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MARCH 15, 1981 This is a digitized version of an article from The Times's print archive, before the start of online publication in 1996. To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them. Occasionally the digitization process introduces transcription errors or other problems. Please send reports of such problems to . ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- KAREN LOHELA WOODWORTH is a writer and a French instructor at Ohio University. By KAREN LOHELA WOODWORTHFrance is expensive, say returning travelers, but it need not be. True, $100 may buy you only one night in a grand hotel; on the other hand, $100 may also cover the costs of several weeks of camping, which is what my husband, Bob, and I did. And we are not backpacking students hoofing it between hostels; we are a pediatrician an a writer who, in order to remain civil to each other and to the world in general, consider such amenities as daily hot showers and clean clothes absolute necessities. We got them by doing our camping on the grounds of chateaus, using their bathing and laundry facilities and enjoying their park-like settings. There is, we discovered, a network of chateau owners throughout France who welcome campers, and economy is just one of the attractions of a trip from one of these country homes to another.We came down the Rhone Valley on the Autoroute du Soleil, which was jammed with vacationers hauling boats and trailers toward the Mediterranean. South of Lyon, at Chanas, we picked up National Route 7, the two-lane highway that snakes along the Rhone River and which used to carry all the north-south traffic before the autoroute was built parallel to it. We were looking for the Chateau de Senaud, where we hoped to camp that night. We did not have a reservation but it was still early in the afternoon.A small sign pointed to an empty road that threaded its way through shimmering grain fields. We followed it, narrowly missing a combine that suddenly backed out from a barn fronting on the road. A narrow drive tunneled through dark trees, past a field, over a stream and uphill through the woods. At the top stood the chateau compound. We entered through an archway in thick, yellow stone walls. Inside, a blue-roofed house of graceful proportions dominated a cluster of low buildings. At the office we were greeted by a woman dressed in a black skirt, white sweater, dark socks and sturdy sandals. La Comtesse D'Armagnac de Castenet, we later learned. Three nights? Yes, we could be accommodated. Please follow her.AdvertisementThe countess strode briskly down a pebbly lane as we trotted behind. We passed a tiny grocery shop in a stone outbuilding and a one-story block of sanitary facilities. On the other side of a stone wall we came to the camping area. She slowed and gestured to her left. Was this all right? Yes, perfect. She bid us adieu.AdvertisementWe dug into our borrowed van, hauled out our tent, and quickly set it up in one of the most agreeable and unusual campgrounds we have found anywhere.But not unique, we discovered. The Chateau de Senaud is one of more than 40 private camps in a network called Castels et Camping-Caravaning; the network was founded in France in 1959 by owners who were trying to keep their properties intact as maintenance costs escalated. The camps have to meet certain high standards regarding facilities and services, but each landowner manages his or her own camp. I thought it fun to meet titled proprietors - one might think of them as the working nobility - involved in the day-to-day operation of their camps: overseeing the camp grocery store or restaurant, cutting the grass or greeting guests.In addition to campsites some owners also offer accommodations in the chateau itself or rent furnished trailers (what Europeans call caravans). But we were well equipped with the basics: sleeping bags, air mattresses, flashlight, ground cloth and our tent, a lightweight, externally-supported Eureka that is billed as a four-person tent but is really just right for two. We had stuffed all the gear into a large duffel bag that we could check as one piece of luggage.At the Chateau de Senaud we paid less than $6 a night; the average for most Castels sites is $5 to $8 a night for two adults in a tent. Senaud is average-sized, accommodating 300 campers. (Castels camps measure size by number of people rather than campsites, since individual campsites are not always marked out.) It is open from March 1 to November 30. In July and August, when we were there, it filled up by mid-afternoon. Most of the campers were French or Dutch but there were a few English, German and Belgian guests as well, and even when the camp was full we did not feel cramped.Bathing and lavatory facilities at the Castels sites were excellent; plenty of hot showers, flush toilets and an outlet for my blow-dryer. (My dryer switches from 120 to 220 volts, and I brought an adapter plug to fit European outlets.)Senaud has two sets of facilities, one installed in an outbuilding near the chateau and the other, a newer row of a dozen individual compartments containing either a shower, a toilet or a sink with mirror and electrical outlet. Behind the sanitary block are big sinks for washing dishes, a drinking fountain and a washing machine. Many camps have coin-operated washers and dryers, which is handy because nearby villages may not have such facilities.There are other amenities, too, that set Castels sites apart from other European campgrounds. At the Chateau de Senaud, for example, I loved the craft shop that the countess's daughter opened each evening in one of the old outbuildings. Guests were welcome to browse among the locally-made weavings and pottery and chat with Mademoiselle.AdvertisementFacing the craft shop