Pyrénées-Orientales Is France’s Camping Promised Land • Tour Travel Hotels
While trips to France tend to conjure up images of luxury hotels and 3 Michelin star restaurants, camping is emerging as one of the most popular ways for international tourists to explore the country. The Pyrénées-Orientales department is one of the best places to experience the range of camping options France has to offer while visiting sites such as the Abbaye Saint-Martin-du-Canigou, hiking mountain trails. spectacular views such as Lac des Bouillouses, or by taking a dip in renowned beaches such as Canet-en-Roussillon, Saint-Cyprien, Argelès-sur-Mer and Torreilles.
According to an annual review published by INSEE, the French national statistical agency, the campsite has turned out to be one of the brightest places in a difficult 2020 tourist season. The number of nights spent camping in summer 2020 reached 84% of French summer 2019 capacity. Among international visitors who came to France last summer, nearly two-thirds stayed in a campsite.
We already live in France, but we certainly saw this surge in camping demand when we decided at the last minute to take a vacation last summer. Like much of the world, we were locked in our homes as the pandemic raged. As July wore on, it seemed France had beaten the worst and tourism was starting to open up again.
Without any plans, we decided to explore the Pyrénées-Orientales, the department that lies at the eastern end of the Pyrenees along the Spanish border. This region was historically part of Spain until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 which ended the Franco-Spanish war. King Louis XIV takes possession of the region while guaranteeing his marriage to a Spanish princess.
This Spanish influence is evident throughout the region which proudly calls itself the Catalan country (Catalan country). The red and yellow Catalan flag is ubiquitous, often just below the French flag.
Having decided to visit the Pyrénées-Orientales, we still had big choices. The region is vast and varied. Because we had visited the beaches along the Mediterranean before, we decided to stay further inland and split our stay between 2 different campsites so that we could explore more of the terrain.
Learning to camp in France has often posed its own challenges. We used to live in California where we were used to camping in state and national parks which are abundant and spectacular. But camping in such parks is not allowed in France. Instead, campsites are mostly private and can vary widely in quality and amenities.
In fact, the French prefer what is called “5-star camping”. These tend to be campsites with features such as swimming pools, cinemas, bars, restaurants and other forms of care. (Learn about our own 5-star camping adventure as well as a more basic camping trip.)
For our first stop, we chose something in the middle: the 3-star Aloha Camping campsite in the town of Amélie les Bains. What does this “3 stars” mean? In this case, Aloha is a sweet, family-friendly setup with a pool, evening activities, a small restaurant, and a bar.
While Aloha has basic camping sites and parking for mobile homes, we opted for one of the small cabins to embark on this new adventure. With air conditioning and a kitchenette, we were extremely comfortable and relaxed.
Because the country was only just starting to open up again, Aloha was not complete and therefore extremely peaceful. Many normal nighttime activities were not available. But it was good. We spent a quiet day lounging by the pool surrounded by the picturesque mountains that surround us. We made another day to visit the city’s famous spa. (To learn more about our adventures in the discovery of the thermal baths of the region, click here.)
But the highlight of this part of the trip was a half-day electric bike ride led by Thierry, one of the co-owners of the campsite.
On two wheels
We rented the bikes from Aloha including the bike helmets. We then set off for a 4 hour ride with the bikes allowing us to alternate between human power and an electric boost when we needed power to climb the hills. Thierry, whose father first opened the campsite decades ago, was a knowledgeable and fun guide who told stories about his childhood in the area while providing detailed descriptions of the surrounding countryside.
The first stage took us across a bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel, which of course is best known for a certain tower in Paris.
From there we went up into the foothills to take in some lovely views of the surrounding area.
And then finally, we went down to the town of Céret.
It was a wonderful day which helped solidify our appreciation for Aloha for giving us a good start to a well deserved vacation.
For the second part of our vacation, we did a loop that took us higher into the mountains and deeper into this area. We had booked our second campsite at Pla De Barrès. (Note: while writing this article, I learned on their website that the town of Mont-Louis, which operated the campsite, has decided to stop operating it. A search for new owners is underway and the campsite is closed for now.)
The Pla De Barrès was a 2 star campsite. Again, it is important not to think of star ratings like hotels or restaurants. This is not a sign of quality, but rather a recognition of the level of equipment it offers. In this case, Pla De Barrèes was a simpler family campsite, with a place to pitch a tent, central showers and toilets, and a small camping store. And that was about it.
We like the simple. But even better, the campsite had 2 characteristics that made it magical. First of all, it is located along La Têt, a river that is just a large stream at this point. And second, it had a great view of the mountains.
Directly off the campsite, we hiked half a day on an easy trail that looped. A cool breeze kept things from getting too hot in early August. When we returned, we treated ourselves to some ice cream from the camp store and returned to our tents for a quiet afternoon of lazing around and doing nothing. A perfect day.
The essentials of the Pyrénées-Orientales
Over the next few days, we’ve seen and done too much to cover it all here. But there are a few things that should be on anyone’s list if they are visiting this area.
The region’s famous yellow train takes passengers through viaducts that offer panoramic views of the mountainous landscape. It’s a great way to see other cities and connect with the starting points for spectacular hikes. Buy your tickets in advance as the train is usually full during the summer months.
Monastery of Saint-Martin du Canigou
We hiked a 30-minute winding path to reach the spectacular viewpoint of Saint-Martin du Canigou monastery (see first photo). Dating back to the 12th century, the monastery was decimated after the French Revolution, but the last century has been painstakingly restored. The result is fascinating and well worth the trip. Passing past the monastery leads to a path that takes you to the belvedere where we had a picnic while admiring the beauty.
Vauban Citadel of Mont-Louis
Just down the road from the campsite is the town of Mont-Louis, which has at its heart a magnificent citadel designed by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban. During the 17th and 18th centuries Vauban was the king’s chief architect and was in charge of building military installations like this across France (we visited a similar one in Lille). He was widely regarded as a master engineer and was also responsible for overseeing the construction of the Canal du Midi. The Citadel of Mont-Louis offers a fascinating look at this remarkable time, but visits are limited as it is still an operational military base.
From the campsite there is a bus stop about a 5 minute walk away. Arrive as early as possible as the queue will be long. The road to Lac des Bouillouses is closed to most public traffic as it narrows to one lane in several places. But it is well worth going to one of the most inspiring hiking areas in the Pyrenees.
In this case, the lake is a beautiful scene. But cross the sacred on foot to get to the other side and you can climb a trail called Boucle des Étangs du Carlit which passes 12 other smaller lakes. The day we left the trail was packed. We had to take our time and navigate a large crowd at the start. It cleared up as we climbed higher. We took one of the shorter loops past just 9 lakes and it took about 6 hours.
Before heading back to the campsite, we stopped by the lakeside restaurant for some well-deserved ice creams, soft drinks, while recharging our batteries and feeling gratitude for finally having visited the Pyrénées-Orientales.
Disclosure: Our campsite has been hosted, but all opinions expressed are entirely my own.