Argelès-sur-mer: Camping, But Not As We Know It

Sitting proudly on the Côte Vermeille in Southwest France, Argelès has more camping than anywhere in Europe - well, they call it camping...

Argelès-sur-mer: Camping, But Not As We Know It

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by jaybroek on October 24, 2006

In general, one does not camp in Argelès to get away from it all and make your peace with Mother Nature. Situated on the Côte Vermeille, the Mediterranean coastline of Languedoc Roussillon, Argelès has apparently got the highest density of camping in Europe. The flat plains that stretch inland from the beach are a chequerboard of sites providing affordable accommodation mainly for families seeking predictable summer sunshine. The languages you are most likely to hear are French, Dutch, German, and English; there is a generally accepted truth that the French seldom holiday beyond their own borders (why bother when they have everything?) and Argelès, with the Spanish border around 10km away, must be about as close as they come.

Of course, there used to be camping of the soggy sleeping bag, shared washing facilities and grass in your knickers variety here. A wander round one enormous site revealed a number of pristine shower blocks; evidence that, in the recent past, this civilisation, ‘the Plastic Beaker People’ if you will, pitched tents on this very spot. Indeed, oral histories and even photographic evidence suggests that there were many thousands of them gathering in areas like this and performing their various rituals involving gas canisters and other ‘gear’.

So have the Plastic Beaker People gone for good from Argelès? Well, not quite. If you’re prepared to look you may find, in amongst the modern mobile homes that now dominate, an empty patch of land known as a ‘pitch’. Tell tale signs of recent habitation include flattened yellow rectangles on the grass, half-used bars of soap discarded under bushy perennials and a faint whiff of mosquito repellent. Indeed, you may be lucky enough to see a group in situ. Approach with caution; as with many endangered species they may lash out when feeling threatened.

Enough silliness.

Argelès has a lot going for it as a base for exploration; in addition to the wonderful climate and its sandy coastline, the town is within striking distance of many interesting historic and natural attractions. Carcassonne and the Cathar fortresses are within an hour or two’s drive, the Fauvist retreat of Collioure and its very special harbour is mere minutes away while the dominating Pyrenees hold walkers and troglodytes in thrall.${QuickSuggestions} Saturday is changeover day for the vast majority of the camps in Argelès which generally means that the less prepared and poorly equipped will wend their travel-weary way to the on-site convenience supermarché for initial provisions. The restricted choice available in said store, combined with its inflated prices and the quaint French practice of shutting down pretty much completely on a Sunday, means that the large supermarchés; in the Argelès vicinity are full on Mondays.

And when I say full… ‘seething mass of humanity’ is the cliché that springs to mind; trolley queues backed up every narrow aisle create gridlock while an anarchic free-for-all is taking place in the vegetable weighing area (where the last thing in the world you should do is queue). The deli and fish counters have a different set of rules again; they can’t be seen for a ticket-wielding scrum. The system, it appears, only grants you a couple of seconds in which to shout out your order when your number comes up.

As an anthropological study it was unmissable; as a shopping experience? Something never to be repeated. And we forgot the salt.${BestWay} A number of low-cost carriers fly to Languedoc Roussillon or thereabouts from the UK and other parts of Europe while major airlines fly in and out of Toulouse, just to the north of the region. Most convenient for Argeles is Perpignan, served by Air France, flybe and Ryanair, although many people use Girona, about an hour away over the border near Barcelona. Many of these airports don’t have daily services to all destinations which led us, because of date constraints, to fly in and out of Carcassonne (which turned out very well as we got to spend an afternoon and evening in this fantastical city). Ryanair fly in to Carcassonne from Nottingham East Midlands, Stansted, Liverpool, and Dublin.

The only way to get around once you’re in Argelès, though, is via Le Petit Train. Essentially tractors with natty paint jobs, Le Train has four lines that link together most of the campsites in the Argelès area with the town and beaches. Their numbers and frequency vary through the season; unfortunately by September there’s only a one an hour service on one of the lines. The Tomato thought they looked like great fun; as cruel parents with a need to move when we wanted to, we insisted on using the car.

La Sirène is a couple of kilometres from downtown Argelès – a straightforward stroll without a two year old.