and tucked into what had been stables are a small art gallery, a game room for kids and a bar. I liked the walk down the wooded hill and across the stream to the swimming pool, set in the middle of an open field. The tennis court was at the field's edge, next to the woods, and was shaded in the late afternoon.The grocery shop was open morning and evening to sell fruit, soda and wine, a few canned and frozen foods and crusty loaves of bread. We were used to buying a block of ice every day, which would keep food in our small cooler chilled for 24 hours, but Senaud's shop did not sell ice. Instead, like many campgrounds, Senaud permitted campers to use the grocery shop's deepfreeze for overnight freezing of the sealed plastic containers of coolant that have become popular for use in ice chests. Camps usually charged 1 to 3 francs (25 to 75 cents), depending on the size of the containers.We kept our cooler stocked with items we considered basic: Granny Smith apples, bananas, yogurt, juice, water, a bottle of wine, cheese and sliced meat, cornichons, cucumbers and tomatoes, mustard, butter and jam. After an early-morning walk to the camp's grocery shop for a sometimes still-warm baguette and a few flaky croissants, we had all the makings of a hearty breakfast and lunch.Evenings we reserved for seeking out restaurants and trying regional specialties; $10 to $15 a person was usually sufficient for a good three- or four-course dinner with vin ordinaire.At Senaud it did not really matter that the chateau itself was a tiny bit unkempt, with one wing shuttered and grown over with vines. The chateau reigned over the blue and orange tents scattered around its flanks like a grande dame determined to maintain respectability and propriety despite slightly straitened circumstances.Tourists often simply shoot through the Rhone Valley, with maybe one overnight stop between Paris and the Cote d'Azur, but it is a region worth exploring. Churches, abbeys, chateaus, restaurants and vineyards baking in the sun beckon the slower traveler. West of the Rhone lies the Ardeche, hilly countryside cut by river gorges and full of villages experiencing a revival of local crafts. East of the Rhone is the lavender-scented Drome River Valley; the Drome's source is the Alps.The Chateau de Senaud is well situated for side trips into the Ardeche and the Drome. A dozen miles south of Senaud, for example, is the terraced granite hill of Hermitage, rising above a bend of the Rhone at Tain-l'Hermitage. The Romans made wine here, and the vineyards still produce the Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage appellations.Across the Rhone and north about the same distance, along a steep hill perfectly aligned to the sun, lie the vineyards of Cote Rotie. Here one is near Vienne, a city noted for its Roman temple and theater, its Romanesque cloisters and Gothic cathedral, and for the restaurant called Pyramide.AdvertisementWe did not make it to Pyramide but we did discover good dining closer to Senaud. Ten minutes' drive south in St. Vallier is an elegant small restaurant that one enters through the courtyard of the Hotel des Voyageurs. Its artfully served, four-course prix-fixe dinners started at $9.Though the Chateau de Senaud was my favorite, other camps in the Castels network were nearly as agreeable. The thick-walled Chateau de Boisson is 63 miles northwest of Avignon in the departement of Gard. Here the hot sun ripens peaches, apricots, cherries, melons and grapes, and the summer weather is glorious. On the western edge of the Gard rise the low but rugged Cevennes mountains where Robert Louis Stevenson took his ''Travels With a Donkey.'' The 17th-century chateau, off the beaten track in the foothills of the Cevennes, was small, squat and sort of homey. Well-planned hedges marked out each campsite, offering a nice touch of privacy. Boisson is smaller than Senaud, accommodating only 150 campers, and reservations a day ahead of time are recommended.Please verify you're not a robot by clicking the box.Invalid email address. Please re-enter.You must select a newsletter to subscribe to.View all New York Times newsletters.Walks in the countryside took us by fields of lavender, thyme and showy yellow broom flowers. There was a dog-eared collection of books, a pool and fishing in the river for the more sports-minded, rooms for rent in the chateau, and a little restaurant and bar open evenings in the chateau's basement. There was also a loud bell in the neighboring chapel that chimed the quarter hour all night; I wished I had a set of earplugs.Blond-haired Madame, who spoke excellent English, ran the grocery, which was not too well stocked. A greengrocer came by two or three times a week with fresh produce. Opposite the chateau there was a tiny, friendly shop that offered a slightly better choice of provisions.Camp facilities were kept very clean by an energetic and friendly crew of Dutch students. Guests expecting elegance, because Boisson is a chateau, would be sorely disappointed. It is more like a casual country retreat, only slightly rundown, where we had a good time strolling down a quiet country road as the sun set behind the Cevennes.Within a few hours' drive of Boisson is Roman Gaul: the wellpreserved ruins in Nimes, Orange and Arles. Even the most seasoned travelers stop to marvel, as I did, at the three-tiered Pont du Gard leaping 900 feet across the Gard river and carrying the Roman aqueduct that brought water to Nimes from sources 30 miles away.Two hours from Boisson is Avignon with its ramparts, broken bridge over the Rhone, a summer arts festival and a papal palace built during the papacy's 14th-century sojourn in France. I much preferred the quiet and the wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the site of the pope's hilltop