Surely, it’s a reasonable and attainable thought that 2022 will be the year of the big breakout back into European travelling again, so in a spirit of optimism here are some reminiscences of our favourite French destinations. Many people will have discovered new and wonderful places in the UK this summer and this can only be a good thing; a less than good thing, however, has been crowded sites and sometimes extortionate fees, perhaps UK site owners and operators will have to try a little harder next year if this new market share is to be maintained. Competition must always be a positive environment and if a little pressure can be applied to UK sites to provide an attractive alternative to Continental travelling in 2022, so much the better.
Touring in Europe is not, of course, for everyone but the re-instatement of the option will please a great many people. In the last 25 years we have travelled extensively abroad with our touring caravan and perhaps like many others, have mainly visited destinations in France – logical enough bearing in mind the geographical proximity to the UK.
We have also toured in Germany, Spain, Italy, Holland, Switzerland, and Austria.
France however will be the focus of this piece and specifically Provence, we have made several visits to different places in Provence, but our favourite destination is St Remy, just south of Avignon. Other French favourites are the Dordogne and Alsace. I realise that there is nothing very imaginative about this selection, but these areas are popular for good reasons.
Provence is not an easy area to define anymore, there is a cache about “Provence” that has meant that the territory has become rather more extensive in recent times. To the south is the popular but busy and expensive Cote d’Azure and to the north The Alpes-Maritime, the western edge is defined by the Italian border, but the east is more debatable and can be thought to spread as far as The Camargue. Provence has been the subject of some great travel writing over the years, Peter Mayle with his fantastic books A Year in Provence and (even better in my view) Toujours Provence set in The Luberon area and more recently the delightful Carol Drinkwater, once of All Creatures Great and Small fame, with several books about life on the southern edge of the area near to Cannes on her olive farm.
Lavender fields in the Luberon, late June
Our favourite place however is a beautiful campsite called Monplaisir, just north of the characterful town of St Remy-en-Provence, about 15 miles south of Avignon. We stumbled across Monplaisir almost by accident about 15 years ago. We had been staying near Carcassonne and had made our way east having decided to head for St Remy, our route took us past the edge of the atmospheric Camargue, through Montpellier and Arles to St Remy – our timing was bad and we arrived at our intended site around the sacrosanct lunchtime – there was nobody there to greet us! However, it did give us opportunity to walk round the site and decide that it wasn’t for us, but we had a Plan B and headed for Monplaisir, the contrast could not have been greater.
Provencal chic at Monplaisir
In the same family for many, many years, Monplaisir is the quintessential French campsite. It was in 1974, under the leadership of Gérard Daniel, that the first pitches were created in the form of a first campsite on the farm which welcomed its customers between the rows of apple and pear trees. The following years, marked by the decline of agriculture and the rise of tourism, encouraged Gérard Daniel and his two sons, Guy and Bruno, to transform the entire farm into a modern and friendly campsite. Over the past 15 years we have visited probably 6 or 7 times and have seen the family expand and develop the site with the same dedicated and focused manner, continuing the culture and ambience of the site in a way that would surely gain approval from previous generations of Family Daniel.
There are neat and tidy avenues of trees and shrubs that have been formed from plants over generations, we have been on site in late September when it’s tree pruning time and the younger members of the family display artistry reminiscent of circus trapeze artists as they work amongst the foliage. The whole site retains the ambience and atmosphere of a venerable farm, the family live on site in a wonderfully preserved old Farmhouse.
Our favourite part of Monplaisir
This is not a site with water slides etc. although there is a good pool with adjacent outdoor eating and small bar in the summer months, the essence of the site is of a timeless and elegant class in that elusive French style. I’ve been trying hard to avoid the phrase je ne sais quois, but I can resist no longer, it says it all!! The only thing missing for us is there are no serviced pitches, there are several well-placed toilet/shower blocks, however, and our favourite pitches (83/85) are about 40 yards away from the nearest facility.
Monplaisir also has a wonderful small shop, full of the delights of Provence, not least of which is the litre bottles of wine from their own vineyard. When we last visited in 2018 a litre of white/red/rose was an incredible 3 euros – happy days!!
It can be difficult to leave the site at Monplaisir, but there is much of interest in the surrounding area. St Remy itself is a delightful and usually quite sleepy little town, this changes dramatically on Saturday morning when the Market comes to town. The narrow streets are filled with vibrant market stalls creating an atmosphere that is almost a French monopoly. Stalls laden with fruit and vegetables, olives in more profusion than can be imagined and other food offerings such as cheese, charcuterie items chicken rotisserie stands and fish stalls, a cornucopia of delights for the senses
St Remy lies on the northern edge of Les Alpilles, a small ridge of hills that provides the setting for Les Baux -de-Provence, said to be one of the most visited locations in France. As the road leaves St Remy to the south and before it starts to ascend into the hills, it passes the ancient and important archaeological site of Glanum. Here can be found well preserved evidence of Roman occupation. You can drive out on the D5 road from St Rémy, following signs to "Les Baux". On the right side of the road (going south) are the Triumphal Arch and Mausoleum, open (unfenced) and available to anybody at any time. On the left side of the road, a short lane leads to the Glanum site, with paid entrance through a reception building.
