The Camargue: Go where the sun shines brightly

After a drenching in Brittany, David Ryan turned his back on French campsites. Then he was tempted further south
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The Independent Travel

Camping in France was our ideal summer break until Brittany 2004. For nearly two weeks in August we were battered by gales howling up from the Bay of Biscay and les plombiers had to pump out the flood water.

We left two days early muttering "never again".

"Never again" turned out to be precisely 11 months and two weeks. Why? Well, we still love comfort camping (a nice mobile home); nobody does it better than the French; and, this time, to quote Sir Cliff, we were "going where the sun shines brightly". Way down south, to La Petite Camargue, one of about 30 sites run by the French-based outfit Yelloh! Village.

This journey - much of it on the "route du soleil" - is not for everyone; 700 miles is asking a lot of your passengers and it is tough on the driver if there is only one. You can splash out on fights from Heathrow to Avignon via Paris (around £780 for a family of four in August) and hire a car, although that limits what you can take. Then there is Motorail but that is not cheap, at £945 both ways with a four-berth couchette.

After a pleasant Channel ferry crossing to Calais we drove for about six hours as far as Dijon with a stop at one of the motels that seem to proliferate in Burgundy. Two double rooms with an all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast for four will cost around €154 (£105).

Two hours' driving the next day and we reached Lyons. By now, you can feel the climate has changed and every extra minute behind the wheel is suddenly worthwhile as the jeans are swapped for shorts.

The site was a thing of beauty. Striking cypress and pine trees; colourful floral borders; a well-stocked shop and bakery; nice bar; big pool; top takeaway; adequate restaurant and underground night club, so no karaoke caterwaul at 2am.

First impressions can be wrong, but the "number-plate index" has never let me down. For me, the more French and Dutch-registered vehicles you see, the better off you'll be - and there were plenty here. The French just know their onions when it comes to camping and the Dutch are very like the Brits but when we bite our tongues if there's a problem they are more likely to march up to the boss man and let him have it. I know - I married one.

Another camping fact is that you always pass the first few days in cajoling the kids into making friends. Then, once they do so, you spend the rest of the holiday trying to prize them away from their new chums so you can see a bit of the country.

So what about the country? The Camargue is billed as a land of white horses, black bulls and pink flamingos which is about right, except that the horses are born brown and turn grey by the age of five (if you were constantly the target for hundreds of mosquitos, you would too!). There are about 10,000 horses, most used to carry tourists around the national park. It is the best way to see the wildlife, particularly in the evening when the thousands of flamingos take to the sky. The finest Camargue horses however are reserved for the bull ranches - bull-fighting is a passion here. Locals are keen to point out that the bulls are not killed and, for those who back the underdog, there's always the festival of the Course à la Cocarde where testosterone laden young men (razetteurs) try to pluck a cockade from the horns of a charging torreau.

This is, above all, cowboy country. The torreaux are tended by les gardians - trident-bearing rugged types who dress more like the Amish than The Wild Bunch. The camp site organises trips to a ranch where, in August, you can see the ferrado - the branding of the year-old bulls. Take a picnic and the rosé wine is free!

Our nearest town, Aigues Mortes (which translates as "Stagnant Water"), is a fascinating little place which was once part of a very big idea. It is said that the young King Louis IX was apparently near death in 1224 when he cut a deal with The Almighty - "Get me out of this one, Lord, and I'll drive the Muslims from Jerusalem," he vowed.

Baffling court physicians, he recovered and built Aigues Mortes as an entrepot and staging post for the doomed Seventh Crusade. Its walls and towers, almost one mile around, now embrace shops, galleries and restaurants. Children play in the fountain in Place de Louis, beneath a statue of the warrior-saint; street musicians and portrait artists add to the charm; and, at night, with its battlements lit up, the place is downright cosy. So a 13th-century economic experiment has come good at last. The masons imported from the north to build Aigues Mortes would be amazed. They would have lived for years under tents or in temporary huts while the walls took shape. But they never had an underground nightclub and cabaret. Yes, we have come a long way.

The writer travelled as a guest of P&O Ferries (0870-520 2020; posl.com). It offers return ferry crossings from Dover to Calais from £70. A 12-night stay in a mobile home at La Petite Camargue in August will cost around €1,500 (£1,070) sleeping six or €1,272 (£910) sleeping four. For details contact Yelloh! Village on 00 33 4 66 739 739 or reserve online at yellohvillage.com

Our favourite chic camping

For style in the great outdoors, stay in a yurt with Canvaschic (00 33 4 66 24 21 81; canvaschic .com). Its "Mille Etoiles" camp of 12 traditional Mongolian tents is in an oak forest above the Ardèche. Open from Easter to September, a minimum stay of three nights with breakfast costs £255 per yurt, plus £10 a night for kids over three.

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