Hiring a campervan in France
Words: Rachel Ifans Photos: Rachel Ifans & Lucy Shrimpton
It’s an inauspicious start to the trip: four tired teenagers on half-term holiday, one overtired grown-up on the cusp of a common cold, and me – excited and petrified in equal measure at the prospect of piloting a campervan for the very first time – all six metres of it, on the wrong side of the road.
In matching campervans hired from Indie Campers, my schoolfriend, Lucy, and I are embarking on a four-day family road trip deep in the south of France’s Vaucluse area, part of picture-postcard Provence, hoping we can inspire the kids to fall in love with France as we both did all those years ago.
Happily, after touching down at Marseille Provence Airport, initial trepidations quell significantly, thanks to Indie’s José, who gives us a clear-as-Dijon demo on everything from how to drive it, cook and sleep in it, and clean it out at the end of our trip.
By the time we reach Avignon, a mere hour north, the joy and ease of the open road in France – in all its cypress-tree, shuttered-farmhouse and almond-grove glory – has bolstered me to levels of confidence known only to ice road truckers!
Now, mention Avignon to any Frenchman and you can bet your bottom euro he’ll instantaneously burst into the famous French ditty Sur le Pont d’Avignon, and, while there are no keen teens today partaking in the accompanying traditional jig (“n’importe quoi”, they’ve learnt to say – “whatever!”) we are united in admiration for the beauty of Saint-Bénézet bridge itself.
We’re all ears, too. Not only at its backstory – only four arches of its original 22 now project into the mighty Rhône – but at the revelation that inhabiting these waters are moustached and mega-toothed fish measuring six metres long; yep, the length of our camper!
Definitely our cue to hotfoot it over to the city’s other crowd-puller, the Palace of the Popes, dominating the square of the same name.
Stopping briefly to join the French at what the French do best – al fresco café-culture with a pastis, Perrier or long and lemony Pac à l’eau – we gawp at the splendour of the world’s largest Gothic palace. With skateboarders doing stunts outside, it’s one of those glorious moments you see the past brush up against the present.
Already atmospheric enough with night beginning to fall, we opt to visit with the recommended virtual reality tablets, enabling us to pause at time-portal pitstops in each of the papal rooms, magically enhancing them to life and stunning the kids in the process.
Sampling the French culture
Us grown-ups have quickly sussed that the shortest route to getting the kids to try out the français they’ve learnt at school is to advise them that, if they want to eat, they’ll have to order it themselves. So, after spending the night at Camping Bagatelle, we pick up the croissants and pains au choc the kids ordered last night, grab two grand crème coffees for the road from the charming 1960s throwback on-site café, then head off in campervan convoy to the town of Orange, to visit the Théâtre Antique.
It’s one of many uber-impressive Roman sites (Nîmes, Pont du Gard, Van Gogh’s Arles, included) that you can tick off in the south of France, and it’s VR time again. This one, with a nifty headset to pique the kids’ curiosity for history by showing them the theatre exactly as it would have been at the heart of Roman antiquity.
The visit then leads us out into the amphitheatrical arena itself, where under the beady eye of the 3.5-metre tall Emperor Augustus, you can almost hear the Romans’ roar. The real interest is in the detail, of course. Did you know that the walls still bear the holes that the scenery and drapes were nailed to at the time, that the clever Roman alternative to factor 50 was to create a rippling roof of technicolour voiles, or that French folk actually lived inside this place until as late as the 1950s?
One of the challenges of family holidays is finding activities that meet young and old expectations alike, but we’re all high-five happy to visit the area’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards on e-bikes, starting at the Cellier des Princes winery in Courthézon.
After an it’d-be-rude-not-to dégustation [tasting] of the ambrosial rosé, where the kids are amused to see us using the crachoir [spittoon], we head off on a two-and-a-bit-hour free-wheeler around the quintessential vineyards (a map is available at the cellier for those au fait with their basic directional vocab: gauche, droite, pont, et al.) and it’s such a doddle with these e-bikes we conclude the ‘e’ must stand for easy.
After expending all that energy, we feel justified in ingesting a sweet treat or eight, so we crack on to the renowned Silvain nougat emporium in Saint-Didier (also a tea room and behind-the-scenes visit) to see how these little chunks of lavender-honey loveliness are made.
