“You English,” the taxi driver says, “most of you can’t speak French at all. But you speak it really well!” My chest swells with childish pride, but it doesn’t last. He has something else to add. “But why is Britain leaving the E.U., and who is this Nigel Farage?” I stammer. I stutter. I struggle to remember the French for, “It’s quite complicated. Can we talk about cheese instead?”
In truth, I’m hoping to forget Brexit — and its toxic aftermath — for a few weeks. We are in Argeles-sur-Mer, a sun-saturated town on the French Mediterranean coast just north of Spain, at the end of a long, fractious summer in Britain. We’re on a campsite, La Chapelle, in a place full of them: Argeles is the capital of French camping, with more than 50 sites crammed in around its golden, gently arcing beach.
It’s a good place to forget the real world, and an even better place for kids. This is how I spent two weeks every summer as a child, in campsites all over France. My wife, Claudine, did likewise, and we’re hoping our three children — ages 5, 2 and 3 months — will enjoy it, too. It’s hard to resist. French campsites are where Northern Europeans come to celebrate the Gallic way of life by eating baguettes, drinking wine (Orangina for the kids) and lounging in ill-advised swimwear.
That’s our plan, anyway. To ensure all goes as smoothly as possible, we’re not staying in a tent. Mobile homes might have an image problem in the United States, but their many conveniences — shower, beds, cooking equipment, air-conditioning, fridge — make them perfect for a young family. Others, I note as we navigate La Chappelle’s neat, tree-lined grid of dusty tracks on arrival, have been braver: Plenty of people are camping or have turned up in motor homes of varying shapes and sizes.
For all its mod cons, though, the best thing about our mobile home is the view of the Pyrenees, green and gently curvaceous as they descend into the Mediterranean. There’s also a small, rather unkempt vineyard right next door. On the first evening, as the sky glows red and the crickets chirp, starlings in a flock rise as one from a row of tall trees at the back of the campsite and swoop in formation toward the sea. When you’ve spent the day corralling two small boys on and off planes, trains and in and out of taxicabs, that sort of experience cannot be underestimated.
The next day, I head off to the supermarket to stock up on essentials — cheese, wine, a huge variety of charcuterie — before we settle into the rhythm of campsite life. Over the next few weeks, each day will follow a similar pattern. In the morning, my oldest son Fraser and I walk down to the on-site boulangerie, where we pick up two baguettes for breakfast. Then the beach, one of three playgrounds or, most popular of all, a huge, multicolored and inflated trampoline at the end of our road, to while away the morning. The boys take great pleasure in running as quickly as possible across the dark green section, which heats up in the Roussillon sun.
Lunch (invariably bread, cheese, salad and whatever else is in the fridge) is followed by (if we’re lucky) a nap, then a trip to the pool. At about 5 p.m., we head home for a drink, the kids’ bedtime and finally dinner, which is often fresh fish bought from the Ty’ Breizh fishmonger: barbecue-grilled, beautifully fresh sea bream, perhaps, or fat pink prawns.
Eating, playing, swimming, relaxing. If that sounds a little dull, well, it is. But that’s the appeal. Campsites like La Chappelle are soporific places. One evening, I stroll through the campsite to get something from the shop. Most people are sitting outside, enjoying the evening warmth with a bottle of wine. Some play dominoes, some chat over food, others sit quietly and greet passersby. The dusty pétanque court is busy.
Our routine is occasionally compromised. One day, we take a boat to Collioure, an absurdly beautiful town set around a bay three miles down the coast, where the boys race around the 13th-century castle, counting cannonballs as they go, and we eat a meal in a restaurant by the beach. The food (lukewarm fish soup followed by delicately cooked but disastrously under-seasoned cod) is mediocre but the ambiance is unforgettable: A warm sea breeze blows into the lively, full restaurant as waiters hustle here and there.
This is France, but Catalonia, too. One naptime, I slip away from the mobile home for a swim in the gentle Mediterranean. Down by the beach, a festival is underway, with groups of locals performing Sardana, a languid but precise dance, to the perky sounds of a cobla, an 11-piece band dominated by a high-pitched woodwind instrument called the Catalan shawm. Yards away, amid a pine forest, tables are laid out for lunch; it is, I later discovered, Argeles’ 41st Aplec de Sardanes, an annual festival of traditional music.
