I had bad news to break, so I gathered the kids together and told it to them straight: their “most favourite-ever campsite in the whole wide world” has closed its gates… forever.
I watched as three simultaneous expressions of shock registered on three little faces (Child #4 is too young to understand), then the questions started:
“But… why?” An obvious starter question; I explained that the owners had retired. “Why doesn’t someone else look after it?” Because they couldn’t find a buyer. “Why don’t we buy it, Daddy?” Nice try. Because we are not courageous enough. Because our roots are too deep. “But… does this mean that we can NEVER go back there?” Never.
And then, from Child #3, “Can we find another campsite by a river, exactly like it?“
Possibly one by a river, yes, but I doubt we will ever find one exactly like it ever again. After all, campsites with strutting peacocks, pop-art in the toilets and volcanoes on the horizon are awfully hard to find…
Camping de la Filature
On the face of it, Camping de la Filature – near Ébrueil in the Auvergne, France – was an unlikely candidate to be the kids’ “most favourite-ever campsite”. It had no kids’ club, no swimming pool, two small old-fashioned playgrounds and hardly any internet connection. And yet it was – unanimously – the one place the kids wanted to return to, year after year after year.
They obviously felt something like the same enchantment I did on my very first visit, as a student passing through France some sixteen years ago. Campsites in France are two-a-penny, but this one… was different. I was immediately beguiled by its tranquil setting on the banks of the lazy Sioule river, by the tributes to Roy Lichtenstein and classic French bandes dessinées in the common buildings and – most of all – by the peacocks roaming freely around the site.
On that rushed magical first visit I could only stay one night, but I solemnly promised myself that I would return to this sublime spot place once I had settled down and had a family.
And I did, several times. Unsurprisingly, my wife and kids adored it as much as I had imagined they would. The peacocks disappeared around ten years ago, so the river – that glorious river – is what the kids remember and love most: a shimmering silvery natural playground, where dragonflies hovered whilst we splashed away long afternoons; our refuge from the searing summer heat of central France.
The local area
Occasionally we found the motivation to step outside the sanctuary of the campsite and explore the local area, and what we found was equally as fascinating. Just a few kilometres upstream, the Gorges de la Sioule are vertiginous, imposing, menacing rocks, which occasionally manage to provoke the otherwise languid river into some (mild) white-water action. The drive along the gorges is impressive enough, but making the trip by kayak or canoe is, of course, the best way to experience its beauty.
Nearby, the sleepy little town of St Gervais d’Auvergne becomes decidedly less sleepy in late July when it hosts the “Bal de l’Europe” – a multi-day festival of traditional music and dance, adored by Joelle and interesting left-of-centre characters from near and far. Closer still, the elegant medieval ruins of the Château-Rocher majestically survey the Sioule valley and – not being near a main transit route – attract far fewer visitors than a historical building of its status really ought to; a delight for travellers who like to explore off the beaten path.
La chaîne des Puys
But what makes this region unique is the volcanoes – the truly spectacular Chaîne des Puys. As far as mountains go these are mere infants, formed only 8,000 to 95,000 years ago by a series of eruptions and other volcanic activity. But now the Puys of the Auvergne lie still and dormant, towering reminders of our planet’s fickle and turbulent nature. They are often the first real mountains that we encounter on our trips from Luxembourg to the south and, as such, they are beacons of transition for us, marking the spot where we cease to be merely “on the road” and start to be “on holiday”.
During our visits to the Auvergne we conquered most of the best-known of the Puys: Puy Pariou (1,209m) with its classic volcanic crater, Puy de Clierzou (1,199m) with its impressive summit caves, and – of course – the Granddaddy of them all, the Puy de Dôme (1,465m). The altitudes may seem impressive, but in reality these are easy mountains to climb with relatively light gradients, well-trodden paths and few dangerous ledges; perfect, in other words, for little legs to get their first taste of medium-high mountains.
But our undoubted favourite is the Puy de Côme. At 1,253 metres, it is the second-highest of the Puys, but it attracts far less attention than the ominous Puy de Dôme or the poster-perfect Puy Pariou. In fact, the Puy de Côme is barely mentioned at all in tourist literature, presumably in an effort to prevent the sort of mass erosion sadly evident around the Puy Pariou (for example). However, serious hikers are not deterred so easily: armed with maps and/or a GPSr device, a steady trickle of volcano-lovers navigate the dense surrounding forests to emerge on what must be the most gloriously unusual mountaintop summit anywhere in France:
The views are obviously sublime, but our most vivid recollection about the summit of the Puy de Côme is the sound of it. A noise, actually: an incessant, unearthly insectile buzz that is simultaneously around you, above you and even seems to come from within you. The crater summit of the mountain is, in effect, an enormous wildflower meadow of incredible concentration and diversity, and it seemed as if every single flower was occupied by bees, butterflies or other pollinating insects. I have never seen – nor heard – anything quite like it before or since.
We have fallen hopelessly in love with this region, so the search begins right now for another quirky campsite by a lazy river in the Auvergne; another little piece of paradise in this fabulous corner of France.
Daisy the bus visited Camping de la Filature in the Auvergne, France for the final time in July 2016.
(c) 2016 Jonathan Orr
Practical tips for visiting the Gorges de la Sioule and the Chaine des Puys
- Canoe / kayak hire for the Gorges de la Sioule can be found at Pont de Menat, 17km west of Ebreuil on the D915
- To climb the Puy Pariou, park near the “Col des Goules” on the D941.
- The classic way to tackle the Puy de Dôme is to hike the “Chemin des Muletiers” starting from the “Col de Ceyssat” on the D68, heading west from Clermont Ferrand. The climb is short (about an hour) but steep; wear appropriate footwear.
- The summit of the Puy de Dôme is also accessible by train – the “Panoramique des Dômes” – departing from a purpose-built station with ample parking on the D68 (just west of Clermont Ferrand). The journey takes only 15 minutes and a return ticket costs around 10 EUR for adults and 5 EUR for children (2014 prices). Be prepared for crowds.
- The Puy de Côme is far less accessible, and all the more wonderful for that. We did a day hike from the Puy Pariou, which was perfectly feasible (13.5km), even for an 8-year old. There is probably a shorter way. Some map-reading skills are recommended. Please stay on the paths.