It’s quite something to discover that the brothers who founded this place took five years of experimentation until they’d perfected the taste. Boy oh boy, are the French sticklers for tradition, too. While us Brits now scoff once-seasonal things all year round (hot cross buns, I rest my case), the French will only ever eat one particular variety – the nougat noir – in December or January. It’s a real thing.
A feast for the senses - food in France
If a market is one of the first things you think of when you daydream about France, then L' isle-sur-la-Sorgue is what you should tap into your GPS, because, in addition to the regular bustling market, it’s a town well-known for its antique shops and vintage markets, so has the flavour of a year-round flea market. In this pretty place – like a mini Venice – there are also some special shopping opportunities, like a tea store selling wares with all the prowess of a prestigious perfumery, the sublime eighth-generation wool merchants, Brun de Vian-Tiran (our touch test reveals the softest is nothing less than camel’s-first-haircut), and patisseries galore, which are tourist attractions in themselves.
To further blow the senses, the lavender museum in Coustellet was also on our agenda. The geography and physiology that constitutes true lavender is all explained
to us, then our friendly guide shows us around the display space, sprinkling in plenty of anecdotes to hold the younger contingent’s interest (“These vats? They were used to make essential oil from lavender, but also used by the locals – on the quiet – to distil illegal booze. Until police shot holes in them that is.”).
There’s a craft day on, so the kids make a lavender sachet memento while the grown-ups buy some wellbeing goodies from the gift shop, in the hope that once home, the whiff alone will transport us right back to Provence…
Our final night is spent at a simple aire in the town of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse – an essential sightseeing spot renowned for the unique emerald hue of its waters. But, before we do so, we not only clock a fabulous riverside campsite for next time (La Coutelière: cycling, tennis, wild swimming, fishing and nearby canoeing – yes please!) but also treat ourselves to the €22 two-course formule at the family-friendly restaurant, La Pointe Noire.
Just one last morning to savour the French great outdoors lifestyle, and it’s with a resolve to return that we hand our cool campervans back to Indie Campers. High on joie-de-vivre (and lavender oil, probably), happier for the wonderful sense of perpetual motion that campervanning brings, we may just have inspired the next generation of e-van-gelists.
Top tips for a campervan holiday in France
Camping in France
If you do like to roam free in a nomadic way, stick to aires as they are a good all-year-round option instead of campsites. There are a few types of aire in France. An aire de service is a place where you can fill up and empty the vital facilities in your campervan. Found in motorway service stations and in towns, they are useful for facilities but are not places you’d want to stop overnight. The other type of aire is a secure place for campervans to pull up overnight. They are often run by the local council and have a bar/shop nearby for provisions. If you join Camping-Car Park (campingcarpark.com) you can use your card in a network of aires around France.
Another option is an app called Park4Night which you can download to your phone. Also try France Passion france-passion.com which is a network of winegrowers and farmers who are happy to let you pull up on their land overnight. The caveat with all this is that you need a campervan with shower and loo on board, as there won’t be facilities on site. Campsites include: Camping Bagatelle (campingbagatelle.com) and Camping La Coutelière (lacouteliere.com).
Prepare and plan your campervan holiday in France
Plan your route and book campsites ahead if you’re visiting outside of summer high season, as lots of sites close. In small towns, restaurants often shut for the winter, too, so check there’s somewhere to eat. Hungry campers are not happy campers. Finally, if you’re planning on al fresco dining at the campsite, pack a torch… we found ourselves eating in semi-darkness with only our phone torches for light!
The verdict on hiring a campervan
The Nomad campervans are great. They were easy to drive and use, and the customer service was personal and friendly. Both of our campervans were new, and very sturdy. We liked the fact that the essentials are provided so that air travellers can make do with a cabin bag only, too.
For Lucy, it was the first time she’d driven a campervan of any description. She says: “Before campervan pick-up, I was nervous about the size of the beast (nearly 6m) and the fact that I’d have to get used to not having a rear view mirror. In fact, I adapted easily as the side mirrors are huge and I got used to left-hand drive and driving on the right immediately. The roads are so much quieter in France, although I found the first few motorway tolls a bit hair-raising!”
For me, it was a breeze. Having recently sold our big motorhome, I found the driving easy and it was nice that it was small enough to be able to use as a day vehicle, too.
Indie Campers has over 50 depots across Europe and offers a range of eight different campervans and motorhomes, although some are only available in certain countries. Contact Indie Campers for more details