Trail of the Unexpected: Stargazing in France
The galaxy in all its glory can be enjoyed from the comfort of your bed in a luxurious prefab in central France, says Fiona Sturges.
It's around midnight when I pull back the curtain to take a look at the sky. There's not a cloud to be seen in Limousin, a leafy corner of central France that is gloriously unsullied by light pollution. To a seasoned city-dweller accustomed to burnt orange skies at night, this shimmering spectacle looks like something from a Disney movie. It's as if the sky has been sprinkled with sequins.
I am staying with my husband and young daughter in a Carré d'étoiles, one of a handful of compact prefabricated cabins that have been deposited all over France. More spacious than a camper van and more stylish than a tent, these micro-cubes are billed as the ultimate in luxury camping. But what really sets the cabins apart from other luxury camping experiences is that they have been invented for the sole purpose of stargazing.
Each cabin comes with its own sky observation kit comprising a telescope, a star chart and a large dome-like skylight positioned directly over the mezzanine bed. Dreamt up by architects Louis and Nathalie Blanco, the Carré d'étoiles (it translates as "square of stars") enable occupants to stare into space from under the duvet. Which would explain why the three of us are awake in the Witching Hour, gazing at meteor showers from our bed.
The Carrés d'étoiles are models of sustainable tourism: as well as being made entirely from recycled materials, they are also portable. At the end of each season they are dismantled like pieces of flat-pack furniture, hoisted on to a truck and stored away in a warehouse until the next year. There are 23 in total, dotted across 12 locations in mainland France. Some are alongside rivers in leafy valleys, others on undulating hills in the grounds of chateaux.
Ours is in a peaceful orchard-turned-campsite called Les Roulottes des Monédières on the outskirts of Chamberet, near Limoges. It is, by some stretch, the poshest campsite I've ever visited, not least because there's not a shred of canvas in sight. Instead, the site is dominated by "roulottes" – wooden gypsy-style caravans – all prettily painted in different colours and arranged between the apple trees for maximum privacy. (Ours is the only Carré d'étoiles here.)
To one side of the field is an arboretum, to the other a lake. At the bottom of the hill is a wooden clubhouse with a bar, restaurant, fitness centre and communal lounge area. Outside there's a heated swimming pool and a children's play area. Both are hidden behind trees so as not to spoil anyone's view.
By day, without the stars to work their magic, my family and I are left to grapple with our cabin's micro-architecture. The aesthetic is oddly nautical; with its port-hole windows we could be in a miniature submarine, or in a cabin on a luxury cruise liner.
The inside is artfully clad in recycled beech, and looks somewhere between a Scandinavian sauna and a child's bedroom. Each cabin comes equipped with a hob, fridge, microwave, coffee machine and toaster along with a toilet and shower behind sliding doors. Reached by a ladder, the king-size bed is on an upper level; there's a sofa bed on the ground floor for extra sleeping space. With expensive-looking toiletries, a flat-screen television and the crisp cotton sheets, these cabins have all the accoutrements of an upmarket contemporary hotel.
Still, at nine square metres, the Carrés d'étoiles are snug, to put it mildly. In order to open the sofa bed for my daughter, I have to put the coffee table and telescope outside and leave them there for the night. Forced indoors during a brief rain shower, tempers start to fray as we clamber over one another and prang our shins on the furniture. When one of us wants to change our clothes, the other two must make way by climbing up on to the bed. It strikes us that the Carrés are perfect for couples, providing the ultimate setting for a romantic evening in. However, for families they're not all that practical.
Cooking also presents a problem in such a confined space, though fortunately there is a solution. Along with having its own restaurant, the campsite has a delivery service. Thus, in the early evening, a freshly made pizza is delivered to our door. We eat it on the veranda, watching the sunset turn the sky orange and the rabbits bobbing about in the long grass.
If the Carrés d'étoiles are on the cramped side, it's a small price to pay for living so luxuriously in the middle of the field. And it's the stars that we are really here for. With the lights out, we lie in our bed looking heavenwards, contentedly sealed in our little wooden box.
Within its circular frame, the Plough has never looked so spectacular.
Fiona Sturges travelled to France with Brittany Ferries (0871 244 0744; brittany-ferries .co.uk). Carré d'étoiles at Les Roulottes des Monédières sleeps two adults and – at a squeeze – two children (carre- detoiles.com). Accommodation-only prices start at £265 for seven nights in September. For bookings and inquiries phone 0845 268 0853 or visit canvasholidays .co.uk
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