summer palace.A third Castels camp we enjoyed was in the departement of Var, in Provence. We came up from the southeast, from St. Tropez, on the narrow road that winds across the Massif des Maures toward the regional capital of Draguignan.I was moved by a stop at the American military cemetery in Draguignan. The only other visitors at the time, two French couples, murmured quietly. The neat rows of white crosses on the manicured green surrounded a huge bronze relief map detailing the Allied landings in southern France in August of 1944.AdvertisementFrom Draguignan the departmental road ran northwest. We passed villages with landscapes that recalled the paintings of Van Gogh and Cezanne. By one such village, Regusse, lies the Castels camp called Les Lacs du Verdon. This addition to the network is minus a chateau but boasts two fine tennis courts. We rented decent racquets and tennis balls several times. We also learned that court reservations for the cooler hours of the day need to be made a day or two in advance.The camp sits in an unbroken expanse of scrub-pine woods. We chose a campsite in a piney glen but the fiery sun still shone through on us at midday so Bob strung up the tent's rain fly overhead between trees for shade.Next door to us camped a couple from Dublin. We shared maps and stories and recommendations for other Castels camps, and in the evenings we watched teen-agers on the outdoor dance floor by the pool. The camp has an arrangement with a sailing club at Lac de Sainte Croix that lets campers rent sailboats or learn to wind surf for $10 a half day. Across the lake, in mountainous terrain, is the spectacular canyon of the Verdon river.Not much else is near the camp, save forestland and the villages of Regusse and Moissac-Bellevue. Regusse has one white-washed, familyrun restaurant with a fireplace taking up an end wall. Bob had good quail and I liked the country pate but otherwise we found the meals - for which we paid $7 a person for three courses - quite ordinary.Dining was a little fancier in Moissac-Bellevue. There was a hillside resort there, Le Calalou, with an open-air dining room where we enjoyed Caribbean specialties. Fish was prominent on the menu, and my entree of little crayfish in a spicy brown sauce was particularly good. Complete meals began at $12.The attitude of most campers we met is summed up by an incident that occurred toward the end of the trip. We had decided to wax the van before returning it to our friends. We had been busily polishing for two hours when a neighboring camper put down his pipe and book and eased out of his chair.''My wife and I have been watching you,'' said the Englishman, ''and you're exhausting us. Won't you take a break and have a drink with us?'' Of course, we did. If You Go ... ...chateau camping, write to the French Government Tourist Office (610 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10020, 212-757-1125) and ask for general information on camping in France. For a Castels et Camping-Caravaning directory - for each camp it includes a color picture, a map, a description of facilities and activities, dates open and whether the proprietor also rents rooms or caravans - write to Castels et Camping-Caravaning, 169 Avenue Victor Hugo, 75116 Paris, France.Reservations are recommended during July and August. A telephone call a day or two ahead of arrival was always sufficient for us. English is usually understood, though a little French is helpful. Camp offices are frequently closed for lunch between noon and 3 P.M.AdvertisementAll the major car rental companies operate in France, with fairly similar prices. Rates frequently include unlimited mileage and, except for larger cars, the option of returning the car to a French city other than your beginning point without a drop-off charge.For the rental of a nine-passenger Volkswagen bus at $399 a week try Auto Europe (21 East 40th Street, New York, N.Y. 10016, 212-578-4400 or 800-223-5555), a company that also leases cars for three weeks or longer, which is more economical than the standard rental. A Talbot Horizon, for example, could be leased for $550 including insurance and the value-added tax. The company's cars may be leased in Paris and left in Lyon, Bordeaux, Perpignan, Toulouse, Marseille or Nice.In addition to basic camping gear we also stashed two plastic plates, two knives and forks and a Swiss army knife in my suitcase. Once in France buy a Styrofoam ice chest, some woven mats to sit on and a Michelin road map. Map 916, printed on both sides and less cumbersome to unfold, is a good one for all of France.On the flight over we checked three items: two small canvas suitcases plus a duffel bag. That left room for a fourth piece of checked baggage coming home: a case of wine. We carried our camera and a sturdy canvas bag for shopping and trips to the beach.Go light on clothes. For the month-long camping vacation we took I found sufficient a sundress, a dress for dining out, a quilted jacket, a turtleneck sweater, nice jeans, three pairs of shorts and T-shirts, underwear, sandals, tennis shoes, bathing suit, beach towel, face towel and washcloth. Bob brought a khaki jacket, jeans, two knit shirts, V-neck sweater, two long pants, three pair shorts and T-shirts, underwear, tennis shoes, sandals, leather shoes, swim trunks, beach towel, face towel and washcloth. We chose to trust in the traditionally sunny summer weather in southern France and left raingear at home. - K.L.W.A version of this article appears in print on March 15, 1981, on Page 10010001 of the National edition with the headline: TWO LOW-COST WAYS OF GETTING CLOSE TO EUROPE'S GLORIES PITCHING YOUR TENT OF THE GROUNDS OF A FRENCH CHATEAU?. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe

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