Wild Swimming France – one long aquasmic adventure

Photo: Wild Swim France

Wild Swimming France is full of warnings about health and safety, and how wild swimming must be treated with caution and care. However, what it did not warn me about was the extreme pain I was going to get when reading it, caused by an acute case of resentment that I wasn’t jumping off  the white dolomite rocks of the Mercantour National Park into the turquoise pools beneath, or letting the River Dordogne carry me downstream on my back, as I float under fern adorned rock arches. Or, I admit it, that I wasn’t married to the guy who wrote it.

As I lay in bed leafing through every river, lake and gorge, in a Sunday morning lazy lie in sort of a way, groaning each time I looked at an even more seductive wild swimming location my (equally wonderful of course) husband became rightly curious about the fantasy land the book was taking me into, as he listened on from the kitchen making coffee.  My greatest ‘When Harry met Sally’ moment had to be in The Var, however, where Daniel Start, the author, slides down slot canyons into concealed plunge pools using  waterfalls as modes of transport from one pool to another. This is extreme wild swimming, however, and he rightly advises readers to only attempt this with canyoning experts. The majority of the swimming locations (and there are over four hundred of them) are more accessible, all inland, and mostly in the southern part of France.

Photo: Wild Swim France

The book is a brilliant guide to France too, especially if hiking is your thing, offering  the perfect introduction to the French pastime of ‘aqua-randonnée’ , where you scramble your way along rocks and through water wearing good aqua shoes and a waterproof back pack. Divided into regions, with excellent maps, and more detailed latitude and longitude readings, as well as details on how difficult a walk it is to access the swim point, Wild Swimming France will make you want to explore parts of  France you may never even know existed before. More groans.

Another handy breakdown in the index is the ‘themed’ swimming points, so if you love waterfalls you can check out all of Daniel’s G-ushing spots in one go. Or if freestyling past a chateau, such as the glorious Chenonceaux in Normandy which sits on the River Cher is your scene, then you can find several such bourgeois bathing points. There is also a great collection of locations suitable for families, as well as some with small camping facilities nearby, such as the riverside tipis at Les Cournoulises on the banks of the River Lot.

Photo: Wild Swim France

I love the fact that this book isn’t all health and safety obsessed either, although it does warn you about the dangers of wild swimming, of course. For example, there is a useful explanation of how many of France’s river levels are controlled by the EDF (Electricité de France) due their being an important source of hydropower. The book points out that there are EDF signs on many of the rivers to warn that water levels can suddenly increase due to dam release, and that care should be taken at these times.

However, Daniel does turn a blind eye to rules and regulations in the book sometimes, making the book even more readable, of course.  For example, at the magnificent waterfall Sillans-la-Cascade in the Haut Var region, where the main pool is closed to swimmers due to a freak rockfall,  Daniel tells us most local people ignore the signs, and there is a photo of someone, possibly the author himself, diving into its stunning waters.  And although wild camping is illegal in France, he isn’t afraid to admit that he, like many others, do partake of it, albeit responsibly, and reminds us to ensure that wild campers should arrive late and leave early, should not light fires, and must absolutely leave no trace.

So, buy the book as a gift to yourself or any other water loving Francophile you know, or just to drool over on a Sunday morning, if that is your thing. Daniel has also written Wild Swimming (UK) and Wild Swimming Coast and there is also an app for these. He is one Smart guy. But not as smart as the woman who married him.


Ile de Batz, Brittany, France

Catherine's family on Ile de Batz at Poul C'horz Photo: Catherine Mack

I don’t really get the island daytrip thing. Why would you go for a day when, in most cases, you can stay for a few, explore every corner, get to know some of the people who live there, and not worry about catching the last ferry home? But I now realise that I am becoming a bit of an offshore obsessive. It all started with La Gomera off Tenerife, way back in my twenties, when I got a last minute cheap flight to the mainland, and followed a few hippies heading straight from the airport to the port to catch the first crossing of the day to this unheard of place which at that time was way off all traditional tourist radars. I have been there three times since then, as well as La Graciosa off Lanzarote, Formentera off Ibiza, Privc off Croatia, and  not forgetting my rapidly growing love affair with Ireland’s own fine collection, of course.  The latest to steal my soul is the Ile de Batz, just fifteen minutes off Roscoff in Brittany.

