Free Camping, Ancients & Wine – Tautavel, France
We crossed back into France on a windy day.
It was an easy drive on the highway, although we did get thrashed about a bit in the wind. LMB is not a big girl, weighing a mere 3.5 tonnes so she doesn’t have quite the same solid grip on the road as our old 33,000 lb “beast”. Still she did fine and we passed the border without barely any notice at all (I’m sure something was there to mark it, but I just don’t remember seeing anything!?), continuing a short while south past Perpignan on toll road A9 before heading off on a quiet D-type side road.
Our goal was simple. We were going to drive the most scenic route home taking D117 most of the way, a long twist of a road paralleling the the Northern side of the Pyrenees. It would be a drive though a multitude of quaint little French villages with almost no-one around, past gorgeous mountains and through a stunning gorge, interspersed by endless fields of rolling vineyards. Plus we planned to stop along the way to visit some of our (very, very old) ancestors, and properly sample a smidgen of the local vino.
Yup, this is what it’s like to travel in France, a mix of amazing landscapes overflowing with wine options. Being surrounded by these types of places are just some of the many hardships we endure to live in this part of the world. Oui, la vie est dure….
The Roussillon Wine Region
This particular part of wine country is perhaps not as worldly famous as some of its northern compatriots (I’m thinking of you, Bordeaux), but it maintains a strong standing for those in the know.
The entire region, known as Languedoc-Roussillon stretches from the Rhône valley in the east to the Spanish border in the southwest, and contains 300,000 hectares of vineyards, making it France’s largest wine producing region. The Roussillon part of this space is the southern section and its unique geology creates a slew of micro-climates that allows up to 24 different varieties of grapes to grow. You can get anything from heavy reds, dripping in syrah and granache to light roses and sweet whites. It’s quite the range.
Tautavel is in the smack center of this area, a valley surrounded by mountains, with a soil marked by granite and quartz (important contributors to the local terroir), relatively low rainfall and a cool climate thanks to topology and a slightly increased altitude (650ft/200m). For the non winehead-techies amongst you all you need to know is that this leads to some pretty darn incredible wines, and thus the perfect place to park your rig for a night.
There’s History Here Too (Ancient History)
Another draw of Tautavel is it’s incredibly well-preserved and veeeery old history.
Tautavel claims its place as the European center of pre-history. It is home to the skull of the Tautavel Man (Homo erectus tautavelensis) a subspecies that lived 450,000 years ago. The skull was found in a cave (Arago Cave) ~4km north of town which was occupied as early as 600,000 years ago, one of the earliest known from the middle Pleistocene era in the Pyrénées.
In the same place, archaeologists have discovered a treasure trove of other remains including early hunting and scraping tools, and hundreds of ancient animal skeletons in over fifteen meters of sediment. It’s a pretty important spot.
There is a large museum in town (Musée de Préhistoire) dedicated to prehistoric history with lots of good info for both adults and kids who are into the really, really old stuff. It’s a good visit and well worth the mere EUR 8 it costs to get in.
Plus There’s Free Camping!
Another beauty about Tautavel, and traveling in France in general is that there are SO MANY free camping options.
Many European RVers rate France as their #1 motorhoming location, not only because it’s a country rich in beauty and food, but also because it is so open and welcoming to motorhomes. There are thousands of free (or nearly free) Aires (= Aires de Services or motorhome servicing points) all over the country, plus there is almost always a free place to park (and if desired spend the night) in nearly every small village. This type of camping is not exactly wild-camping or what I’d call boondocking since you’re not out in the “boonies” of nature by yourself, but it is free camping in quiet areas close to the centers of pretty, quaint little towns. It is SUPER cool!
Tautavel has no less than 2 such spots to park minutes walk from their downtown area, both of which can easily be found on Park4Night. We chose one right by a sculpture garden giving us access to a green area right outside our door with a view of the high granite hills of Tautavel all around us. There were a few other campers that came and went during our stay, as well as a few day-trippers, but all-in-all it was super quiet and perfectly chillaxed.
We Chill For A Day And Explore
We arrived before lunch and settled in to chill for the next 24 hours in town.
We’re still in low season, which means many of the wine shops and restaurants are not open yet but also means yet another cool little town all to ourselves. We took Polly for a walk around the center, dropping in at the only open wine store who gladly invited us and the paws in for a tasting and a chat. Polly checked out the wares while Paul and I mustered our way through 12 or so different wines, leaving the shop with the obligatory case of reds (is it even humanely possible to buy any less?). After that Paul headed home while I checked out the prehistoric museum, a cool little visit.
The next AM we both went for a hike up the hills behind town to the Château de Tautavel, a set of ruins dating back to the 11th century. It’s a steep 20-min hike uphill, but the views of the valley from the top are spectacular. For those so inclined hiking trails go on for hours past this point, weaving for hundreds of miles through the mountains in all directions. It’s a bit of a hikers paradise here too.
Super sweet town and TOTALLY worth the stay!
We Drive Through The Gorge & Past Cathar Castles
The next day, itching to get home we take the drive through the gorge.
There are actually a bunch of gorges around this area, including the locally famous Gorges de Gouleyrous north of Tautavel.
The drive we do on D117 is through a lesser gorge, but it passes by several spectacular Cathar Castles, which are perched precariously on steep clifftops along the way. My father visited 5 of these castles (the “Five Sons”) on his blog several years ago and one day we’ll have to go back and do the same. There’s just SO much to explore here.
Driving through this area only confirms how much cool stuff we still have to see, just a few hours from our house. We really are lucky to live here.
And Thus Ends Our First Mini-Trip In LMB
It was only a few weeks on the road, but we were already hooked.
Like many things we worried WAY too much before we left. Would we do OK in the mini-rig? Would the pets be able to adapt? Would we like the European style of camping, or would be pine for what we had in the USA? Would we get used to driving without a tow vehicle?
Soooo many questions, soooo many unknowns….
But like many things in life, if you take the leap with an open mind and tackle barriers as they come up you’ll quickly find that things have a way of working themselves out. Yeah, the rig was small but she is SO well made and SO well insulated that she’s a comfort to be in despite the mini-space. Yes, the pets were unhappy to begin with, but they adapted within a few days and by the end of the trip it was just life as normal. And oui, European camping is different. The campgrounds are smaller and the sites closer together, but they are SO well situated, and much like Goldilocks and the 3 bears being in the mini-rig makes them seem “just right”.
Plus we’ve experienced all the things we hoped for and more. More nature than we envisioned, so much more space, such great food, such wonderful people. I think this part-time Europe RVing thing is going to work out just fine…..:)
Coming Up Next -> A recap of our Mini-Trip, including miles and costs…SPONSORED LINK:
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