Travel: French canvas

Camping may call to mind monotonous food and forced jollity, but Barbara Bleiman saw a different picture from a tent in the Auvergne
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The Independent Online
Every year it's been up there on our list of possible holiday options. Every year we've found some excuse to avoid it - children too young, too much of an investment in equipment, too much noise, too many other people, too little of the pampering we feel we've earned.

Last year, for some crazy reason, we decided to go for it. Well, perhaps "go for it" is putting it a bit strongly. Serious camping would have meant committing ourselves for the whole two weeks, buying a giant frame tent with an awning, a two-ring gas cooker, a little fridge, camp beds, electric lighting and a trailer to put it all into. Our version of going for it involved one trip to a camping shop to buy a big dome tent and two extra sleeping bags, and a quick rummage around the cellar to find the ancient gas camping stove that we took hitching round Greece 25 years ago. We couldn't quite bring ourselves to risk everything so we planned it as a little experiment: just three nights, sandwiched between stopovers with friends and bookings in hotels in France.

The children, now eight and 11, were full of optimism. Even an abortive trial night in the garden did not dampen their spirits - 10 minutes of rain and a clap of thunder had been enough to bring them back inside. Sitting in our friend's cosy, watertight house near Montreuil on the last night of our stopover and watching blankets of rain shooting down off the roof, I knew why we hadn't ever chosen a camping holiday before. Yet as we set off next morning, heading south towards the Auvergne, the storm clouds cleared and thoughts of fresh air and the great outdoors banished the gloom.

We had booked into a four-star site in Murol, a village near the lake of Chambon. It is a stunningly beautiful area, with plate-glass lakes, soaring mountains and swaths of green meadows.

On the campsite we were greeted with great gentillesse. A pathetically poorly phrased request for a quiet emplacement with beaucoup d'ombre resulted in us being guided by a friendly girl on a bicycle to a peaceful spot on the edge of a field, surrounded by trees. Our neighbours were two Dutch families. We later found that the campsites of France were refugee camps seemingly for the whole Dutch population, each with identical blond children, magnificent canvas palace and gleaming new car.

As darkness fell on our first night, we zipped ourselves in and lay listening jealously to our Dutch neighbours sitting at their de luxe plastic table, with their lanterns and electric lights, chatting contentedly just two or three feet away.

By 11.30pm we were unzipping our sleeping bags and stomping off to remind them of the camp's night-time silence rule, ruing the day we ever thought of camping. At 6am the cluttering and clanking from the next-door tent had us in a frenzy of fury, but on poking my head out of the tent I found them climbing into their packed car and heading off towards Holland. I waved them off with a huge smile. Thereafter, we were staggered by the effectiveness of the silence rule, and had it not been for bumpy ground and old bones I would have slept soundly each night.

Campsites are a bizarre mixture of prison camp, theme park and grunge festival. You and all your possessions are alternately dusty and dirty, muddy and dirty or just plain dirty. Queues for toilets and showers never seem to be a problem for men, but women are up at the crack of dawn to avoid them and still find bleary-eyed fellow avoiders, in their nighties and cardies, clutching a roll of toilet paper and hoping that the cleaning squad have got there before them.

Food on a single gas ring is not up to our usual Michelin two-star standards - a tin of pork cassoulet on the first night, a tin of duck cassoulet on the second night and, for a real treat, a tin of goose cassoulet on the third night. But the take-away food counter at the camp grocery provides you with chicken and chips, so long as you bring your own container. We got wise on the second day, when we realised that one portion of chips was equal to whatever container you provided.

Of course there were many more facilities: the swimming-pool to leap into, the organised games of petanque, the drawing competition and fun run, the tennis and ping-pong, all of which had the children and partner racing off for more fun while I could sit quietly reading E Annie Proulx by the tent, soaking up the sunshine (but not too much, because our shaded emplacement has taken care of that). It was a real longed-for, doing- absolutely-nothing-not-even-visiting-that-castle-on-the-hill-style rest. And so it came as little surprise to us when, later in the holiday, sitting in a mediocre hotel next to a busy road in a bustling lakeside resort in the Alps, we all agreed that we'd rather be under canvas and decided to check out a campsite, preferring the queues for toilets, the dirty clothes, the monotonous meals and the organised fun to the anodyne pleasures of our usual holidays.

This year we're upgrading a bit; we may risk a whole week, and we'll certainly be taking a larger pot for those chips.

For more information on camping in France, contact the French Travel Centre, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0891 244123, a premium-rate number). If you prefer not to get involved with putting up the tent, plenty of British tour operators offer holidays at sites with pre-erected tents in France and beyond.