Temples are fine and spotting a tiger is great, but for me, the finest sight on earth is a petrol station just outside Millau. Picture the scene: our 1973 VW campervan – named Pucci – has spluttered to a halt on a traffic-chocked, three-lane roundabout. “Ever so sorry dear – we’ve run out of fuel” I rue whilst head butting the giant, bus-like steering wheel. We jump out but not a single commuter stops to help; however a teenage passenger with Wayne’s World looks gives me the finger. Stranded and panic starting to spike the stomach I have no choice but to leave my girlfriend Laura – now maintaining traffic flow with some diligent waving – and wander the French highway on a petrol pilgrimage. “There’s bound to be a station round here” she says with a dose of Irish optimism. Fast-forward two hours and I’m still wandering. Then it got dark.
Two days earlier we’d picked up Pucci in Bergerac. WeDubYou’s owner, Tony, explains his fleet of retro-chic VW’s are popular with romantic couples, “Our last rental ended in a proposal”. I must admit the romance eludes me at first – let’s just say changing gear takes a little getting used to. After some practice in an empty car park, we mosey down the D-660 and are soon reaching incredible speeds in excess of 40mph, pottering through the Dordogne’s château-studded countryside.
The drive to Etang du Camp provides the sort of calming scenery you’d expect to see on a bottle of red, yet we are greeted by a less than calm gentleman. “This is the business!” he roars, pointing excitedly at the vans paint job. It’s fair to say Keith – the sites affable elder statesman – was quite taken by Pucci’s psychedelic swirls. But beneath the vans extrovert exterior lay a utilitarian streak: the back seats fold down to make a comfortable double bed and the roof pops-up to make extra sleeping space – perfect for little ‘uns. Yes, there’s a certain amount of unpacking and assembling involved when setting-up camp, but everything soon falls in-line. I sleep like a stone until 4am when I’m awoken by something bouncing on the roof. ‘Thud, thud, thud’. I reach for my torch and tentatively pop my head out the window to see a pair of wide-eyed frogs having a randy wrestling match. Tony was right; these vans really do breed romance.
The following morning had us clinging to the side of a cliff. France receives more visitors than any other country, yet the ravine-rich Cévennes National Park seldom gets a look-in. But the masses’ loss was our gain. In places the road had no crash barrier, just wild-west style views and the possibility of imminent death. I recommend it wholeheartedly. A stream of cars appeared in my rear-view mirror as we crawl around a collection of hairpin bends, sweaty hands glued to the wheel. Laura leans left in an unconscious effort to stop the van plunging into the jaw-dropping Gorges du Tarn. “If you get scared just close your eyes like I do”. Apparently this was no time for jokes. With vultures soaring above, we stop for ice-cream at teeny Sainte-Enimie – one of Cévennes most picturesque villages – before making our way to Camping La Cascade: a peaceful, spacious campsite under the shadow of two valleys.
Then came my petrol pilgrimage. “What kind of idiot runs out of fuel?” is a question that’s probably on the tip of your tongue. Fair point. But in this idiots defence, Pucci’s petrol gauge was lifeless, so filling-up became a game of ‘guess when’. Unfortunately I guessed wrong. As a cavalcade of souped-up sports cars flash past I spot something in the far-off distance. And there it was: a large, illuminated LED board displaying the latest petrol prices – beautiful. I run back to Laura and raise my 7-up bottle of unleaded aloft, this was my FA Cup. We fill-up and rumble over the Millau Viaduct – the world’s highest road bridge – and it’s nightfall by the time we breeze into Carcassonne, one of Europe’s finest fortified cities. Conversing in medieval gibberish, we wander the labyrinth of tiny floodlit streets and try the local specialty, Cassoulet: a slow-cooked casserole of pork sausages, goose and white beans. Fabulous.