Camping La Sirène

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by jaybroek on October 25, 2006

The word ‘camping’ has broadened its definition over the last few years and, in these parts at least, is now easily applied, without a hint of irony it seems, to large mobile homes replete with decks. The sites still bare names such as ‘L’Hippocampe’, ‘Camping del Mar’, and ‘Camping La Sirène’, but these appear anachronistic in a similar way to street names on new housing developments that are named after the farm buildings and pastures they’ve replaced.

I find it difficult to refer to this holiday as ‘camping’. Since when did camping involve air conditioning, a 2 metre high fridge freezer and a dressing room? It’s the sort of camping that my mother, not one accustomed to any level of deprivation or separation from a hairdryer, would wholeheartedly approve of but leaves me faintly embarrassed. Our ‘cottage’ (as it is referred to in the literature) had two ample bedrooms, one with the aforementioned dressing room, a shower room and a large living space with a more than adequate kitchen area, dining table, and lounge for those infrequent days when the sun doesn’t shine and the 25m2 deck is off limits.

There are a range of grades and size of accommodation at La Sirène; the smaller, cheaper units come without a deck and you have to make do with placing your garden furniture on the ground. All are equipped with sufficient crockery, pans, cutlery and bottle openers to satisfy the average holiday chef. I made use of the gas barbecue (unsurprisingly, real fires are not permitted what with all the flammable accommodation, trees and the like) most nights, cooking up steak haché, entrecôte, and merguez for an appreciative family.

There are a few throwbacks to ‘the old ways’ if you look closely enough. Sheets and towels aren’t provided unless you pay extra for them and, in our cottage’s case at least, if the rain really comes down the water made an unwelcome intrusion. Granted, it was a thunder storm that lasted for a day and a half, but we had been spoiled; softened by all this pampering. A vigorous bout of mopping and grumbling about the weather soon put paid to that. I could at least take a camping hardship story home with me that had some credibility; whinging about how difficult it was to find the remote control for the air-conditioning probably wouldn’t have held water.

Having wandered around a couple of other campsites in the Argelès vicinity, it’s clear that La Sirène is up near the top of the market and is priced accordingly. This is mainly due to the quality of the facilities although, after our brief survey, I would also suggest its units are, on the whole, newer and better kept.

We booked direct via the La Sirène’s website. Large operators such as Eurocamp and Keycamp have a presence too and a number of homes are privately owned and can be booked directly with the owner.
La Sirene Campsite Club
Route De Taxo, Argelès-sur-mer
Languedoc-Roussillon, 66702

Camping La Sirène - facilities

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by jaybroek on October 25, 2006

Camping La Sirène and its ilk bear little resemblance to my deeply misguided notion of a campsite. They may be better described as sunny southern hybrid of the European Centerparcs-style resort village (with less concrete) with a passing nod to the cheery, cheeky English holiday camp. The sculpted, immaculate sanitation blocks that we stumbled across on our wanders are a rare reminder that campers used to be happy with a shared toilet and a queue for the showers in a morning. How times have changed.

In this world of camping-that’s-not-camping, La Sirène boasts four stars for its facilities and general well kept loveliness. The impression is good from arrival onwards; reception is spacious, air-conditioned and well populated with multi-lingual staff. Although check in might have been quicker, we had our sheets and towels tucked under our arms soon enough. With purple ID bracelets affixed to our wrists, we were now free to explore further afield.

The site’s core facilities are clustered immediately behind reception. There’s a decent sized store which knowingly caters to the sector of its international market that need home comforts to reduce the culture shock. Bratwurst and German lager are conspicuously placed while Union Jack patterned footprints lead to the ketchup, baked beans and marmite. A trip to the nearest supermarché quickly confirmed our suspicions; the site shop takes advantage of its monopoly and convenience with inflated prices and average quality.

Adjoining the store is a small, popular boulangerie in whose case convenience is worth paying for; after all, you don’t want to have to stroll far for your morning croissant. There’s also a beach goods/clothes/toy shop, a newsagents and even a branch of O’Neills, the international surf/diving/skate dudes brand. The latter also houses the dive school.

The main focus for all the visitors is not the shopping however; it’s the pool. It is here that La Sirène really puts its neighbouring sites in the shade. Vaguely unconvincing though the concrete ‘boulders’ may be, the resulting network of interlocking lagoons is enormous fun for kids and ‘kidults’ alike. The boulders themselves conceal a number of water slides that suit all ages and, with a wide belt of grass surrounding it all for lounging and lunching, it was evident that many guests didn’t need much more to fulfil their holiday requirements.