I don’t think it’s a case of feeding some sort of Crusoe craving, as deserted tropical islands don’t really do it for me.  I am not even great with small ferry crossings, but as soon as I can see new shorelines and micro landscapes approach, my wanderlust kicks some strength into my otherwise wobbly sea legs. I spotted the Ile de Batz on a walking tour of Brittany’s pink granite coastline last year , just one of the many granite rocky outcrops which pepper the Breton waters. Island daytrips are a feature of this coast, but as we had accommodation pre-booked along the mainland we stuck to our walking itinerary that time round. Ile de Batz grabbed my attention, however, because despite being pretty well populated (nearly 600 permanent residents), car-free to visitors,  plenty of ferry connections, a shop, bike hire,  accommodation  and even a campsite, it had hidden its Breton beauty under a bushel, tucked well away from those who are just passing through.  

As people whizzed off the Roscoff ferry in search of autoroutes or cycling trails, we walked into the sleepy town centre, just ten minutes from the port, where we grabbed a €7 breakfast of ‘grand crème’, freshly squeezed orange juice, a pannier full of warm croissants and pain de campagne. I find it strangely  reassuring on my travels to revisit the same spot, and this sunny waterside Café Ty Pierre was where I had sat this time last year, spotted signs to the island, and been gripped by my island grá.  There are ferries to the island every hour, so we supped slowly, took in our new surroundings, and headed out along the pier for the 11am departure. The journey was very calm, crossing out into the bay past the island’s south east peninsula, a Breton flag flying on the cliff top. Well, more high rocks than cliffs, really, with the highest point of the island a mere 33 metres. My heart lifted at the sight of the first white sandy cove of Pors Adelig, then another, Pors Alliou, with just a couple of small fishing boats bobbing in each, before we came round one more small headland into our mooring point, and hub of the island,  at Pors Kernoc.

Hire bikes on Ile de Batz Photo: Catherine Mack

We had booked a family room at the island’s Auberge de Jeunesse, or youth hostel, which was just five minutes’ walk from the pier, up a short hill past seashore creperies and couple of bike hire outlets, to a spot which is elevated enough to see paths leading down to both the north east and south east sides of the island. The Ile de Batz is only 3.5 kms long and 1.5 kms wide, with a walk around the whole coastline all of 12 kms. Ah, so we could ‘do it in a day’ , I hear you say, and yes you could, but for the other island infatuates out there, you can do half the island one day, the other half the next, and then just choose a different beach to loll on each day after that, with one for almost every kilometre you cover.

Our first beach, Pors Alliou, was just fifty metres from the hostel, down a quiet path to sands which lead out to grassy island when the tides are low, but which we left in peace as hundreds of seabirds were nesting at the time. But it must make the most perfect fishing spot at other times of year. Pors Allious was close enough to run down in togs and a towel (OK, wetsuits) and be back to put the kettle on, which we did need as the waters here were Celtic cold. There is plenty of drying room at the hostel, so don’t hesitate to pack a wetsuit if you love a quick dip, especially with enticing swim spots at the end of just about every lane.

The hostel is basic and not for everyone, but I value the hostel ethos, and even though our family room was just a smaller dorm off the larger communal one, which we had to pass through to go to the loos and (not very efficient) showers, we threw ourselves into the hostelling vibe of it all and enjoyed the company of our fellow travellers. Especially over breakfast, with fresh baguettes, Breton butter, home-made jam and coffee always ready when we got up,  all of us pyjama clad in the communal area discussing our plans for the day.  A couple of battered sofas were much needed in my view, however, with benches around tables getting a bit tiresome after a day. And with what one co-hosteller described as ‘grains de pluie’ (literally ‘grains of rain’) being regular features in Brittany,  you do need a bit of a cosy corner to play cards in or read your book, rather than just heading back to the dorm. There are, however, plenty of self-catering options on the island as well as a couple of charming guest houses. See iledebatz.com for details.

