A Historic Camp – Citadel De Blaye, France
Were we really going the right way?
It seemed crazy. We were driving straight into a 17th century UNESCO site over an old stone bridge, the path worn down by millennia of traffic with edges just large enough to fit the motorhome. Fortified walls rose impressively in front of us, a large stone archway blocking the entrance, meters thick and framed by heavy wood doors. We were on a one-way passage through the gates, and it seemed utterly insane that they’d actually let camping cars drive this way.
This can’t be right! There can’t actually be a campsite in here, can there???
But yes there was. Past the two sets of nerve-wracking stone archways, through the cobblestone streets and right in the center of this incredible historic site, there was a 2-star municipal campsite. A simple place with just 25 sites and basic amenities, but with the bonus of large, green, well-separated pitches and views to die for, either over the old Citadel or the river. We were parked INSIDE a fortified bastion surrounded by hundreds of years of history, the walls quiet as the dead, and views over the city that stretched to infinity.
This had to be the most unique campsite we had ever stayed at!
The Day Started Out With a Rainy Drive
Our day hadn’t started out quite as swimmingly, or in some ways you could say it did.
It started raining heavily the night before, while we were parked at the Aire in Port Medoc, and it was still pounding in the early morning when we left our site. We took the main road D1215 down the east side of the Landes, a drive that would have been beautiful in the sun, but was a bit more drab in the rain. Still, we were passing through some incredibly country.
The East side of Les Landes is a completely different experience to the West. It’s less sandy here, with more open fields and hard land, and perhaps more importantly it’s full of wine. Tons and tons of wine, and not just any old stuff but wine from Château‘s and Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée that any serious connoisseur would immediately recognize. Can you say Medoc? Or perhaps Saint-Estèphe? How about Pauillac? Or maybe even Château Margeaux? OMG!!!
These were places we’ve enjoyed through their carefully fermented grapes for years, and as we passed through each region we experienced a rush of memories from times linked to those beverages over the years (isn’t it interesting how food and wine can trigger memories? It’s always been so for us…). Alas, we were only driving through today with no real time so stop, so all we could do was drool from inside LMB. One day we’ll have to come back here and explore this area in more depth!
Then We Took A Ferry Across The Gironde
Our next stop was the small town of Lamarque where we took the ferry across to Blaye.
It’s a simple little pier, and an easy ferry ride across, pet-friendly of course (you can even bring your pets up with you onto the main deck during the crossing). Plus, rather excitingly, it was our very first ferry crossing in LMB!
We did many crossings in the USA when we had “the beast” (our trip to Orcas Island in WA is still our most memorable one!), but we hadn’t yet taken a ferry in Europe. Of course it’s super easy in a compact and nimble little thing like our 23-foot Carthago, but it’s still a memorable experience. There’s always something special about taking a motorhome over water, don’t you think?
We arrived a mere 1/2 hour before our crossing, drove without incident onto the ferry, paid our ticket at the on-board kiosk (which admittedly was rather pricey at €32.20 in total) and settled in for the short hop across.
Finally We Arrived At The Citadel
A mere 20 minutes or so after we left the port in Lamarque, we docked right at Blaye, with views of the town to the right and the fortifications a formidable sight on the left.
We could see a slew of motorhomes parked at the Camping Aire right by the port in front of (and just below) the Citadel itself, a handy base to visit the area, and superbly cheap at only €3 per night. We considered stopping there ourselves, but it looked rather busy and to be honest we were really, really intrigued by the campground that might (or might not) be accessible inside the fortress itself.
I mean when else would we EVER get the chance to park right inside a UNESCO site????
So we risked the drive. Our online google-research had revealed that the size limits to enter the Citadel was ~2.4 m in width and somewhere between 3 to 3.3 m in height, depending on which site you looked at. We were fine in width, but we’re juuuuust over 3 m with our new rooftop air-conditioner, so we had no idea if we were actually going to fit.
In an attempt to plan ahead, I called the Citadel Campground directly to ask, telling them we were 3.1m in height. Would we be able to get in?? In typical French fashion the lady on the line responded rather nonchalantly “ça devrait aller”. In other words, “you’ll probably be fine”.
Probably? Eeeeeek? I guess we’ll just have to try and see?
Of course when you’re half-way across a 330-year old bridge, about to squeeze through a 2-meter thick arch that has withstood cannonballs (and thus will not think twice about crushing your feeble little motorhome), you start to question whether you should have tried a little harder to find out for sure. Thankfully LMB fit, with room to spare even (the lady was not wrong) and the prize was an almost empty campground, in the most unique setting we’ve ever experienced. Plus it only cost €13.50/night with electric. What an awesome place!
We snagged a perfect site overlooking the old Citadel (with great cellphone signal to boot), and immediately decided to stay 2 nights.
The Citadel Is Incredible (And Dog Friendly!)
Over the next two days we explored this incredible 38-hectare site and the next-door town of Blaye.
The Citadel itself was designed by the most famous of French military engineers Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (often known just as Vauban) and was built under his supervision by François Ferry, between 1685-1689.
It was given a classic Bastion “star” layout, a shape first conceived by Italian engineers (including none other than Leonardo Da Vinci himself) in which all parts can “protect themselves mutually”, and was one of a trio of forts (including Fort Paté, on l’île Paté, and Fort Médoc, on the opposite side of the river) built to control and protect the Gironde Estuary.
It was also built directly on the site of an old medieval city, a big portion of which was razed to construct it, with only a few of the original buildings kept intact including the Château des Rudel (which became the high-point of the Citadel and lodgings for the military governor, now in ruins), an internal entrance (Porte de Liverneuf), a tower (Tour de l’Éguillette ), and two houses from the 13th century.
All of this history is pretty darn cool, of course, but what makes it even more fun for modern nomads like us is that we can camp and roam all over this incredible UNESCO historical site with our dog in tow. How many places in the world can you do that??
There’s a wonderful wall walk that circles the entire perimeter of the Citadel wall which is well worth doing, especially towards sunset as the sun tucks behind the Gironde river and long shadows cast over the fortress. There’s several restaurants on-site too, as well as some fabulous museums (the latter are not dog-friendly inside, just FYI). And of course for those who want more, there are guided walks of the entire grounds with extremely knowledgeable guides.
It’s just a really, really cool place to explore.
We Just Roamed About, And Enjoyed the City
During our stay we just roamed about with Polly, enjoying the Citadel, our campground and the town.
Saturday morning we took the short 15-min walk through the southern entrance (Porte Dauphine) and over the stone bridge into the town of Blaye, where we were lucky enough to hit the weekly open-air market. Lots of fresh veggies, meats and other sumptuous products for sale, complimented by several good bakeries, as well as a slew of interesting building art. It’s a neat little town.
Within the Citadel itself we did the perimeter walk (multiple times) and enjoyed sunsets over the Gironde. Plus we spent a lot of time just hanging inside LMB, taking in the expansive view over the old fortifications. There’s an almost unearthly peace and quiet that seems to reside within these walls, and being camped here is just such a totally unique and special experience.
But alas, a few days is all we could spare as we needed to get our old kitties home. So after our immersion in history we moved on, this time for an exploration of wine because….ya know…Bordeaux. Just to mix it up a bit we decided we wouldn’t be going into the big city itself. Instead we planned a route along the back roads which would take us by an “old friend” and into another unique (and very cool) camping spot, the perfect place to end our mini-tour.
But that story, my dear readers, is for my next post. See you there….