We have arrived! Our Grand European Tour has finally begun and this is the first travel itinerary and campsite accessibility review. I’m going to write these in two week blocks so I can give a good bit of detail without making the posts into a War and Peace like soliloquy.
Our trip started with a drive from Dublin to Rosslare, a ferry from Rosslare to Cherbourg and then a drive from Cherbourg to Omaha Beach in Normandy. We stayed there for five nights to get settled and soak up the history before travelling to Maisons-Laffitte, just outside of Paris. This was a great start to our trip as it allowed us time to relax into vanlife, absorb the culture and to visit my favourite stop so far, Disneyland Paris!
We did very. very, very little pre-planning. We had a vague idea of where we wanted to go once we got off the ferry but we had nothing pre-booked. Luckily we got a spot in Omaha beach as it was nearly full due to it being a French bank holiday weekend. We’ve gotten a bit more organised since but generally we just decide the next location a couple of days in advance and make some bookings if we can.
Highlights and lowlights
- The campsite facilities here are excellent and really good value for money. The most we have paid for one night was roughly €25 and that was on a campsite that had a pool, bar, restaurant, shop, laundry facilities, kids club, bike rental, excellent pitches, 3 sanitary blocks and it was 20 minutes outside of Paris. In Ireland we paid €38 for one night for a basic campsite, with the bare minimum of facilities
- Getting to know the culture and history of some places. Omaha beach was a standout here. Walking down the beach, visiting the cemetery and the historical sites was really profound
- The weather really encourages outdoor living. We just park up, put up the tarp and hey presto, we have suddenly doubled the size of our house. As we can be pretty confident it won’t be cold, rainy and windy, we can just shed out stuff out around our pitch, without the fear of doing the dreaded dash to pick up all our belongings from the inevitable rain shower. Even if it does rain, it is sunny pretty much straight away so everything dries really quickly.
- We don’t speak French, and while most people so far have near perfect English, it would be nice to speak a bit more of the language. We’re getting better though!
- Gone are the days of a couple of Euro for the M50. Tolls here are really expensive. To be fair, they shave hours off your driving time, which is especially important in 28 degrees but they must be making these roads out of the best tarmac around given the price
- Accessibility is hit and miss. For the most part, the campsites are grand but getting around a city and understanding the built environment can be tricky
Below, I have listed some of the extra facilities available at the campsites we’ve stayed at. Each campsite also had the basics – toilets, showers, sinks for dish washing (a god send as we don’t have running hot water), laundry facilities, bins, grey water disposal, chemical toilets and fresh water.
Stage 1 – From Dublin to France
I don’t have a huge amount to say about the Ferry crossing. Booking, check in and boarding were totally fine and easy to do. Once we were on board, we did find that the signage wasn’t great. It was quite a small font, so it was difficult to find and read. Our crossing was very smooth, and we slept quite well. We sailed from Rosslare (Co. Wexford) to Cherbourg (North France) with Stena Line.
Our first landing – Omaha Beach
Campsite – Flower Camping, Omaha Beach
Cost – €21 per night for 2 people and electric hook up. This is with the ACSI discount (Highly recommend getting this card!)
Facilities – bar, restaurant, shop (with fresh baguettes and pastries available to order), indoor pool, playground, Omaha beach within a 2 minute walk and bike rental (extra cost)
Accessibility score – 3 / 5
See here for further detail on my accessibility scoring system.
As I say above, this was a deadly first stop. It was a really nice three star campsite, in a hugely significant location. There was loads to do and see, and it was right next to a greenway along the coast of Normandy. We also spent 2 days working here, and we had great wi-fi reception from the router in our van.
Accessibility wise, it was grand, hence the score of 3. The signs into the ladies showers / sinks were good but there was no sign on the toilet doors. There was also one long step running the length of the bank of toilet doors, which did not have any contrasted edge and was difficult to see when you come from a dark cubicle into blinding sunshine. The pavements and road ways were as flat as could be but the steps into the shop and restaurant needed an edge. The lighting in communal areas was good but it was quite poor around the pitches. We were given a paper map at reception which was hard to read but fine to use once I took a picture of it. All in all, it was grand to get around once you knew the place.