The triumphal arch was built during the early Roman empire, indicating the entry road to Glanum along the great way of the Alps (the main road to Italy). This is the oldest arch of the Narbonensis region, and probably influenced other arches and some of the 12th-century doorways.
Apparently two million visitors a year crowd on to the streets of Baux-de-Provence and it is listed among the 'most beautiful villages of France', which will come as no surprise if you have ever visited and certainly deserves the accolade. The village has a long and colourful history, with traces of occupation dating back some 8000 years. Little is known of the prehistoric occupation but in more recent centuries Baux was the scene of many troubles during the Middle Ages, resulting in Cardinal Richelieu ordering that the castle be demolished as a punishment for harbouring protestant insurgents.
Listed among our top five villages in Provence - a major highlight of Baux-de-Provence is its great location - nestling in the Alpilles mountains it has great views across the plains that stretch to the south and on to the Mediterranean beyond, as well as the attractive rocky landscape of the Alpilles.
There is plenty to see in the village itself including the parts of the ramparts that are still in place, small chapels, and the Porte d'Eyguieres which is the original entrance into the town. It was the only entrance until the second half of the 19th century and is also the starting point for the path that follows around the outside of the ramparts.
The historical atmosphere and background at Les Baux can seem almost overwhelming, but there is plenty of distraction to maintain contact with the here and now in the form of many attractive bars and restaurants.
This is one of those locations best visited when the day-trippers have departed, easy to do from St Remy as it’s only a 10-minute drive, really the best time is early evening when majestic sunsets can be enjoyed.
A picture is worth a thousand words, this is Les Baux….
Just a little further and under the southern edge of the small Alpes, lies the delightful little town of Mausanne-Les-Alpilles. Really not much more than a large village, there is a very well-presented Municipal Camp Site here, well situated just a short walk from the local facilities. In fact, it was whilst we were staying here many years ago that we first discovered St Remy. A quiet and tranquil place, Mausanne is a great example of the small places to be found in this part of Provence. When we stay at St Remy, one of our regular treats is to drive to Mausanne in the early evening. In the shaded small square at the centre of the village, there are several small cafes and bars quietly spilling over into the space towards the church, but we know that on Friday there will also be the local, mobile Pizza van. So, equipped with wine etc. we indulge in a perfect picnic in the setting of a perfect location.
Les Alpilles, surrounded by vineyards and olive groves……
This small town is famous for its many antique shops and hosts antique markets most Sundays. It has many waterside cafés and restaurants, all within walking distance of each other. Its many attractive water wheels throughout the town are still in working order. Keith Floyd, the British TV chef and bon viveur, established a restaurant there during a lengthy sojourn in France.
There is a separate town called Sorgue nearby, not to be confused with I’isle-sur-la-Sorgue.
I’lsle-sur-la-Sorgue is one of our favourite places to visit from St Remy, it’s about a 45-minute drive. The most demanding aspect of a visit here is deciding which restaurant is best for lunch, there is not much chance of going wrong! Many restaurants have terraces right by the water and provide an ideal location for an indulgent meal. The town has many water courses, and a local delicacy is trout from the streams, delicious.
Avignon is on the left bank of the River Rhone, a few kilometres above its confluence with the Durance and is the main commercial centre for the area, an ancient and historic place, the city is well worth visiting, sights include the rather underwhelming “Pont”, just half a bridge and the magnificent Papal Palace. The palace together with The Cathedral of Notre Dame dominate a large square which also overlooks the river.
Avignon is full of history and full of life. Capital of the Vaucluse and the Côtes du Rhône, seat of the popes and city of art and culture, theatre, cinema, museums, big stores and little shops, Avignon is a small city that has everything a big one has, and then some...
From medieval streets and houses to private mansions from the Renaissance, passing through all its old and enticing squares, some no bigger than a tiny lane... And the diverse dining opportunities, ranging from family-run restaurants, good and inexpensive, to some of the greatest Michelin-starred chefs’ restaurants.
The city is an invigorating place to visit but I always have a feeling almost of relief when we start the short journey back to tranquil and peaceful Monplaisir.
The area around St Remy has some great places to visit and will handsomely repay the drive south to get there, apart from the places already mentioned, Arles and Nimes are quite near and just a little further away is the much-underrated city of Uzes, and the wonderfully ancient and atmospheric Aigues- Mortes, on the edge of the Camargue.
Safe travelling......it’s well worth the long drive down the Autoroute du Soleil!!