Luckily, the sun shone nearly the whole time for us, and with my 9 year old discovering a love of rock climbing, and almost every beach being accessible by gripping and grasping his way along the impressive piles of granite, we were out all day. My husband volunteered to supervise the clambering while my 12 year old son and I opted for the rather more yielding dune and marram grass route up above. This route also shows off the impressive amount of farming on the island, something a lot less evident in island life back home. Fields bearing potatoes, cauliflowers and shallots belong to 25 farms in total, their produce being sold on via a cooperative to mainland supermarkets all over France. This explains why the only traffic you see on the island is that of a few tractors. Otherwise the roads are quiet, allowing us to send the kids into the feral mode they so miss living the urban lives we have thrust upon them.

Fishing is also still very much in evidence on the Ile de Batz, with several houses along our walks offering fish and seafood for sale. Within two minutes’ walk from the hostel we were able to buy fresh new potatoes straight from the field and so, on our second night we dined on enormous Pollack steaks with local salad and spuds, all sourced within about three minutes’ walk from the hostel, as we sat in the sun overlooking the bay. Another night was spent drinking our aperitifs and eating savoury galettes and crepes at the Creperie du Port, again on the sunny water’s edge, where fishermen gathered at the end of the day, and kids spent hours jumping over the sea wall onto the soft sands below.

And all only ten minutes’ walk back along the shore to our beds. Ah, so perhaps that is why I have an insatiable love of islands. It isn’t some tortured need to be isolated from the world, or to feel like I can walk around it and always know where I will end up. It’s simply sheer laziness. Nothing is far away, natural beauty is everywhere I look, I can swim, trek and cycle, and not feel as if I have to take on a triathlon, and the pace of life reverts to the traditional clocks of farming and fishing. We all tuned into this quickly and happily, watching the daytrip suckers dash for the last boat back, as we sipped our Breton cider ‘au bar’ and pretended we were locals. We may have only been islanders for a few days, but the separation of even just this short stretch of water made us feel as if we had been marooned for a month.

Ile de Batz Porz Reter Photo: Catherine Mack

Go there: Take the ferry from Cork in Ireland, or Plymouth in UK to Roscoff with Brittany Ferries. From €185 per person return from Ireland, based on two passengers travelling on foot and sharing a 2-berth en suite cabin. Or £160 return from UK. Ferry from Roscoff to Ile de Batz €8 adults, €4 children. Bring cash for the island ferry, as card facilities were not available when we travelled.

Stay there: International Youth Hostel Association Membership  €11 for under 26,€16 for over 26,  €23 for family (per annum), Seemauberges-de-jeunesse.com. €17 per night including breakfast to stay at the Ile de Batz youth hostel. Sheets €2.50 per visit.  For information on all other accommodation see iledebatz.com

Eat there: There is a small island market every Sunday morning in the summer season, or you can catch a burgeoning food market in Roscoff every Wednesday between 7am-2pm, with over 150 stalls. Otherwise the island has a host of creperies and family run restaurants. For more information on Brittany and its stunning coastline, see  brittanytourism.com

This article was first published in The Irish Times


Huttopia campsites, France

huttopia07-0341They say that the three most stressful events in your life are moving house, getting divorced and loss of a loved one. But they forgot one thing. Going camping. Sometimes it feels like it’s up there with the big three.  I might as well be moving house with all the stuff I need to take. This alone is enough to put our marriage in the balance, never mind the potential to throttle one of my loved ones in the process. It takes me about two days to recover after finally getting the tent up.