Before I get too carried away with the romance of it all, though, I’m brought up short 50 yards down the street. There’s a flatbed truck carrying a small monster truck, pumping out country music to promote an event that evening up the coast. “I’m in a hurry to get things done!” is the repeated chorus as the bright-red truck, emblazoned with the word “GRINDER,” sits in rare Argeles traffic.
Needless to say, we don’t go to the monster truck event. Too much fun to be had at the swimming pool. Both boys love coming down the slide with their mother, and I love paddling around the main pool with their sister, fielding questions about her from cooing old-timers and avoiding teens jumping off the blowup crocodiles.
If the pool is the focus of camp activity during the day, the bar takes over at night. One evening, France is playing a soccer match against Italy; a few people are chatting and watching but they’re almost exclusively English, Irish and Dutch. One man sports a T-shirt celebrating French football genius Zinedine Zidane but when he comes to the bar, where I’m sitting, he orders two pints of beer in a Midlands English accent. When France scores, there’s barely a murmur. The French don’t take sport too seriously — a big point in their favor.
More excitement is generated by another evening’s entertainment at the bar. A few days later, I’m walking past a reception where a chalk sign announces, “Samedi soir — Karaoke!”
“It’s this evening?” one middle-aged woman says to another. “Yes, this evening!” her friend replies with evident excitement.
Such are the simple pleasures of life on a French campsite. Too soon, though, our two weeks are over. The value of our time away is illustrated a few days after our return, when incessant London rain means a planned trip to the park is postponed. “When are we going back to our French house?” 2-year-old Keir asks as he stares through the window. Not soon enough.
Hawkes is a writer based in London. Find him at @will_hawkes.
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Camping La Chapelle
Avenue du Tech 66700,
Two minutes from the beach, La Chapelle boasts a pool, bar and breezy tree-lined streets. Mobile homes and camping pitches can be hired from the campsite itself or a number of companies, including Eurocamp and Vacansoleil. In high season (July 7 to Aug. 26), camping pitches start at $42.40 per night; a four-person mobile home is $1,030 for a week during the same period.
Camping La Sirene
Route de Taxo 66700,
Five-star La Sirene boasts a huge water park, a restaurant, shops, shows and plenty more. Prices reflect its status: a four-person mobile home will set you back $1,344 for a week in mid-August.
30 Allee Jules Aroles 66700, Argeles-sur-Mer
This tapas bar, located on the seafront at Argeles, offers a simple menu: the mountain board (cured ham, saucisson, pate and other charcuterie) at $19.30 and the sea board (fresh mussels, prawns, squid and a variety of other seafood) at $21.40 are very good.
24 Rue de la Republique 66700, Argeles-sur-Mer
Awarded a Bib Gourmand in the latest Michelin Guide, La Bartavelle is the place to come for more sophisticated grub. There are set menus at $30 and $39.60.
Rond-Point de l’Arrivee 66700, Argeles-sur-Mer
This excellent fishmonger is a small restaurant, too: Pick what you want from the impressive display of fish and other seafood and the chef will cook it for you. Prices vary, but six oysters and a glass of white wine will cost you $8.50, while a two-person “plateau de fruits de mer” — featuring oysters, crab, mussels and more — will run you $26.45.
Chateau Royal de Collioure (Royal Collioure Castle)
Le Village 66190, Collioure
Collioure’s historic significance is highlighted by the huge Chateau Royal de Collioure, founded in the 13th century, that overlooks the bay. (Admission costs $4.30; free for children 11 and younger.) This ravishing town, a few miles down the coast from Argeles, offers plenty for the committed view-seeker plus an unusually high number of art galleries and some so-so restaurants. One peculiarity is the presence of French special forces, who use the town for training. A boat from Port Argeles costs $14. Book at roussillon-croisieres.com.
La Aigmes de Valmy
(Valmy Eagle Sanctuary)
Chemin de Valmy 66700,
Perfect for animal-loving children, this bird sanctuary is a few minutes’ drive from Argeles. Expect eagles, kites, buzzards, vultures and more. Admission costs $10.20; $7 for children.
‘La Grande Balade’ — Coastal boat trip
Compagnie Visionaute, Quai Marco Polo 66700, Argeles-sur-Mer
Take a boat down the Catalan coast as far as Port-Vendres, taking in a variety of tranquil bays where you can study the sea-life through the boat’s glass hull. Admission costs $17.20; $8.60 for children 5 and older; free for younger kids.