drive and cycle on the right hand side! In fact, this is something you will get used to very quickly, the danger times being first thing in the morning, or any other time when you set off after a rest. The next thing you will probably notice is that the minor roads are very quiet, and what little traffic there is treats you with great respect. Often a car will sound a toot on its horn to warn you that it is approaching, this is a courtesy not a "get out of the way!" Road surfaces are generally good, but watch out for pot holes as they can cause punctures or worse.
The currency in France is the euro, One euro being worth about £0.80. The Euro is divided into 100 cents, the smallest coin being 5 cent. Banks are to be found in all small towns where you can cash Eurocheques or travellers cheques they are widely accepted though some banks are a little reluctant due to a high rate of forgery. If you have a Visa/Mastercard or similar it is possible to use that, even to withdraw money from a cash dispenser using your pin number. This is the cheapest way to withdraw small sums. Such a card can also be used in most restaurants and supermarkets as a cashcard, drawing money directly from your bank account. Some post offices will also cash Eurocheques. NOTE banks and post offices operate during normal shopping hours i.e. open 9.00am - 12.00 then 2.00 - 5.30 weekdays and Saturday, but not always on Monday. Many shops and supermarkets will stay open till later and some on Sunday mornings. In the South of France shops may stay closed till as late as 4.00pm, don't get caught out!
For shop hours see above. One of the pleasures of France is shopping for food. Bread, cakes, seafood and cold meats are all specialities and can be found in any small town. Supermarkets are fairly common and stock everything you might need, they are also a similar price to Britain. Small shops are generally more expensive but well stocked. Most campsites have a place to buy food and bread nearby.
Once in France the range and cheapness of restaurants will soon become apparent. Restaurants roughly divide into two types. The first and best value are the daytime restaurants found in most large villages which open between 12.00 and 2.00pm and which offer a fixed menu of 4 or 5 courses for around 10e including wine and service! These will fill you to the brim and are highly recommended. Donít expect haut- cuisine, just a lot of well prepared calories - easily enough to last all day! The evening restaurants are a little more expensive, but most offer a three course meal for around 11e + wine. Children are very welcome in all restaurants and many have a childrenís menu.
It has been said that France has more bars than people, and although this is a slight exaggeration it is hard to find even the tiniest village without one. These make wonderful watering holes for thirsty cyclists, and nobody minds how sweaty you are and children are very welcome. Beware the cost of soft drinks which are more expensive than beer. Most supermarkets and general stores sell wine, and it should be possible to get a perfectly drinkable red wine for about 1e (80p!) a bottle, they are also much better places to buy soft drinks. Donít believe the stories about French tap water, it is all drinkable unless otherwise marked.
France has just about every possible type of terrain, with the exception of deserts. Classic touring areas like the Loire and Dordogne are justly popular, but provided you avoid the larger cities all of France is ideal for a tour. If it's your first time then the ease of access to Normandy makes it ideal for an initial taste of what France has to offer. It has wonderful beaches, is steeped in history and inland it's countryside is as quiet and undisturbed as you could wish for. The important thing is to pack your phrase book and credit card and take the plunge...