But last year, we did it, loved it, and survived to tell the tale. All thanks to the genius behind Huttopia, an innovative eco-friendly campsite in Rambouillet, in the Yvelines region of northern France. We had already stayed in a wooden lodge at their Versailles site on a visit to Paris, where our neighbouring cream canvas tents made camping look almost romantic again.


Huttopia has worked out how to do camping sans stress, providing everything from bedding to bottle openers. Packing, what packing? Clothes, books, games and a few sandwiches for the journey. That was it. We even had room for kids’ bikes in the boot. So no bike carrier nonsense to up the stress levels at 6am on the morning of departure either. The ferry crossing was smooth, and the autoroutes traditionally traffic-free as we were staying north, rather than joining the rabble heading south on the Route du Soleil. 


But this was just the calm before the storm. The rain started about five kilometres outside Paris, and didn’t stop for five days. We arrived at a mud-filled campsite, our craved cream canvas still looking remarkably cream, however, in that way that probably only the French can do. It had been raining for days apparently, to the point where some people had packed up and gone home. Or joined the Route du Soleil.


Impossible though it may seem, the tent’s interior put smiles back on our faces very quickly. Because this is camping, Jean, but not as you know it. Despite the noise of humungous droplets of rain falling off the pine trees onto our canvas, providing a symphonia of drumming noises, everything was dry as a bone. Rain and camping were not a novelty to us, but dryness was.  huttopia07-011


These tents are huge, and joy of joys for my six feet plus husband, he could stand up. This sounds trite, but for those who have spent two weeks crouching under canvas, this changes everything. There are two bed sections, side by side, each concealed behind a thick dark green canvas curtain. You can remove the divide between sections if you are comfier having one big family sleeping area, but our boys were ecstatic to have their own room.. And mattresses. Proper mattresses, made of firm foam. Not air, not army, not yoga. The real thing, squidgy, warm and lifted off the ground on a raised wooden platform. Just to add to the five star-ness of it all, there are crisp laundered white sheets, pillowcases (on pillows, not a bundle of clothes under my neck), and beautiful big thick fleecy blankets to make our cocoons exquisitely cosy.


There are many little coups of brilliance in these exquisitely designed tents, which are called ‘Canadiennes’, because they are modelled on a Canadian design. The ‘bedrooms’ have solar powered lights which, despite the weather, provided plenty of light for reading and a nightlight for little ones. An expresso maker, the ones you twist and burn your hands on, as opposed to a machine (this is camping after all), a proper wooden dining table (one inside and out, so you don’t need to keep moving it), a fridge, a metal trunk to store all your clothes in, and  sweeping brushes for the dried mud.  Everything but the kitchen sink, of course. Unlike many campsites, washing your dishes, or yourselves,  is an extremely enjoyable ritual at Huttopia, with stylish wooden wash lodges,  ceramic (not grotty stainless steel) sinks, and proper showers, all decorated in  tasteful forest green shades, straight out of a Farrow and Ball catalogue.  


The rain did stop of course, just in time for us to have read all our books, and finish a few mammoth sessions of Monopoly. All tucked up on sofas in the cosy games room of the site’s wooden chalet, with wood-burning pizza oven constantly on the go, and kids bonding around the ‘babyfoot’, parents around the beer.


The Huttopia sites are carefully thought out. This one sits on the banks of a lake, which we cycled around daily, as it is only a few kilometres so fine for little legs (and the kids found it easy too). It is surrounded by the RambouilletForest, a vast expanse of oak and pine, with an excellent layout of cycling and hiking trails. Within huttopia07-061minutes’ walk of our tent, we had access to 200 000 hectares of forest with its richly biodiverse flora and fauna. Of the latter, deer and wild boar are most common, although they stayed well clear of all the happy little campers. A twenty minute easy cycle through woodland takes you to the town of Rambouillet. It is idyllically French, with plenty of boucheries and boulangeries to stock up on daily supplies. Spend a morning strolling round the chateau, lunch at the creperie, and then sip a glass of wine at the town square bar, watching the kids go round on the antique carousel, and you have to blink to remind yourself you aren’t in an arthouse movie.


