The afternoon of May 9, 2001 in Auray, France.I had spent the previous night in lovely Nantes, which although its former capital in not officially part of Brittany anymore nowadays. But now I most definitely was in Brittany/Bretagne/Breizh, where I was to spend some two weeks camping, walking, sightseeing and practicing my French.
One item I had brought there soon proved invaluable: a booklet that listed all campsites in the region. So now I was headed for the two-star Camping du Port d’Auray les Pommiers, located in St. Goustan, the port of the town of Auray. The people at the local train station’s information desk had roughly explained to me how to get there, first in French and then again in English so they could be certain I had truly understood.
The weather was nice and bright but not too hot. After some 4 km I got to the river Loch, and a sign pointing to St. Goustan, which turned out to be quite picturesque. I asked an old man if he knew where the campsite was (I have learned on previous trips that older people are often the best source to ask for directions). He didn’t, but he advised me to ask in a pub or so; someone there would know.
The street happened to be lined with restaurants and creperies, so I walked into the closest one, where they drew me a map on a coaster. It turned out I shouldn’t have followed the sign but just gone straight along the way I had been going for 200 meters or so; however, I had enjoyed my walk along the river so I didn’t really care about my detour.
When I got to the campsite it was 5.30pm or a bit later. There was no one at the reception. I took off my backpack and waited in front of the office for a bit, thinking the owner or whoever was supposed to check me in would probably return in a moment. When that didn’t happen, I tried knocking at the house next door, but there was no answer there either. The whole place looked rather abandoned. There were people staying at the campsite however, if not very many, and one woman suggested that I should try at the house indeed, but I told her I’d just done that without result. "Well, then you’ll have to wait," she said, and that’s what I did until I got tired of it at 6.30, and decided to write a note in my best French, saying I had put up my tent already and would pay when they returned. I shoved it under the door of the office. There was a sign saying you were not even allowed to enter, let alone install yourself without permission, but with the note I didn’t think they would mind really.
After I had put up my tent I walked back to the reception office, thinking (having gotten rather hungry by that time) if they hadn’t come back yet I would go into town and grab something to eat, and would pay later that evening or the next day. When I was almost there, a big dog (a German shepherd I think) ran towards me, barking and growling ferociously. Now I am afraid of dogs, but this beast and its shining sharp white teeth would’ve frightened anyone – or so I tell myself. I stumbled back, but this gesture apparently enraged Cujo even more. He started circling me, getting ever closer. I stood there as still as I could, though I couldn’t help but shake like a leaf. The fact that I technically was an intruder made me feel even worse.
"I am not afraid," I kept repeating to myself, something that, ever since someone told me as a kid that "dogs can smell fear," I have always done when passing big dogs on the street. But this was nothing like a dog kept on a leash by its owner, this was an actual threat. It lasted for a couple of minutes, then Cujo finally got bored with me and went off. I quickly walked away, glancing at the reception office to see my note still lying there, then getting the hell out of there.
I had pizza at one of the restaurants, and walked around town for a bit, then headed back to the campsite before dusk. Cujo was not there, and neither was the owner. I found out that one needed a key to use the bathroom. Now luckily there were sinks outside so I could at least brush my teeth, refill my water bottle and wash my face and hands, plus France has public toilets all over, but I could’ve done with a shower. I wrote down my adventures of the day in my diary and then went to bed.
The next morning, to my surprise there was still no one at reception, and my note was still there. Around 11am I decided to leave. After all, I had not come there to wait at the campsite all day. It was a beautiful day, one that felt like the height of summer. I went into the tourist office and inquired about busses between Auray and Carnac, one of the world’s most important prehistoric sites. Megaliths are a minor obsession of mine. When my sister and I were in Ireland a couple of years back, at one point she had cried out in desperation, "Oh no, you want to see stones again?!" But today I was on my own, and could see as many stones as I pleased. The nice people at the tourist office gave me a bus timetable, highlighted the times of the next bus, which was to leave from Auray around noon, and a map on which they marked the way to the nearest bus stop.
The bus turned out to be a minibus – with me as its only passenger. After a wonderful ride through the Breton countryside and along the Morbihan coast I arrived at Carnac. Its main sight, the allignements, turned out to be quite spectacular, despite being fenced off to protect the standing stones from erosion by too many tourists touching them.