We visited in low season, after school holidays across Europe had ended, which meant that the kid’s playareas that we happened across were deserted. There’s something saddening about being the only kid in the park but, hey, the Tomato never had to queue for the slide. Kids clubs are run in high season.

Apart from a minor gripe about the quality of the mini ‘marché' La Sirène turned out to be an excellent choice for us and we didn’t even take advantage of the bikes for hire or the evening shows (including ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Grease’ during our stay). For a relaxing family holiday, it suited us perfectly.
La Sirene Campsite Club
Route De Taxo, Argelès-sur-mer
Languedoc-Roussillon, 66702

La Troika

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by jaybroek on October 25, 2006

Despite all our best, thrifty intentions convenience will out eventually and on a couple of occasions we availed ourselves of La Sirène’s onsite restaurant, La Troika. Set in a courtyard near the reception buildings, La Troika apparently consists of a number of large outdoor tables and what I would guess is an indoor dining area for evenings (although we only visited during the day). Also facing on to the courtyard is one of a number of entrances to the campsite’s bar which proudly advertised the evening’s televised football matches.

The Tomato is at an age where he likes to mimic grown ups and, combined with a bossy streak which the Blonde and I blame on each other’s ancestors, makes arriving at restaurants mildly amusing.

‘My chair’ he declares, swiftly followed by further allocations.
‘Mummy’s chair, daddy’s chair’ he points emphatically. There’s little point in arguing.

With the aid of a toy car and a book about Noddy (or ‘Oui-Oui’ as he’s known in France) we’ve probably got about 20-30 minutes until the boy’s restlessness will necessitate the odd walk round the restaurant for one of us. Until that point however, the Tomato is happy talking incessantly about his topic de jour which, for the length of the holiday was ‘airplanes’.

[Incidentally, our only other trick with regard to dining out with a toddler is to order something for them as soon as we sit down. That way his food; a pizza slice or a bowl of fries, arrives well within his patience limits and he can then pick away to his heart’s content.]

La Troika’s menu is international, offering snacks and ‘higher cuisine’ from Holland, Italy, Germany, and France of course. At first glance it seems surprisingly long but it is quickly reduced to a more manageable range of choices when you find out what’s off (mainly what the Blonde wants as it turns out). We didn’t anticipate great things and we weren’t disappointed (low expectations are good like that). The Blonde had Moules et frites on both occasions and found them agreeable enough while I, in a moment of carb-obsessed nostalgia for the Alps, ordered a Pizza Tartiflette. Because that’s what a pizza needs on top of it; thick melted Reblochon cheese and potatoes. I attribute all my holiday weight-gain to that one fateful decision; the ‘Kebab on a plate’ I had on the second visit positively slimming in comparison.

There are times on holiday, even for one with a mild case of food snobbery such as I, when convenience wins. La Troika served that purpose and served it well.

Note: the bar is a separate concession and drinks are paid for when they are served. A separate waiter comes to the table for this purpose.
La Troika at La Sirene Campsite Club
Route De Taxo À La Mer
Argeles sur mer
04 68 81 04 61

Aquarium - Canet-en-Roussillon

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by jaybroek on October 25, 2006

The weather forecasts had been promising trouble and, in the middle of our second week in Argeles, it came. Storm after storm rumbled over, the rain fell in sheets. The mobile home had felt spacious when the door to the deck was open and we weren’t actually trying to live in it. After 24 hours or so we had to accept that the rain wasn’t about to miraculously let up and we should get out and do something.

Choices were limited, particularly when accompanied by a two year old. The Tomato was all for getting his boots and raincoat on and getting out there; we tried to explain the difference between a puddle and a flood (the road outside was under six inches of water) but he was up for the challenge.

I sifted through the pile of leaflets we’d picked up from Argeles’ tourist office and discounted one after another – we weren’t going to see a great deal at the Safari Park, going underground to view beautiful limestone grottes didn’t seem wise during a deluge and Tortoise World with its ‘misty valley’ was just too racy and outdoors to contemplate. We were left with one option and, although it didn’t exactly inspire us, it fitted the vital criteria of being indoors.