Huttopia is the beautiful baby of one couple, Philippe and Celine Bossanne, whose ever-growing family has spread to five different sites in different corners of France.  They make every effort to respect their natural heritage, and have excellent eco-friendly practices in place. One of the most impressive is the natural swimming pool, which is filtered by sand and reedbeds. Not a hint of chemicals, and no stingy eyes at the end of the day.huttopia07-139 Getting past French bureaucracy to build this was a battle for the Bossannes, but they fought for what they believed in, and have now managed to change the law, making it easier for others to build eco-pools in future. Consequently, only this site and their new one in Senonches, have these pools to date. Another refreshing feature is that their sites are car-free, so the children were never off their bikes.


They invite their guests to follow the green path too, but not though lecturing and endless notices to recycle this or switch off that. The shop is full of local produce, and there are daily activities which take you out into the landscape. We signed up for the twilight nature trek through the forest. This was led by the manager of the nearby Espace Rambouillet, an enclosed section of the forest set up to educate and conserver this precious resource. He put us into two teams and, hoping that we had enough French between us, we headed off on a treasure hunt, finding clues concealed under leaves or in tree trunk hollows and filling in nature quiz questions as we went. We ended up walking for hours, making new friends en route and the kids racing the whole way round to see if they could be the winning team back to base. I couldn’t imagine that much enthusiasm if I had suggested a three hour walk in the woods to study nature, somehow.  


Funnily enough, our teammates on this nature trek have since become close friends and we are all going back to Huttopia again together this summer. Just to add to the Enid Blyton-ness of it all, we are not even taking the car this time.  Ferry, then train to Paris, a forty minute train ride to Rambouillet, and a stroll through the woods to our favourite pitch by the lake. We will hire bikes when we are there, and chill out for two whole weeks. Rain or shine, we are hooked on Huttopia, and camping converts for life.


Staying at Huttopia

Stay at Huttopia’s Rambouillet site in the Yvelines region, or at one of their other sites at Senonches, Font-Romeu, Rille or Versailles. At Rambouillet, you can take your own tent ( from €17.40 per night), rent a ready-to go ‘Canadienne’ tent (from €55 per night) or go for the more solid options of a wooden ‘Cabane’ (from €120 per night), or a wooden ‘Roulotte’ or caravan (from €85 per night). To book, see www.huttopia.com, and for the Rambouillet site tel: 00 33 1 30 41 07 34. For other sites, see website for details.

Go there

Overnight ferry from Rosslare to Le Havre, see www.ldlines.ie, from €79 one way for car and two passengers. Drive 200kms from Le Havre to Rambouillet or if you want to leave the car at home, catch a train from Le Havre to Paris (2.5 hours), change stations and then another 30 minutes to Rambouillet. Book this through Irish Rail’s European Reservations Tel:  01 703 1885 or email europeanrail@irishrail.ie. Or fly to Paris and take a train.

Where to eat and go if you’re in Rambouillet

Le Pradaud bar has a terrace overlooking Rambouillet’s town square and chateau. Unglamorous, so perfect for muddy camper, and right beside the town carousel.

Le Savoyard, 46, rue d’Angiviller, Tél. 01 34 83 35 77 brings a little bit of the Alpine tradition to the Yvelines region, with excellent fondue, raclette and superb regional wines to accompany the ideal outdoorsy meal, after a day of hiking and biking.

Visit L’Espace Rambouillet, a great family day out in this vast expanse of Rambouillet’s forest park, where you can see wild deer and boar, and dramatic falconry displays (From experience, hide your sandwiches during this).  See the forest at its finest from its ‘Odyssee Verte’ suspended walkway through the trees. See www.onf.fr/espaceramb. Just a ten minute cycle from the campsite.

(This article was first published in The Irish Times, 18 April 2009)