The heat from an August afternoon was intense. Our motorhome tour in The South of France had already revealed some of the best beachside Wild Camping spots imaginable.
Feeling the need to cool off in the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean, we once again found ourselves heading in the direction of water.
Approaching the fine white sands, we edged further, closer to the beach front. Before long, we’d found a fabulous parking place, parallel to the sea. Imagine just stepping outside the motorhome door directly on to the beach – bliss!
Here, we spent the night. Engrossed in the idyllic view, listening to the sound of waves breaking on the shore. This was paradise found, but little did we know it wasn’t to last.
The year was 2005 and the location – Marseillan Place, close to the resort of Séte. It was one of our first wild camping encounters and one we’ll never forget.
Back then “wild camping” had no real name. As we parked up wherever we liked, we were obliviously unaware of the “wild camping” trend that would eventually follow.
Most significantly the world of social media was a long way off, meaning pictures of idyllic parking places were a thing of the future.
Strangely enough as we happily ate lunch beside the sands of the Mediterranean sea, we were not alone! In fact, we were amongst hundred’s of motorhomes that were parked up as far as the eye could see.
Some of you may remember the long stretch of beach of Marseillan Plage. Reaching for miles along the narrow road running parallel to the beach, this was the heart of wild-camping territory.
To be honest, we’d never seen anything like it before. Motorhomes parked the whole way, taking up both sides of the sand-strewn road. Beside this spectacle was the still water of the Mediterranean Sea and the glory of France in summertime.
We blissfully spent a couple of days embracing this new found freedom of free parking with nature.
During the evening as the sun set, we’d relax outside with our feet gliding through the grains of sand, sipping wine and watching the world go by.
On the first evening, we couldn’t believe our eyes as a fin appeared in the flat calm shallow water in front of us. Watching as it swam along the shoreline, some locals confirmed it to be a shark, checking out the shallows right there for all to see.
When we felt like moving on, we just drove a little further along the coast or on to the next resort. Having a place to park beside a beach, marina, pretty harbour or nature reserve was just such a privilege. Little did we realise it would all be gone before too long.
Why is it that you can’t see these things coming at the time?
Looking back, we were just so fortunate to experience the beautiful places to park with so many other’s for company. Sharing the most incredible scenery out there on the French coast seemed unstoppable.
Fast forward a few years and a tour along the French coast brought us to another level of “wild camping”.
Driving onto the sands of Salins de Giraud in the heart of The Camargue, we couldn’t comprehend the scale of campervans, motorhomes and touring caravans that had descended on this Summer hot spot.
The beach stretched on for miles, adorned with every type of touring van imaginable! Many were parked up for the Summer. Pitched in the sand dunes, awnings out along with every accessory to make for a comfortable stay.
It was a sight we’ll never forget and most significantly, never see again. Unbeknown to us, parking up on those flat, vast sands that day was probably the last time we’d experience such freedom to roam in a motorhome.
There we were, in the hey day of “wild camping”. Yet, we were blissfully unaware that we were in the last great days of being allowed to park in such incredible locations.
Unsurprisingly, we later found out that this was “The Biggest Wild camping spot in Europe”!
Even more strangely back then motorhomes were really still a bit uncool in Britain! On the other hand we were amongst the French, who were showing off their passion in big style.
It would be another decade before motorhomes and vans of all descriptions became the “must have” accessory back home.
We wondered why everyone didn’t just love motorhome travel, but the French already did in bucket loads!
We still remember on another trip, this time to the West coast of France, trying to find a parking spot at Biarritz. We’d already been to a couple of Aires which were full to bursting, so instead we did as you always did back then – follow another motorhome to check out if they knew of a place to park.
Before we knew it, we’d followed a group of three Italian motorhomes, which lead us into an empty parking area next to a pool complex.
No sooner had we parked up alongside them, than low and behold, motorhome after motorhome rolled in after us. Within no time at all, the parking area was full of motorhomes stopping the night!
It’s hard to believe in our mobile data world of technology that it hasn’t always been like this! Do you remember browsing on a laptop at an internet cafe or queuing in the tourist office for a computer?
In other words, we were experiencing a raw world of motorhome travel. The freedom to roam before the explosion into the mass world of technology was pretty magical!
Imagine that world before instant sharing, apps or even internet for all, let alone, the invention of smart phones!
Of course, with those came the camera, bringing both advantages and disadvantages.