One thing that sets WeDubYou apart is technology. Loaded with an iPhone, iPad, Wi-Fi and a portable speaker, I was practically driving a Curry’s stock room. At first I’m reluctant to use the navigation app, “Give me a good old map any time!” But looking at today’s arduous mountain route, I wuss-out and tap-in the co-ordinates to our next campsite. Surrounded by vivid blue-green lakes and dense forest, Pyrenees Emotions is a walkers’ paradise, so boots were laced for what promised to be a pleasant two-hour hike. Five hours and many miles later we limp through a tiny alpine village, exhausted and lost – we’d somehow missed our turn. Thankfully our hobbling was only temporary as a sympathetic Frenchman took pity and offered to drive us home. Laura points to our campsite on the map and Joel grins, shaking her hand vigorously, “Wow, you walk good.” We thank him a thousand times but he refuses our money, asking us to “Pass on good will”.
Driving through the Pyrenees the next morning was a joy, as snow-clad mountains and Romanesque monasteries pass our window. We cross the Franco-Spanish border, with little to indicate we are leaving France – apart from a bored-looking workman devouring a baguette. Emerging from the ooh-worthy Veilha tunnel, we receive a reminder of the regions violent mood swings. Clouds gather in seconds and dark curtains of rain smash onto the windscreen as I navigate the N-230; a tortuous road resembling a child’s giant scribble. Famished, we swing off at Sopeira, a promising-looking village of stone houses overlooking a perfectly blue river. Hopes of seafood Paella were dashed when we fail to find a local, well, a conscious one – we’d arrived during siesta. “Crisps in the van?” Laura suggests. We make do and marvel at the epic mountain scenery from the opened door of our V-Dub.
Not everywhere would prove so serene. A brief stop in Lleida, Catalonia’s industrial heart, proved a disappointment – so we fled back to the open road. I spent all afternoon dodging big scary trucks and began wondering if we were pushing it a little too hard. But as we made our way east, the horizon grew wilder and greener. We arrive at Forest Days a little tired and decide it’s time to take a break from the van. Pucci looked forlorn as we venture down a wooded path, but any pangs of guilt disappeared when I laid eyes upon our luxury Bell tent, complete with king-size bed and fluffy pillows. “You can see 75% of Catalonia on a clear day” owners John and Montse tell us. “It’s best admired from the hammock at sunset.” Don’t mind if I do… After a hearty home-cooked meal I stoke-up the fire and fall asleep to the ring of a nearby cowbell. And before I knew it we were back on the road.
We cruise along the Mediterranean coastline, dodging flying cyclists before pulling into Camping Cala Llevado; a huge campsite nestled amongst the Costa Brava’s rocky cliffs. This was the moment Laura had been waiting for. As I lock-up she sprints full speed across the white sand, shared only with a bearded nudist who nods in my direction. For some reason the wobbly gent approaches and I try to remember the advice when encountering such a creature: “Maintain eye contact and don’t take any pictures.” Or was that for a Grizzly Bear? Too late, I was now mid-conversation with a naked German. I give Karl a tour of the van and he explains how his late father once owned a VW. That’s the nice thing when people see a classic camper; everyone makes time for a chat. Even if they are naked.
By the last day, I finally mastered the driving. Oh the irony. “You’re not half bad,” says Laura as I grapple the giant steering wheel one final time. We pull into Can Coromines – a wonderful campsite set around a 15th century farmhouse – and reluctantly hand Pucci back, we loved the freedom it had given us. Our mini-adventure had taken us to places we would never have even thought to visit, from Cévennes National Park to sleepy Sopeira, and finally Girona – a terrific tangle of an old town. One week and 722 miles after we started, I look out from the banks the River Onyar as hundreds flock to celebrate the spring festivities. A tiny, medieval street bedecked in Catalan yellow and red was a fine sight indeed. But, of course, it compared little to a petrol station just outside Millau.
By Andrew Day of Cool Camping
This trip was provided by WeDubYou (020 7193 9058), with vans available from £595 per week, picking up at Bergerac or Girona.
More details on the campsites featured can be found in the 2nd edition of Cool Camping: Europe, available now from www.coolcamping.co.uk priced £18.95.