Stunning French parc will hold you captive says PETER CARBERY
THE moment we get out of the car, it’s clear I have a serious dilemma on my hands.
There it is, right in front of our mobile home. The most ridiculously unspoilt view of a picture-postcard lake.
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Sunlight glistening on the water; fishermen casting perfect arcs through the air; pedal-boats being steered by smiling kids and couples; elegant swans being – well, elegant; fussy ducks shepherding their tiny furball offspring around the banks. Too bloody nice by half.
“I’m not moving from here for the rest of the day,” declares Andrea.
Half an hour later, with the car unloaded, bags unpacked, beds made and fridge stocked, we’re sitting on the deck, drinks in hand. Andrea has now changed her mind.
“This is amazing…I’m not moving from here for the rest of the WEEK!”
Damn you, Keycamp. What would happen to my meticulously arranged schedule? Paris on this day, Reims on another, the trip to Versailles, an afternoon set aside for the vineyards and chateaux of Champagne? All out the window, I’m afraid.
You see, on the previous half-dozen occasions we’ve been self-catering on the continent, it’s been mostly about what there was to see and do around the parc rather than the parc itself.
And now for the first time, at Berny-Riviere’s La Croix du Vieux Pont 90 minutes northeast of Paris, it looked as if we could quite happily park both the car and our backsides for the duration.
A leisurely stroll around the parc only confirmed our initial impression. Two lakes, a man-made beach, a PGL Action Station, bars and restaurants, and a pool complex with indoor slides and three pools, one of which boasting a Wimbledon-like roof if the weather turns.
As usual we skipped the supermarket for all but the basics on the grounds of cost, but the take-away came in handy and the chalet-style pub was geared up for showing football on the big screen. All very clean, very friendly, an ultra-relaxed vibe.
Inevitably, guilt kicked in after 36 hours of lazy self-indulgence and pool-induced prune fingers, so off to the activity centre we headed. Zip-wire? Abseiling? Budding Maid Marian Hannah opted for archery, great for all ages as only minimal instruction is needed.
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Take up your position 30ft from the target, pretend you’re Robin Hood and send those five arrows hurtling into the bullseye. Or the padding surrounding the target, if it turns out you should have gone to SpecSavers. Good fun – and at a fiver a head per session, good value too.
After a break for lunch we were back to try our hand on the trapeze, which involved being clamped into a hoist, then climbing a 30ft ladder up a wooden tower to a platform.
The trapeze hung invitingly in front of us, two easy jumps before the distance was extended and the cockiness disappeared when I leapt, grabbed…and failed to hang on, much to the braying delight of the youngsters watching below.
There goes my budding career as a stuntman.
No such mishaps with barbecuing the shish kebabs later that evening, and with the weather on the turn it was decided that the following day we’d strike out on the hour’s drive to Parc Asterix, the French challenge to Mickey Mouse’s transatlantic house of fun.
For those of you who haven’t come across Asterix the Gaul before, he’s the comic strip hero of the only town in ancient France not to have succumbed to the rule of Caesar’s less than Roman Empire.
The parc’s historically well-themed areas – Rome, Greece, Gaul, Vikings – give it a more organic, better laid-out feel than Disneyland, and despite the drizzle the three of us had a great time. At around £30 a head it provides better value and, crucially, the queues are that bit shorter.
Best of all, it boasts the best rollercoaster I’ve ever been on, Tonnerre de Zeus (“Thunder of Zeus”), a proper scary
wooden contraption that delivers genuine screams and doesn’t let up throughout the exhilarating two-minute ride.
No wonder it’s the only three-time winner of the world’s best wooden rollercoaster title.
I’d also recommend the all-you-can-eat hot buffet in the huge Circus restaurant (€15.80 adults, €7.80 kids), which is of a much better standard than your average theme park fare. Best leave this until after you’ve met Zeus, however.
When you’re outnumbered by the ladies, at least one afternoon has to be given over to shopping. Ours took us to Vendette and a shopping centre based around the huge “we sell everything” Carrefour store beloved of regular visitors to France.
I picked up a few cases of wine while the ladies oohed and aahed over (and finally bought) a wardrobe of dresses, scarves and tops, none of which were at “No, put that back” prices.
On the way back we stopped off at a remarkable place…the Glade of the Armistice, in the middle of Compiegne Forest.
It’s where the British, Germans and French – under Marshall Foch – got together to officially end World War 1 on November 11, 1918.
Rail tracks underfoot signal where the German and Allied plenipotentiaries rolled up in their mobile war cabinets but what’s hard to believe, looking around this perfectly manicured clearing, is that at the time of the signing it was still a thick, overgrown forest. The authorities didn’t want anyone spying on them, even from the air.
Hitler was ashamed of the Armistice so, symbolically, in June 1940 he dragged the French government back out there to sign the country’s surrender. In Foch’s carriage, with the seats swapped around, just to rub it in. Talk about holding a grudge…
Indeed, a replica of Foch’s carriage is still in the on-site museum, the original having been shipped to Berlin where it was destroyed during an Allied bombing raid in 1944.
Later that evening, as if to ram home what we’d just seen, a spectacular thunder and lightning storm had the boaters fleeing our lake, leaving only the hardy fishermen in their lakeside tents, their three-rod contraptions beeping away as sensors picked up every movement on the water.
Thankfully, it was a warm sunny day for the only other trip to tempt us away from our parc life. Just down the road from Berny-Riviere is Pierrefonds Castle, the imposing 12th-Century construction better known as Merlin’s Castle to fans (and two of them were in the car) of the BBC fantasy drama.
The route in gave us an impressive first glimpse of the fairytale silhouette from high above the valley before we swept down and into the cute village, parked up and walked through the lower walls (including the Rising Sun pub) and up into the castle (€7 adults, children free).
There are around a dozen rooms to see during a one-hour tour, highlights of which are the banquet room and the spooky crypt containing over 100 statues and stone monuments.
Keycamp offers self-catering holidays to more than a hundred top parcs across 11 European countries, including Sardinia, Austria and Croatia, plus the USA and 11 parcs in the UK. Each boasts excellent facilities and a choice of stylish mobile home, chalet, Supertent and even tree house accommodation. Seven nights starting on 2 June 2012 for a family of two adults and up to four children staying in a Villanova mobile home with deck at Keycamp’s La Croix du Vieux Pont at Berny Riviere will cost from £599, accommodation only. Ferry crossings or fly-drive packages can be arranged though Keycamp at a supplement. Just a three- hour or so drive away from Calais, this area of France is ideal for a family trip which is close to home and yet offers a great variety of holiday experiences – from walking, cycling and trekking in the forest, to the excitement of Disneyland® Paris, and the adventure of a 12th century fairytale castle. It’s also as cost-effective as it is varied and you can even stock up at the supermarket at home before you go. For the latest deals, further information or to make a booking, visit keycamp.co.uk or call 0844 406 0319.
Only dad was brave enough to walk the 50metre passage, where low spotlights and recordings of voices whispering their various stories made it more like the classic Doctor Who ‘Blink’ episode…did that statue in the corner of my eye just move closer?
Not quite – but I’m just about glad we’d resisted the temptation to remain like statues in front of that lake.