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First Nights On The Road – Ax-Les-Thermes, France

First Nights On The Road – Ax-Les-Thermes, France

It’s our first night on the road with all 12 paws and first nights are always rough.

Superbly pretty Ax-Les-Thermes

You’d think that after ~9 years fulltime RVing all of us would be fully adapted and travel would be a no-brainer, but furry family get attached to places and they LOVE routine. This is especially true of cats. Our two gals are getting old and cranky and have really fallen in love with their carefree, oceans-of-space, never-any-movement life in rural France. So when we ripped them away from all that and squeezed them into a teeny rolling home, they were shall-we-say NOT happy campers.

Plus all of this is new to us too!

Traveling in a 4-slide 40-foot beast with 2 couches, and so much open space we could do cartwheels on the floor is NOT the same as traveling in a no-slide 22-foot mini-beast where we have to do synchronized gymnastics just to get to the toilet. We’ve got to figure out our routine too, and when the cats are hissing at each other and the dog takes up half the existing floor-space, nerves can fray bit…

First-Time Travel Is NEVER Easy

I share all this with you mostly to point out that traveling is never as easy as you think it will be, even for experienced nomads like us.

While the cats were hissing at each other, some of us were just happy to be here ?

Most RVers expect that their first nights on the road will be blissfully relaxed and easy. I mean travel is exciting stuff, and if you’re just starting out you’ve probably been dreaming about doing it for ages. Freedom of the open road and all that jazz. So you’d expect your first nights on the road to be just like the Instagram shots you’ve been drooling over for the past months…yoga poses in the sunset, zen-like nomadness and just basking in nature without a worry in the world, you know what I mean?

Mais NON….the truth is that, no matter how experienced a traveler you are, the first few nights on the road are invariably pretty rough.

You’re worried about driving the rig, you’re hearing sounds you don’t recognize (is that rumbling noise normal or is the engine about to explode??), you’re probably not sleeping that well (darn, stupid “new” bed), there’s no space to spread out (I mean, seriously!), something will probably break or not work like you expect it to (yup, really!), and you won’t know where to go or how to find a place to park. You’re basically pretty darn far out of your comfort zone.

Plus if you’re traveling with a partner and paws (and maybe even kids!) you’re all having to go through this at the same time in a really small space. It’s never easy or comfortable, and the transition can be a bit of a shock if you’re not mentally prepared for it.

Afternoon stroll along the river in Ax-Les-Thermes

The Key Is To Ease Into It….

In our experience, the key to all this is to try to find a way to ease into it.

The cats weren’t too happy with each other the first few days, but did settle down

We knew the first few nights in LMB would probably be a bit rough, especially for our two older kitties (Polly adapts quickly!), so we deliberately planned for it to be as easy as possible, choosing a full-service campground only ~1 hour from home.

That way the cats only had to endure a SHORT first drive, and we’d have access to laundry (important in case of cat pukage), electricity (temp regulation for the paws), toilets/showers (space-savers for our tanks) and the ability to escape back to the stix & brix if it all went terribly wrong.

It’s similar to what we did in our old rig when we first started out and it’s a really good way to start. Basically we were just going to take it slow and give everyone a good few days of downtime to (hopefully) find their new mini-RV travel groove….fingers and paws crossed….

This is a sweet spot to start our travels

A Sweet Spot At The Base Of The Pyrénées

It’s helps to chose a pretty spot to start it all.

Ax-Les-Thermes sits right at the base of the Pyrénées

Using Park4Night (IMO the GO TO app for all camping, parking and boondocking in Europe) Paul found a highly rated campground (Camping Le Malazéou) in a cool ski town at the base of the  Pyrénées. It was right by a river with walking access to town, a grocery store nearby, and shade just in case it got too hot.

As a bonus, it was open!

You see most campgrounds actually close for the winter in France, only opening around April for the summer season. It’s great for stress-free travel (very few folks out this time of year), but also makes it darn difficult to find a place if you want hookups in the low season. However because Ax-Les-Thermes is a ski town, this campground remains open year-round. Perfect!

We rolled in around 11AM, checked-in with our passports (incl. pet passports), found a pitch (= site, here in Europe) and got set-up in in around 10 minutes. It was all pretty chillaxed (chose any open site, park whichever way you want), and once we’d managed to level (thank goodness for our Lynx Levelers that we bought with us from the US) we were pretty happy with the spot.

First site with all 12 paws in LMB….done!

Our first campsite. Good thing we’re not any bigger!

Settling In (And A Bit Of Sightseeing)

Our next 2 nights were really just about giving everyone a chance to settle in. At this point in the game we didn’t want to leave the paws alone, plus we needed to make sure they were all eating, pooping/peeing and just generally not getting annoyed at each other. So we just hung around the rig, and did separate, short sightseeing runs into town.

The area was totally made for it.

Ax-Les-Thermes is a super cute town. It a smallish place (only ~1200 people) that sits at the confluence of three rivers (the Oriège, the Ariège and the Lauze) and an elevation of 700 metres (2,300 ft). It’s surrounded by snow-capped mountains and pine, so it’s got a spectacular setting and enough nature to make it a year-round destination. In winter it’s a prime ski-spot with tons of snow on the upper slopes, while in summer the mountains transform into a hiking paradise with HUNDREDS of miles of trails into the Pyrénées boasting spectacular views and endless gorgeous alpine lakes. Plus it’s got all that typical French charm. You know, a lovely church, narrow alleyways, lots of little resto’s and boulangeries.

But perhaps the most interesting and unique thing about the town, especially for someone who’s not into the slippery-slide kind of sports like myself, is that it has a long history of natural mineral baths. Ax from Latin Aquae (=water) and Thermes from French (=baths) has sulfurous hot springs that have been used to treat rheumatism, skin diseases and other health issues since Roman times. The springs were developed in 1260 by the Comte Roger IV to treat soldiers returning from the Crusades afflicted with leprosy, and continued to be used for various ailments and cures after that. By the 19th century they had became a go-to place for spa tourism….and still are today.

Springs and ponds are ALL over town, bubbling and steaming from little taps on the side of the road, and diverted into massive baths that can be visited for a nominal fee. You can pick up a handy little walking guide from the tourist office in town that takes you around them all. Pair this with a hike up the hill behind town to the Rocher de la Vierge (Rock of the Virgin, built in 1875) and you’ll get a spectacular view of the city itself too.

It’s a cool place to just hang around, and perfect for anyone wanting a day of outdoor activity topped off by a relaxing dip and spa. Despite the fact that we didn’t really go out much here, it was a really, really nice place to start our travels. Plus our cats did (somewhat) settle. Slowly, but surely….

Coming Up Next -> We head over the Pyrénées and into Spain!

View of Ax-Les-Thermes from the Rock of the Virgin