Imagine my dilemma; I have discovered an organisation that provides free overnight motorhome stopovers, in some of the most beautiful and tranquil locations in France. Do I share it with the wider motorhoming fraternity? On the other hand, do I keep this information to myself, in the hope that these wonderful stopovers remain quiet?
My Husband and I first discovered France Passion when planning our summer tour of France and have since stayed at nearly two dozen vineyards and farms. All were good but a few stand out in our minds.
Our first France Passion site was a farm at Saint Croix de Marieul, in the Dordogne. As per the suggestion in the France Passion guidebook, we followed the 'camping car' signs (French for motorhome) to the parking area and went in search of the owners to say "bonjour". We found two teenage boys who abandoned their Play Station game for long enough to convey to us that their parents would be around "ce soir" - this evening. We settled quickly in the peaceful rural surroundings and enjoyed the wonderful view. Dozens of butterflies entertained us as they flitted around the motorhome and flowers. We relaxed all afternoon and evening then had a good night's sleep.
I am quite a heavy sleeper and rarely need to count sheep to send me off, but even I awoke next morning when a thundering noise started about 15 feet from our motorhome. We quickly opened the blind and were quite surprised to see a flock of 50 sheep hurtling past our camper on their way to their pasture! This slightly earlier start meant that we had time for a leisurely breakfast before we packed up our motorhome, said "au revoir"to our hosts and carried on our way.
Our second France Passion site was listed in the guidebook as a vineyard and was in the town of Chateauneuf-de-Charente, in the Charente region. The owners were on holiday, but a neighbour told us it was fine to stay anyway and showed us where to park. Unfortunately, the vineyard turned out to be just the 'yard' and no 'vin', which was a shame as we'd been looking forward to a little tasting session! Nevertheless, we had a lovely afternoon, ambling along the banks of the River Charente and partaking of a little of our own 'vin'. You can see that there is a pattern emerging here, as all went well until we were ready to leave the following morning; someone had locked the gates, with us on the inside! After a few minutes of panic, we managed to find another neighbour, who looked puzzled to see us there, but let us out.
Our next few France Passion sites were just as relaxing but without any traumatic reveille: a vineyard (with actual vines, this time) on the Ile d'Orèlon; a poultry farm at Saint Gervais; vineyards at Drain and Juigne-sur-Loire, all with friendly and welcoming owners. In Dampierre-sur-Loire, we stayed at the Domaine de la Cune, where Jean-Luc took great pleasure in explaining to us just how we could purchase our very own row of vines: what a wonderful Christmas present for the man or woman who has everything!
At Saint-Joachim, we shared the field with free-range chickens and turkeys (no offense to turkeys, but aren't they ugly?!) and a German couple with a small campervan and two young children. We sat in amazement as they started unloading vast quantities of gear from their camper; how they managed to fit the children in, I really don't know! This also made us feel a little uncomfortable because the France Passion code clearly states motorhomes and campervans must be self-sufficient and forbids camping activities. There was an opportunity to take a trip on a flat-bottomed boat known as a chaland on the Brière marshes that has a wealth of flora and fauna to see. We did not go, but the German family did, and said it was excellent.
We started another motorhome tour of France in the following April and stayed at a France Passion site at the first available opportunity. This was in Jurançon, approximately 50km from the Pyrenees. That afternoon, I sat in my reclining garden chair, glass of wine in hand, in a field full of dandelions in puffball mode, listening to the frog chorus and looking out over the snow-topped Pyrenees; all was well with the world.
As our French is still quite basic, probably more Franglais than French, we sometimes look out for those France Passion farms or vineyards where the symbol shows that the owners are English speaking. This was the case at a vineyard at Campsas in the Tarn-et-Garonne, but unfortunately, the English speaker turned out to be Madame, who at that time was on holiday; Monsieur's English was even worse than our French! Not to be deterred, we arranged for an early evening wine tasting and with the help of a bit of sign language and a drawing, had the wine growing and bottling process explained to us. So pleased were we all with our new-found fluency, Monsieur first took us to his cherry trees, where we ate cherries fresh from the tree, then to have a look at his 12 day old frizzle chicks; they were so cute!
Unfortunately, we had to cut our summer motorhome trip short but we are looking forward to next summer, when we hope to extend our Passion stopover experience. Italy and Germany are top of our wish list now and I cannot wait!
France Passion has been providing motorhome stopovers in France since 1992. France Passion's 1915 host properties are primarily vineyards and a wide variety of farms producing local produce such as honey, cheese, beef, sausages, salamis snails, and fruit. Some of the stopovers are at restaurants and some in the gardens of 'camping-caristes', French motorhome owners.
When you buy a France passion invitations guide (£24.99 in 2016), you become a guest and can stay at a host farm or vineyard, free of charge, for one night. The peculiarities of French law allow only fully self-sufficient campervans and motorhomes to use these French stopovers. The host farmers are not required to provide camping facilities though a small number of hosts do provide water, dustbins, even showers. Many of the hosts offer vineyard and farm tours and tastings; although there is often a wealth of products available to buy, we have never felt pressured to do so. Some hosts speak English, some do not, but even with our rather basic French and a few hand signals, we have enjoyed conversations with our hosts about a variety of subjects, from vine trimming to the care of 12 day old frizzle chicks!
Farm and vineyard stopovers are also available in other countries, namely Spain, Germany and Italy, although I have not yet had the pleasure of visiting those sites. Guides for all these stopovers are available from the UK agent, Vicarious Media.
Written and photographed by Donna Garner
The 26th edition of the France Passion Guide offers a choice of 2000 stopover sites, with more than 1000 new stopovers added in the last 5 years.