Why? Well, because for every van, campervan or motorhome wild camping, there will usually be a hacked off local with camera phone in hand to photograph the evidence!
Then, before you know it, you’ve unexpectedly and often unknowingly made the local newspaper with your overnight parking spot!
Of course, like all trends, they have to start somewhere. Looking back now, I can’t help thinking it began way back then in those glory days of the early to mid 00’s.
Like most trends, at the time we had no clue of the change happening. Not only was wild camping to become cool but also a photographic and social media obsession too.
The result – an explosion in campervan and motorhome purchase and vanlife travel in general.
So, what’s changed and when did it happen?
Fast forward ten to fifteen years from our days parked beside the clear waters of the Mediterranean. The craze of parking up overnight is known as “Wild camping” and it’s the trend of the moment.
Originally used to describe hiking up a mountain with a tent for the night, wild camping has metamorphosed.
Even in its heyday, visits to the French coast had already begun to see big changes. Idyllic beachside parking locations that we knew and loved, were quickly being lost.
The reasons were not always obvious, but mass infrastructure played its apart.This included new road layouts, the construction of cycle paths, as well as other new developments such as housing, retail parks and leisure facilities.
As the coastal layouts changed, the wild camping spots were disappearing fast.
So, last Autumn we returned to some of those once magical parking spots for a little trip down memory lane. Not surprisingly, we found a whole different set of rules and restrictions across the French coast.
Starting at Menton on the Italian border, we enthusiastically drove the coastal route to the border with Spain.
Unfortunately, parking overnight in wild camping spots is pretty much a thing of the past, let alone idyllic ones!
I have to say, it’s sad to see those old hot spots gone forever. Especially as they’re replaced by signs displaying rules!
“No Overnight sleeping in vehicles”, “No Motorhomes”, height restriction signs and more. The list goes on. Anything to keep out the motorhome and Campervan folk who once lined up side by side along these shores.
That’s not all – height barriers in fenced-off car parks ensure high vehicles are kept away. Whilst fabulous beach locations, once filled with motorhomes are now strictly off limits.
Most significantly, dirt roads and lay-by’s are now excellent cycle paths and neat tarmac car parks. The routes to the beaches immersed into new infrastructure, seemed almost unrecognisable.
Hidden little wild camping gem’s have disappeared into the improvements. In addition, nature reserve’s and national park’s are protected, keeping overnight camping and vehicles out.
There’s no flouting the rules as police regularly patrol, issuing fines or warnings. We watched them move locals on, despite them trying to argue their case for staying!
Of course, a few still try their luck at parking on a road or in a car park. Ironically, we now stay on Aires instead of trying skip the rules, after all, if they provide them, then we should use them!
Having said that, we still see small vans that fit below a height barrier taking their chances, despite signs to state otherwise. Sound familiar? The pop-up roof often makes an appearance to give the game away!
Some van owners will, of course, be posting the illusion of idyllic parking beside the Mediterranean. Whilst many unsuspecting social media followers are unaware of the reality.
Then there’s the locals. Some are all too willing to take pictures, before reporting back to authorities on the those ignoring the rules.
Finally, there’s the problem of Apps. A useful tool, maybe, but they’ve made finding overnight parking too convenient. Not only often portraying the belief that parking is allowed anywhere, but also because anyone knows instantly where a van may be parked for the night.
Of course, this means not only genuine motorhome or vanlife travellers, but more worryingly, anyone else out there! Leaving us more vulnerable to unscrupulous types in the process.
The smart phone, app and social media era brought with it a movie-type illusion to modern day overnight parking places.
This comes as a double-edged sword, because it also brings the once hidden places to the masses. Including those that will do anything to put a stop to both the wild camping phenomenon and Aires.
We know how quickly things can change. Having seen those amazing wild camping spots disappear, we fear that Aires could be next.
Now, we are so grateful for those incredible early days of wild camping that we enjoyed so freely.
Wild camping in the South of France and other parts of Europe was just crazy! We’re so grateful to have been a part of it, although looking back, it was probably out of control and had to change.
Thankfully, those amazing locations are still in our memory, a time of incredible freedom, let alone unrivalled experiences.
Unbeknown to us, parking with the masses on those wild camping beaches in the South of France, probably lead to the ban we now live with.
Finally, we know we were part of a motorhome generation that were able to park wherever the golden opportunity arose. All without a rule book in sight, other than the general motorhome owner phrase of “just head to the water, river, lake or sea, that’s where they’ll be”!
If only things were so simple nowadays!