Things to see and do – on our first night, we did a lovely 5km loop walk along Omaha beach and explored some of the old pillboxes and monuments along the way. During our stay, we rented bikes from the campsite and cycled to the next town over, Grandcamp Maisy which was along the dedicated cycleway, which was really accessible and easy to use. Along the way, we visited the Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument which was a location along the Normandy coast where American troops climbed 100ft cliffs during WW2. It was a fascinating piece of history to see, however, it was entirely inaccessible to those who were blind or vision impaired. The below images are of the signs erected around the monument, which are supposed to give the reader an insight into the history of the place. As you can see, they are impossible to read. I give this an accessibility score of 1 / 5.
Our second stop – Maisons-Laffitte, Paris
We drove 3 hours, 270km, South East towards Paris, and stayed in a small town about 20 minutes by train outside of the city. Maisons-Laffitte is also known as the “Cité du Cheval” – the City of Horses, so it was paradise for me.
Campsite – Camping Sandaya Maisons-Laffitte
Cost – €25 for the first 5 nights, and €16 for the last 3 nights. We pre-booked the first 5 so couldn’t use our ACSI discount card for those.
Facilities – bar, restaurant, outdoor pool, playground, a pony (!), kids club, bike and go kart rental (at an extra cost) and lots of ping pong tables
Accessibility score – 4 / 5
This campsite was so nice, and the location was great. We stayed for 8 nights in total which included 2 working days, some chill days, 2 visits to Paris and a trip to Disneyland! We were 20 minutes outside Paris, and 45 minutes from Disney. We had a lovely private pitch, close to the sanitary blocks and the staff were really lovely.
Overall, this site was pretty good from an accessibility point of view, with one glaring exception. The sanitary blocks didn’t have any signs outside them. They had signs inside alright on all of the internal doors. So once you got inside, you could find your way around. If you could make it there, that is. We got a paper map and booklet at reception which could have had a bigger font. They did have tactile paving, flat pavements, and even braille on the button to open the gate.
A not on visiting Paris CityThe pedestrian crossings do not emit an audio to signify it is safe to cross the road. Some have a little yellow box with a button underneath that prompts an audio to play but these are not everywhere. Travelling via train and metro was really easy as the signs and maps in the stations are huge!
Things to do – we visited Paris on two separate occasions and did all the usual touristy things like seeing the Eifel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and some retail therapy. I did a fantastic French Pastry or “viennoiserie” making course in La Cuisine Paris while The Driver visited The Lourve. The course I did was really accessible. It was a small class of 8, in a small underground cellar (not as creepy as it sounds). This made it really easy to see what the Chef was doing, ask questions and get extra help when needed. I let The Driver go off to visit the Museums as I generally don’t get much out of visiting museums as often times the descriptor cards / plagues are too small to read comfortably.
On another morning, I did some horse riding, one of my all time favourite things to do. I went to Horse Holidays France for an intermediate level trek which involved getting the horses ready, 1.5 hours of riding through beautiful bridleways and then washing and untacking the horses after. I LOVED every second of it, even though it was pouring rain and I got completely soaked to the skin. Twice. I was the only person on the trek so we could take it at my pace.
Stop 3 (and the best so far) – DISNEYLAND!
As soon as we decided to visit France, I put Disneyland on the hit list. It did not disappoint, even though it was my third visit since childhood. It was completely magical from start to finish and I would go again tomorrow.
Accessibility here was 4 / 5. there were little to no steps (and the ones they had, had good edges). They had a downloadable interactive map, which showed rides that were / were not guide dog friendly and those that had dark areas. They also have a guide dog minding service if you don’t want to bring them into the parks. On the flip side, their signage was not great, so it was a bit difficult to get around. Here is a link to their full suite of accessibility services.
You can also get Priority Access Cards if you have a disability. These give you priority, but not immediate, access to rides by skipping the main queue. To qualify, you need to present a document that confirms your disability. These documents vary by your country of origin and Irelands Free Travel Pass is counted as one. You can register up to a month in advance or go and pick it up on the day. The full list of accepted documents appears when you do your application online and pick your country of residence. See link above for more details.
These cards are a brilliant idea. As people with Albinism have sun and light sensitivity and can find standing in long, bright queues, drenched in sunshine difficult, these are a game change. Unfortunately, I read the website wrong and missed out on this excellent opportunity. Next time though!
Overall, its been a fantastic first two weeks getting to see France, and getting to know Vanessa (the van) a bit more. Or next fortnight covers Beaune, a wine tour, Lyon, Cassis and our first 5 star campsite in Fréjus.
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