A breath of French air

Camping in an `aire naturelle' offers good weather, plenty of space, friendly fellow campers and fun for all the family - except maybe disco-mad teenagers. By Mick Webb
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CAMPING IS great in theory; it's just the reality that's the problem. The promise of escape from the constraints of city life, and the allure of close encounters with nature, all fade away in the cold light of the campsite with its crowds, rules and noise - all the fun of a military base combined with the comfort levels of a shanty town.

That, at least, was my experience until I discovered aires naturelles, French campsites with the emphasis on a natural setting and spaciousness.

We (two adults and two children) found our aire more by luck than by judgement while driving through the Limousin region of central France on a hot summer afternoon. In-car tension was rising in proportion to the temperature when there appeared, mirage-like, a wood beside a shimmering lake, with a few tents, relaxed-looking holiday-makers and a faded sign asking prospective campers to address themselves to the local mairie. In fact the mairie soon came to us, in the form of a young woman on a mobilette who showed us to a vacant clearing, pointed out the small and perfectly concealed toilet facilities, and offered to deliver to us the local gastronomic speciality - potato pie. The tariff was 20 francs a night. We've been returning to the aire naturelle ever since.

One of the greatest attractions is the generous amount of space you get for tents, barbecues, bicycles, boats and all the other equipment that Continental campers manage to conjure from their vehicles. Individual pitches are indicated by discreet, white numbered boards, but the only obvious limits are provided by nature, in the form of oak trees, juniper bushes and the like. Not that this seems to lead to territorial disputes, but then I've never seen French campsites really crowded, even at the height of a warm summer, and this is down to its most challenging feature: lack of hot or even moderately warm water. Most of the time at our Limousin site, the lake was significantly more welcoming than the icy shower, though this problem has recently been solved by the invention of the eco- friendly solar shower - a large, strong black bag with a rudimentary shower attachment. You fill it with water, leave to simmer in the sun for a few hours, hang from an ancient oak branch, and bingo. But what if there's no sun, I hear you ask? Well, in that case you don't sweat and don't need to wash, do you?

If you want it to, the place really does function as a community, but in an ad hoc, unorganised way; children are safe and, as long as they're pre-disco age, happy. The night of our arrival we lost five-year-old Alec and eventually discovered him playing cards with a French family, and in no hurry to leave their canvas palace for our sad, ill-lit mini-dome. The aire is also quite a favourite with the Dutch, which is handy for us more linguistically challenged Europeans, as even their three-year- olds can hold their own in English.

During many visits to the aire naturelle we've become friendly with a cross-section of regulars, and going back there has become like a return to a well-loved local. In pitch No 16a under the birch trees we will find Emile the Parisian policeman, his wife Nicole and their dodgy dog, Titi. Titi will growl menacingly, and Emile will complain that this year the fishing is worse than it's ever been - hardly worth the bother of casting the line. But he will happily take Alec out for the day and they will return with a few perch, which will be carefully filleted by Nicole and turned into a delicious dish, preceded by various home-made aperitifs and helped down by wines from a mate of theirs in the nearby Cotes d'Auvergne. In fact this departement of France, the Creuse, is not gastronomically blessed. There are no vineyards, and the specialities are filling rather than mouth-watering.

The title gives a clue to what the Creuse is really famous for: builders. Most of its macons migrated to build the burgeoning Paris of the 19th century; what they left behind are some of France's most attractive and durable granite farmhouses, commandingly positioned on the tops of hills.

This is a part of France that's not all that popular with tourists, nor with its own residents; the Creuse is amongst France's most depopulated departements. But there's plenty for the visitor to enjoy, particularly if you like watery fun. Vassiviere is a 1,000-hectare expanse of lake with inlets, beaches, harbours and an enormous restaurant boat that prowls the lake, propelled by eerily silent electric motors, which terrifies windsurfers out of their wetsuits. The lake also has an island, technically speaking a presqu'ile ("almost island") with a splendid sculpture park. You can combine high and low culture by travelling out to view the avant- garde pieces on a Thomas the Tank engine style train.

The towns of the Creuse are small and homely; the best known is Aubusson. Its ancient tapestry-making industry was revived in the Thirties by Jean Lurcat, whose brilliantly coloured and politically committed works can be seen in the town's museum. This is a good refuge during a rainy spell, and if, as sometimes happens, the rain continues, the cities of Limoges and Clermont Ferrand are only an hour's drive away. Another entertaining wet-weather sport is to go to the estate agents and check out the maisons a vendre, which are still reasonably priced. Water-mills are among the properties most sought after by the Dutch and the few British who have spilled over from the nearby Dordogne. "What is the attraction of such places?" a farmer asked me in a village bar. "They were not built for living in. They are in damp places. They have no foundations. They are miles from anywhere ..."

Last year we paid another visit to the aire and, amazingly, the most prized pitch of all, No 2, right beside the lake, was vacant. So there we stayed, swimming, chatting, sitting out in the rays of the setting sun that turned the warmest of white wines into nectar. There was no trace of a cloud for 10 days and the fishing was, according to Emile, worse than anyone could possibly believe.

The woman from the mairie came to collect the money in a white van; the tariff was now 32 francs. But we did not complain.

There is no central number for aires naturelles but details are available from regional tourist offices. For information on these, contact the French Travel Centre, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0891 244123 - a premium- rate number).