Everyone should have that coming of age, Jack Kerouac-style type of adventure, the type where you find out who you are, what you want from life and what you are all about. I have not had this life defining moment yet but I have been on a trip where I found out how sturdy I was, how long I could go without showering and what were my definitive top 3 Taylor Swift songs were. In the summer of 2011, my friend and I decided to spend three months cycling along the south and southwest coast of France, living in a tent. We started in La Rochelle, cycled to San Sebastian, took a nifty little train to Perpignan and then cycled to Nice. The journey was long, sweaty and plenty of tears were involved (some donated by me and others donated by my friend) but finally, we both agreed, it was one of the best experiences ever to be lived and I would advise it to anyone and everyone.
How fit do you have to be?
Probably it helps to be mega fit, or semi in shape or even just a frequent bike rider. I must admit I was none of the above. I had spent an entire year eating and drinking everything in sight on my year abroad in Paris- if anything I was the most out of shape I had ever been. This wasn’t necessarily to big a problem though, what got me through this adventure more than anything was unfaltering stubbornness rather than any sort of training regime. The way we organised the trip helped also- we started easy in La Rochelle, where there were no overly drastic uphill moments and the road only started getting harder as the weeks rolled by. My legs got stronger as the days went on and by the time we reached the edge of the Pyrenees, I was more ready for the steep inclines. By month three we were cycling in the pre Alps and I wasn’t shouting and swearing nearly as much as I had been two months beforehand. Being fit is a plus but honestly, if I can do it, then anyone can, just remember to take it easy and enjoy it.
Cycling up steep hills definitely falls into the catagory of Type 2 fun- It is quite painful when you are in the moment but afterwards you look back on the memory with joy and fondness
How good does your equipment need to be and how much will it cost? (no pun intended)
I have to say we didn’t meet many people doing the same journey as we were attempting, certainly not for the same amount of time anyway, but the people we did meet were kitted up in varying degrees of elegance. Some people looked like Lycra gods, cruising past us at all speeds on their hi-tech, super fancy road bikes but then again we also met a man who was riding a bike from the 1400s and carried everything in a plastic bag. I would say we were somewhere in the middle when it came to our equipment. Everything we had brought was new but also relatively cheap because we went to a little land of dreams which is also known as Decathlon. Altogether all our equipment (tent, bikes, paniers, cooking materials, first aid kit, sleeping bags etc) cost around 600 euros between the two of us, which is not at all bad. Had we been more organised we could have done it for cheaper with second hand bikes and sleeping bags. I have no regrets buying new though because it meant we could go to any Decathlon in the country and replace supplies easily. The staff at Decathlon are also very polite with insanely smelly people who happen to be living in a tent. If we had really wanted to, we could have sold our bikes at the end of the trip (they were still in pretty good nick) to get some of the initial costs back, but honestly, we were so attached to our loyal noble steads by this point, we took them with us back home.
Most things can be bought reasonably cheap and without much thought- apart from the tent. Your tent is your home for the next however many weeks, so for the love of all that is good and holy, make sure it does not leak.
Decathlon: A safe haven for all who like a good time
Camping regulations in France
Camping in France is insanely popular, every real French person (this excludes Parisians of course, who are a different breed) worth their camembert cheese, knows their way around a tent. Finding a campsite in France, is like looking for spots on an acne-ridden teenager, they are everywhere. The only problem is they can be quite pricey depending on what season you choose to camp in. We started our trip at the end of May and ended the beginning of September, so we camped through mid-season to high-season. In mid-season, campsites were relatively cheap, about 10-15 euros on average for the night. This would include running water (hallelujah), toilets and very frequently a delightfully fresh swimming pool to bask in after a long and sweaty cycle. High season was another story entirely. In more touristy areas, in La Cote d’Azur, for example, prices could genuinely rocket up to 50euros for a patch of land to pitch your tent. I repeat, 50 euros to camp. These particularly expensive campsites must have included champagne baths and grass made by Coco Chanel herself, but I wouldn’t know as we never paid those 50euros to get in. A lot of nights we would free camp to save costs. In France this is technically illegal but no Police or nosy neighbour ever stopped us or told us off- In fact people often invited us to camp in their gardens if we were at a loose end.
People in countryside towns are extremely friendly and will do anything to help you on your way, so if you need directions, water or whatever, do not be scared to stop and ask
Sometimes the struggle will be real, but the beautiful scenes you will see will make it all worthwhile.
Things to pack:
- Good, strong bike locks x2
- A good tent
- A helmet
- As many bike lights as possible
- A light weight compact sleeping bag
- Yoga mat (the ground isn’t always very soft)
- High visibility vest
- Sun block (pack your factor 50- it’s not fun sleeping in a tent with a sunburn)
- First aid kit (plasters, antiseptic, soothing cream¬)
- Inner tubing (better, faster and more durable than a puncture repair kit)
- Little gas stove and portable, lightweight pans
- French Phrasebook
- A map
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