There’s a great drama about some of them – the magnificent château at Chenonceaux spanning the Cher, the deep gorges of the Verdon, creating Europe’s version of the Grand Canyon, or the bustling banks of the Seine running through the heart of Paris – all are unforgettable.
Many of France’s best campsites are located along river banks; more often than not these rivers are smaller, and less well known – but are ideal for the simple pleasures of safely splashing around on a hot day, or maybe embarking on a family canoeing trip.
Rivers have shaped France. Much of its history is inextricably linked with its rivers. The great castles of Castelnaud and Beynac, for example, are powerful symbols of the Hundred Years War, facing each other across the Dordogne. The English held Castelnaud, whilst the French took up residence in Beynac – and a stand-off ensued which lasted, well, for a long, long time!
Although less showy than the Dordogne, the Lot is undeniably a major river, flowing from the Cévennes through to the Garonne, a distance of over 480km. The Lot’s most scenic section passes through the delightful village of St Cirq Lapopie (officially, one of ‘les plus beaux villages de la France’), perched on a steep cliff 100m above the river. St Cirq is also a staging post on the classic pilgrim’s route to Santiago de Compostela. From St Cirq the pilgrims (and the river) continue westward through vineyards, to the medieval town of Cahors, passing below its imposing Pont Valentré before entering the town.
The Loire is France’s longest river, rising in the Ardèche, and finally meeting the sea at St. Nazaire (Loire Atlantique) some 1,012 km away. Its classic section, the ‘Jardin de la France’ stretches from Orléans to Angers, with dozens of fine châteaux lining up along its banks. At its western end, Angers is a fine city and home to a stunning château, one of the Loire’s finest, overlooking the river, and housing the awe inspiring 14th century Apocalypse tapestry.
To the west in the Medoc, lie arguably France’s greatest vineyards, stretching along the banks of the Garonne. There are no fewer than 1,500 vineyards here, including Mouton Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and countless other premier league châteaux. The vineyards’ close proximity to the Garonne is no accident, providing an ideal trade route with Great Britain - and so our love affair with claret began.
Further south, the vast Pont d’Arc towers above the Ardèche – this is surely one of the best spots in Europe for canoeing. In this region of superlatives, the nearby Caverne du Pont d’Arc, a UNESCO world heritage site, is the oldest known painted cave in the world. The cave is closed to the public but it’s now possible to visit a superb replica (one of the world’s largest replica caves) just a few miles from the original cave. This state-ofthe-art attraction houses over 1,000 painstakingly prepared paintings.
The gorges of the River Loup, although undeniably less well-known than those of the Ardèche or Verdon, are well worth discovery. Just 30 minutes from the Riviera’s sunny beaches, much of the Loup is made up of cascading waterfalls and deep pools of crystal clear water – perfect for cooling off under the Mediterranean sun. The origin of its name is not fully documented – a ‘loup’ is a wolf, but in Provence may also be a bass and, given the voracity of this fish, this may be the more likely origin.
And lastly – the Seine. Still an important commercial waterway, with great barges meandering through the heart of the city, the Seine has captured the imagination of poets, philosophers, artists and tourists. The banks of the Seine are delightful spots to stroll, cycle or even sunbathe. You can browse the booksellers’ stands on the Quai du Louvre, relax in one of the beautifully tended gardens or enjoy a classic tour of Paris on a bâteau mouche.
The banks of the Seine in Paris have been classified as a UNESCO world heritage site, and, in summer months, are transformed into Paris-Plage, complete with tons of sand and full-size palm trees. Paris also boasts no less than 37 bridges traversing the Seine.
Best campsites for river adventures
Camping Les Pinèdes Côte d’Azur, Alpes-Maritime
Domaine de Chadeyron Vallon Pont d’Arc, Ardèche
Camping Maisonneuve Castelnaud, Dordogne
Camping de la Plage Saint Cirq-Lapopie, Lot
Main article images:
Gorges du Loup - By Patrick Rouzet - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
The Pont Valentré in Cahors from a boat in flat, calm and sunny conditions - By Tony Marshall - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0