The rows of menhirs go on for kilometres. The original purpose of the site remains a mystery, but its modern purpose is much clearer: to draw busloads of tourists to the village. Luckily the busses only started to arrive there after I had seen the allignements, so I could enjoy the sight in relative peace. Though it’s not completely certain that this was a religious site, it certainly inspired me with the same awe as the greatest cathedrals. I also visited the excellent museum of prehistory, and on a day like this who could resist going to the beach as well? Satisfied and happy I got on the bus back to Auray, a full-sized bus that transported more people this time.
I had decided that if there would still not be anyone at the campsite to take my money and provide me with a key to the bathroom, I would pack up and leave the next morning. When I got back there, my note was gone, but the office was still closed. Had the wind blown my letter away, or had someone actually read it but not cared enough to stay until I got back, or at least stick a note to the office door or my tent? Another mystery.
That evening I had another encounter with our dear friend Cujo. I was sitting in front of my tent, had just finished eating and was now reading my tourist guide to see where I could go the next day. He approached me, barking loudly. I tossed him an empty can of tuna, which seemed to please him, as he fetched it, licked it clean and then lay down in front of me. He seemed less dangerous now. If he were a cat he would have started purring. But he wasn’t a cat, he was a big dog with big sharp teeth. He kept eyeing me and occasionally growling, so I was still somewhat nervous and certainly did not dare get up. After a while he started barking and approaching me again, so I tossed him the lid of the can, and the same scene was repeated. Then he came to me once more, and I had nothing left to toss him, for I do not believe dogs like croissants, cheese or yoghurt. Luckily he soon heard or smelled something else, and off he went.
The next morning I left, without ever having seen the owner, and consequentially without paying. Their loss.
I took a train to Vannes, a beautiful mediaeval walled town and the capital of the Morbihan department, only 15 minutes away from Auray. The busses were on strike that day. I had to take a cab (which turned out to be less expensive than I had feared) to the campsite, a normal one with a real reception office that was not closed, and refreshing showers for me to use.
I had a similar experience later on, in the village of Dol-de-Bretagne, that has a huge menhir and makes a good base for a daytrip to St. Malo, Brittany’s most visited town. According to my booklet, there were 4 campsites there, 3 of which were open at that time of year. There were signs pointing to two of those, both 4-star (i.e. expensive) places, in the village centre. The third one was a small camping area at a farm, and since in this day of foot-and-mouth disease I feared that one might be closed, I decided to follow a sign to one of the 4-star affairs. It turned out to be much farther away than I’d anticipated, almost 10 km out of town.
It had taken me two hours of walking, along the busy main road through the pouring rain (and when it wasn’t raining, there were still the passing trucks to make sure I got wet) to get there.
The place was huge, and there seemed to be a lot of construction going on, but the reception office was closed. There was a note on the door however, saying that in that case, if you had no reservation you should go to the bar. The bar was closed as well.
I approached one of the men working nearby, and asked him if he knew where I could find someone from the campsite. He didn’t know, but directed me to a woman who would. She said I should go back to the office and wait there, they would return within the hour. So that’s what I did. Almost an hour later I was still standing there. It was no longer raining, but I was getting very cold in my wet clothes.
Then an Englishman, who later introduced himself as Graham, came to me and asked me what I wanted. "A place to camp," I told him, and he said he would arrange it for me. He explained to me the site would only officially open the next Saturday, and took me to the administration building (perhaps that is what the woman was referring to when she told me to go to the bureau, and not the reception building as I had supposed), where he did indeed arrange that I could camp there for two nights. He said I should come back the next morning to take care of payment, but when I did, no one there knew anything about my staying there, so they went to get Graham again. We made a deal that, since the usual facilities were not open yet (except for the bathroom, which was all I needed or got at previous campsites anyway), I should not pay the usual price but only 50 FF, a price comparable to the other, less fancy, campsites I had stayed at. We went into the office of the man I had to pay, but he quickly told me I shouldn’t bother, it was free. I was in budget travellers’ heaven!
So in the end I paid zero francs for sleeping arrangements 5 nights out of the 14 I spent in France (the 5th was a on a night train from Paris back home to Antwerp), without having to turn to actual freelance camping, which made up for the general expensiveness of the country big time. The gods of free accommodation must love me.