Climbing in Fontainebleau – with a punch

I was going to finish writing up all my tips for climbing with children, before we took our children on a weekend bouldering trip to Fontainebleau in France. As usual, I didn’t quite get around to it, so I’ll give anyone who’s interested an account of a) just how great Font is with kids, and b) just how bad it is breaking down with kids in Europe.

So first, all the great stuff about our Friday – Monday 800-mile round trip to an area that’s about 90 minutes’ drive south of Paris. We have been going to Fontainebleau (“Font” to any anglophone who goes there for climbing, but “Bleau” to any French climber) for about eight years, sometimes twice a year in the summer. My initiation to it was shortly after I started climbing, and I used to go there with large groups of friends, borrowing a pickup truck to fit the boulder mats in, and staying in the plentiful supply of hideous hotel boxes like the “Formule 1”. We would spend all day climbing, and then drive into town to one of the many nice French restaurants, where we’d sit on a terrace with some beers and generally feel young and cool.

Our first trip as a couple was great, although one of our friends twisted their ankle in an awkward fall. We stayed in the comparatively swish Novotel. Since we had children, our fortunes have been more mixed. When our first was six months old, we thought the Easter weekend would be good, but failed to factor in the quite awesome number of French people who also travel across France on the Easter weekend. We were stuck in traffic on Good Friday for seven hours, our little baby was ill with a cold and screaming in the back, and we felt like the worst parents ever. He didn’t sleep, gave us his hideous cold, and we drove home first thing on Sunday morning having hardly done any climbing – best decision ever. Also, the Ibis in town totally sucked.

The next trip was when baby #2 was about 8 months old, and our first was 2.5. Everyone had a good time.  It’s maybe hard when they’re that age to get a real days’ climbing done, as there are substantial safety concerns when the toddlers start wandering off or stand underneath climbers, albeit the toddlers themselves have an absolute whale of a time clambering around the kids’ circuits or just running madly. The Novotel was  a good bet for kids, although it suddenly seemed expensive.

So this trip was going to be the winner; our youngest child is immobile, and the other two are old enough to understand instructions properly. We were booked into a campsite that offers mobile homes and cute log cabins that can fit six people easily, for far less money than a hotel, but of course requiring a bit more effort on ensuring we had things like tin openers. I spent most of the week packing the car out with everything we needed to make it more comfortable, and be independent of the annoying schlepp around French supermarkets – not to mention the iniquity of an almost 1:1 sterling exchange rate. Apart from the basic equipment, I had packed wine, beer, food for at least two meals, sheets, extra bedding in case of annoying baby arrangements, a little cot so that the baby could easily be put down at the bouldering venues, picnic rugs, muslins, sun shades, and a camping chair to simplify breastfeeding outside all day. The weather report predicted a dry and sunny 24 degrees. It was all going to be perfect, so perfect it could not be.

We had left contingency for the drive from Milton Keynes to Folkestone, which was fortunate as there was a major crash on the M1 that necessitated lots of detours. We picked Olga up at the terminal,  who had made her way straight off a flight from Tallinn. I was feeling pretty much like one of life’s winners. I had packed more of everything than we needed, and for the next five hours, we coasted along off the Eurotunnel and onto the A6 motorway to Paris. I was determined not to be shelling out any precious euros at service stations, and had spent pretty much a day making boxes and boxes of sandwiches, and buying enough other snacks to keep us going for days – which, in the end, it pretty much had to. At about 4.30 pm, we hit the rush hour traffic on the outskirts of Paris just before entering the peripherique freeway that encircles Paris.

Then, the engine warning light came on, and we lost power. Everything seemed to go wrong at once. The baby started wailing for milk as we hadn’t stopped for ages; the kids started fighting. We both descended into abject panic. I have broken down in France before, but had in many ways the good fortune to do so on a motorway, in a relatively remote part of France, without any children. We parked up in a layby, slept in the car and called the towing contractors the next morning, who took us to quite a picturesque local garage that kept thousands of pieces of paper in a giant rolling filing cabinet, which was amusing to watch. Nothing about breaking down in Mitry Mory was quaint, amusing or even entertaining in hindsight. The children needed the loo, and I took them to the only available toilet, which was at the back of a horse-racing pub, and had more excrement next to the toilet than in it. The car park was littered in glass. It was hot. The breakdown truck took nearly three hours to arrive. I was too tired to think straight, which is how we ended up missing the fact that we were in fact fully covered for European breakdown, and could simply have phoned up and had someone else arrange the taxis, the hire car, the return by Eurostar, and the repatriation of the car. It turns out that even if you are covered, if you rather unsurprisingly miss some of your paperwork after a day in the car with three children under five, and phone someone else to pick up the car, the insurance company will deny all liability.

So we went on a super fun bouldering trip to a campsite in France for three nights, and paid £2600, which is I think a special achievement.

Here are the details of the best bouldering venues with kids:

  • Trois Pignons – Rocher aux Sabots: very large kids’ circuit, lots of space, very close to the car park
  • Trois Pignons – Rocher Cailleau: small area, but quite friendly and has enough for the kids to do. There is also enough sand to keep them busy if they get bored of the climbing. Possibly too sunny on hot days.
  • The Jingo Wobbly guide is rather weird, but very useful for details on child-friendly venues
  • Don’t go to Cuvier, whether with or without children; yes, it’s famous for the Marie Rose, but it’s hugely polished and exposed to the full sunshine.

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I pretty much sat around crying about the general lack of sleep and awfulness of everything, but the day at Rocher aux Sabots in particular was still nice. I sat feeding Ingrid and enjoying the stillness of the forest. Childbirth takes away all competitive desire, and I didn’t really want to be confronted too much with the effect of an extra five kilos. I would go back to the campsite – it wasn’t too busy or too climber-centric.  It was called Camping Ile de Boulancourt. The only drawback was the lack of any cheap restaurants in walking distance of the campsite, but we got some delicious takeaway pizzas in Malesherbes one night, and burnt some onions with pasta the other night.

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