One thing France and Spain have that we don’t back in the states are municipal aires du camping. “Aires” is the French word for rest stop, like you have on the highway, and they have plenty of those, but they also have these municipally sponsored aires – bare-bones camping facilities for people traveling through, designed to encourage folks to stay a while and maybe spend some money with the local merchants. Most of them aren’t particularly scenic, but they make an effort to provide what RVs need – water, a place to dump, and even electricity in some cases – for free or a very low cost.
The first one I tried was here in Gruissan. It’s atypical in being right on the beach, with a relatively high cost for a municipal aire (9 euros a night), but I wanted to be legal and as close to the water as possible, so this is where we landed. Gruissan Plage is a typical Mediterranean coast resort town, a giant planned community of “chalets” (we would call them beach cottages) with a few restaurants and bars – sort of a Jersey Shore setup where people hang out for the summer. This early, it’s still fairly dead – almost all of the “chalets” are still closed up for the winter, but there are a fair number of day trippers who drive out and bring their children to the beach for a few hours, especially on weekends.
Like most camping facilities in Europe, there’s a gate and a gatehouse for the attendant, a very pleasant woman whose English was sparse but whose hospitality wasn’t. She’s an excellent pick for the job, and my meager French was more than enough to get all the formalities conducted. She directed us to park in the first lot when we arrived, an area along the etang (the boat channel from the inland lagoon, where the city of Guissan is to the ocean), which is closer to the surf line, but also right along the road out to the bar on the corner.
As the weekend approached, the second lot opened up and we moved over there – it’s facing the main bathing beach, separated by a lot for the day tripper’s cars to park. Both lots are hard packed surfaces and well maintained, but there aren’t assigned camping spots – people just park along the edges of the lot as it suits them, spacing themselves out evenly without much crowding. There are a few small trees in the first lot for shade, but none in the second lot. We didn’t want shade anyway, it’s barely above 70 in the hottest part of the day, and we needed the solar.
Most of the inhabitants appear to be people from the area, they seem to know each other, and small groups of people chatting away congregate around tables and chairs set up under the awnings outside the units. Everyone’s big on awnings here – they park so that there’s enough space on the passenger side of the RV for table, chairs, etc. They’re very particular about the dining experience – I have seen some elaborate meals served on these tiny tables, even if it’s just a couple traveling alone. Sitting down outdoors at a table to eat with silverware and napkins and a bottle of wine is a very important part of the European camping experience, apparently.
The predominance of Fiat Ducato-based Class Cs that I noticed further north is also in evidence here, but there are a few strange RVs – one guy had a giant Renault bus that he had converted to an RV, and there was the Brit with a gas Thor Industries A.C.E model Class A he had imported from the states. I hope he has converted it to propane, running something that size on gasoline in Europe isn’t economically viable. There were several Ducato-based Class Bs as well, plus a few Renault and Peugeot chassis Bs and Cs.
The facilities were a bit different from what we have back home, but were everything you need to operate your European RV – they even had threaded faucets for fresh water you could hook a hose up to, encased in a fenced enclosure for some reason, a gray water dump, which was a central drain on a concrete pad, and the vidoir, the repository for waste from cassette toilets. I appreciated the threaded faucet – it’s tedious to fill a 30 gallon fresh water tank two and a half gallons at a time using a collapsible water container. It’s Gruissan city water, and perfectly safe to drink, although the Europeans tend not to drink tap water, so they don’t worry about it as much as we do. Since the mountains come down to the sea here, the water is imminently drinkable and tastes wonderful.
It’s fun to sit here a few days and people watch as people congregate to socialize, bring their kids to the beach, and congregate in the cafes and bars. It’s a little noisy on weekend nights but not unpleasant – it’s a nice crowd. We can hear the waves breaking on the beach as we drift off to sleep. Everybody’s in a good mood here.
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