Canet’s Aquarium is situated at the northern end of the seafront where the road turns inland beside the harbour. The entrance and exit is situated in the gift shop; the attraction itself is spread over two floors immediately to the rear. You start upstairs. We ascended slowly (the Tomato was in an ‘I can do everything myself’ phase) which allowed the preserved coelacanth at the top to hove into view in a dramatic fashion, backlit in the darkness if the hall. From that point the boy was hooked.

There is no doubt that having an enthusiastic child in tow brings to life the most unlikely experiences. The Blonde generally prefers her fish poached in a butter sauce but, with the little one skipping up and down off the thoughtfully provided chairs, she may actually have enjoyed it. The tanks display different oceanic experiences and give colourful, slightly alarming and downright monstrous views of the deep. We gawped at them all - from the skittery, darting reef-dwellers such as the clown fish made instantly recognisable by ‘Finding Nemo’ to the prehistorically ugly Murenes and Méron, partially concealing their bulk in casually placed amphora; the graceful menace of the rays and the medusa glowing in ultraviolet light. I was fascinated, particularly by the ugly brutes that loiter and brood in caverns - the more monstrous the better. The Blonde and the boy preferred the bright reef fish of course; probably best as far as nightmare potential goes.

Aquariums are the sort of places that leave me with a ‘we should do this more often’ kind of feeling which has nostalgically returned as I write. I may have to track the nearest one down.

€5,70 adults, €3,70 infants.
Aquarium in Canet en Roussillon
Boulevard De La Jetée
Languedoc-Roussillon, 66140
33 (0)4 68 80 49 64

Take me to the plage - Argelès and Canet

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by jaybroek on October 25, 2006

The Blonde has done the whole Côte Vermeille (as this stretch of coastline is known) thing before. Late teens and early twenties camping trips were described to me although, due to either reasons of failing memory or selective recollection, the stories didn’t last long.

Of course it was all so simple then; long days by the pool or on the beach followed by nights in seafront bars were enough to satisfy everyone in the party. Now it’s a different story. Not only has the husband got the irritating need to ‘do’ things occasionally (and on this trip, not very much) but there’s the small matter of occupying the Tomato – a typical two year old with a typical need to be busy. It doesn’t need to be ‘sophisticated’ busy of course. Just busy.

Both Argelès and Canet Plage (‘Plage’ means beach) are pretty good places to be busy. Situated some six or so kilometres apart along the cost, both have long, wide sweeps of sandy beach that seem to disappear off to the horizon or at least as far as Spain, marked by the striking wall of the Pyrenees to the southwest. The Tomato’s appreciation of beaches developed slowly; it made the whole business of walking less than straightforward (bad), the sand gets in your nappy (very bad) but, on the upside, making your father build endless sand castles so that you can knock them down is a good game. We persuaded him that a paddle might be fun too; the look he gave us when he discovered how cold the water was will stay with me for some time.

Promenading off the sand generally met with the boy’s approval too. Both Argelès and Canet have long promenades suitable for taking the sea air and people watching although Canet’s is somewhat spoilt by a busy road for a significant length. Argelès, meanwhile, have a wide, pedestrianised, manicured boulevard that allowed the Tomato to wander a little more freely. Three parallel streets run immediately behind the Centre Plage here, providing extra café capacity and a natural home for the beachwear, gaudy towel and equally gaudy art canvas shops.

Unapologetic and all good fun of course although, when we visited in September, a number of outlets and cafes had given up for the season; the proprietors not anticipating much profit from the snowbirds and parents with buggy-borne offspring that proliferate in the shoulder season. With school terms starting across Europe and the weather getting less predictable, summer was drawing to a close. Argelès and Canet are built for throngs; when the crowds depart the holiday paraphernalia just looks excessive and a little tawdry. For those of us who can take advantage of 96this cheap period however, there are a few small perks. We have the pick of the café tables, acres of sand to ourselves and the beachfront carousels in Canet do a turn for one or two children at a time – the Tomato was in his element. What could be better for a two year old? Your pick of the rides and none of that nasty sharing business.

Argelès and Canet are towns that might be described as ‘fit-for-purpose’; they provide what their, mostly family, clientele demand; predictable weather, miles of sand and plenty to occupy a busy child or two.

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