France's Wild West; Martin Wells in an Unspoilt Mecca for Motorhomers

Article excerpt

THINK you know France? Think you''ve been just about everywhere there is to go? The gite in Normandy? The mobile home in Britanny? The pre-pitched tent on the Riviera? Eurodisney? Think again, mon ami.

It is, of course, a big country and you could spend a dozen lifetimes exploring what you think is every worthwhile region only to find there are enough undiscovered tracts to last you a dozen more.

All we die-hard Francophiles can hope for is that when we finally hang up our passports we''ve done the place justice.

Last year, a little weary of the same corner of Brittany (our arrival at the little bar near Nevez we frequented was awaited with all the anticipation of Santa Claus, given how much we spent), we decided to take our little motorhome somewhere neither of us had been before - the wild and rugged west coast.

By repute, departments like the Vendee, Gironde and Landes are a world away from the Mediterranean coast, with its wall-to-wall sunshine and beautiful people. Friends had talked about the spectacular dunes, the endless miles of deserted, unspoilt beaches, the "real" France of laid-back, hardworking folk, happy to engage strangers in a way you suspect the Bretons, deluged as they are each summer with a vast influx of tourists, have long forgotten.

We''d also heard of the wonderful network of aires - virtually free zones, often by the beach, where motorhomes can park overnight and "wild camp" - that made the south-west of France, all the way from La Rochelle to the Spanish border, a mecca for motorhomers.

So, in early July, before the schools broke up, we began our holiday like so many before, with the lovely overnight Brittany crossing from Plymouth to Roscoff - for my money, the best route to France.

The plan was to catch our breath in Brittany, say a quick hello to our old haunts around Rospico in the south, then put a few hundred miles under our belts and fetch up in pastures new. With one overnight stop, we were able to reach Royan and its famous little car ferry.

Hopping on this (EUR40 one way) over the Gironde estuary cuts out almost 100 miles of hinterland and opens up one of the great stretches of coastline in Europe. Perfect sandy beaches, backed by well preserved pine forests, go on for countless miles, uninterrupted by gaudy resorts - imagine Gower built by the Romans. In low-to-mid season, if you''re prepared to walk for 20 minutes off the beaten track you''re almost guaranteed a mile of beach all to yourself.

from returning Portsmouth, for We based ourselves at Montalivet les Bains, at the extreme north of this expanse, where we found a beachside aire occupied by two dozen or so other motorhomes. An immaculate cycle route ran alongside, linking the town and the start of the shady pine barrens.

to Our three days here were spent exploring the coastline in the day and enjoying the charming bars and restaurants at night.

Maybe we''re lucky but we''ve yet to come across a French village or hamlet that doesn''t offer some festival or other while we''re there. In Montalivet, on the Saturday night, the village square was turned into a wonderful little music venue where a frankly dreadful band murdered a succession of rock classics, to the obvious delight of what seemed like the whole town getting steadily drunk on cheap local wine sold from stalls around the perimeter. …