Guest post by Clare Naden, student in one of my workshops. If you'd like to take a workshop or join a retreat, check out the offerings here.
I arrived at the camp on a hot summer’s day, but this time, no one was there, waiting for the kids to return from a day on the river. The big white van and stacks of canoes were all just sitting there, abandoned in the long and sticky grass. The place was deserted: COVID-19 had kept the tourists away for years and all that was left of this British summer camp in the south of France was a suspense in the air as if they might return at any moment.
It had taken me a little time to find it, but I knew I was getting closer when the road turned into what I call a tree tunnel. Those wonderful roads you find in the sunnier parts of France where the tall plane trees lining the roadside reach up and over to greet those on the other side and enclose you in their greenness like a warm embrace. It reminded me of that game we played as kids, where we held hands high above our heads, and when it got to our turn, we hurried through the tunnel of arms to keep the chain constantly renewing.
Renewing. That’s what I was doing, renewing my love affair with France by returning to where it all began, where I first heard the word Bonjour on native soil more than two decades ago. I was headed to the patch of land two kilometres from a tiny village called Vagnas in the Ardèche region of France, where I once worked on a British kids’ summer camp.
The Ardèche, known for its spectacular gorge, wild landscapes, fresh chestnuts and narrow roads leading to medieval villages perched on hilltops, sits roughly halfway between Lyon and Montpellier in France’s southeast. With no airports or train stations, it tends to attract mainly French tourists, and outside the summer months, not so many tourists at all. It has all the ingredients to seduce a hapless New Zealander on her gap year travels (me). It’s where my love affair with the ‘Hexagon’ began.
Arriving at the village, I turned the first corner, where a bar once stood. It had been one of those bars that were all dark inside, with the lights off to save power, with an ice cream freezer and stale croissants on the counter. I had been there once with fellow summer camp staff, hoping to find some nightlife. Instead, we found old men drinking pastis who gaped at us as we ordered bad wine in very bad French.
Nowadays, there are no croissants or old men to be seen. Instead, it’s a bistrot with bright and breezy beiges and browns with high stools at the bar and large outdoor tables and big menus with big plates aimed at chasing the dinginess of its past away.
But it too was closed. It was June 2022, and the repeated lockdowns and curfews of the last few years had taken their toll on everyone.
I parked beside it on the road that led to the camp where I worked so many summers ago. I knew it well back then, with its wide ditch that some of us nearly fell into when stumbling back from the village ‘fête’. It was our Saturday night highlight, to head to the main square, drink cheap punch in plastic cups, and watch many French people dance to lots of loud accordion music.
Vagnas may seem a strange place for a summer camp, but it sits some 10 km from Pont d’Arc in the Ardèche gorge, where our British guides took British kids on canoeing expeditions down the Ardèche River. I remember the big vans with rows and rows of pale blue canoes strapped on, setting off each morning and returning each night. One day, they took us kitchen girls out to have a go, too. It was hot and sunny and wild and beautiful. I loved it. That summer was also my first experience of stinging nettles when I had wandered off from the water’s edge and into the foliage in search of a private place to pee. I think this naïve Kiwi girl, on her first experience of the ‘continent’, provided much amusement to the more seasoned Brits.
Pont d’Arc is a natural rock arch in the gorge, made a world heritage UNESCO site in 2014 and where many canoeing trips commence. The gorge, known as the European Grand Canyon, allows for 22 km of spectacular paddling down the winding Ardèche River, surrounded by dramatic limestone cliffs rising 250m high. Lush Mediterranean vegetation – willow, maple and poplar trees - lines its rocky shores. The gorge has 2000 prehistoric caves: some with paintings dating back more than 30,000 years, rich evidence of Upper Paleolithic life.
Pont d'Arc in the Ardèche
Arriving at the camp, I crept past the main entrance, now empty. ‘closed due to COVID’ sign hung on the door. I was searching for the green canvas tents where I once slept for three long hot summer months. Instead, I found myself in a small clearing with American-style wooden cabins with their own verandas and large glass doors that I could peer into.
Somewhat disappointed, I then headed in the direction of the swimming pool, where I had spent many an hour wafting around with the other cooks and helpers. The work, like the pay, was minimal, and we had many hot hours to waste. But that too was deserted. The water had gone, and all that was left was some green slime, and weeds were growing out of the concrete.
I returned past the cabins and into the depths of a forest looking for what we called the ‘headquarters’, or the director’s office where us ‘oldies’ (ie anyone aged over 20) would drink white wine from huge plastic ‘bon bons’ around a bonfire, pretending we knew things about things.
Instead, I came up against a fence that marked the edge of a rare animal park that had sprung up in the years since I had last been there. Now, instead of camp leaders wandering the forest paths, there were alpacas, wallabies, dwarf goats and Aurochs, a type of ox that has been around since the days of the cavemen.
It was all fenced off, meaning I couldn’t cut through and see the roads beyond. The ones that ignited my love affair with France in the first place and made me vow I’d come back here someday for good.
Because when I wasn’t sunbathing by the pool, I would take an old rickety bike that was lying around, cut through the forest and cycle along long undulating roads lined with vast lavender and sunflower fields, blanketed in brilliant purples and yellows, through charming stone villages with spired churches. The stuff that dreams are made of.
I’d look longingly into people’s driveways as I sped past, fascinated that it was a place where people actually lived. It had all seemed so Peter Mayle, so ‘A Year in Provence’, a fairytale brought alive.
The wildlife park was also closed due to Covid, and I was kind of happy to leave those charming roads beyond in my memories from some 20 years ago. I was already living my dream, and I knew the Brits and the kids would one day return, and the fairytale would live on for many more to come.