Travel is a passion of mine. When I am not on vacation, I am planning the next one or reflecting on the previous. Research suggests that anticipation of a great trip can be a source of happiness in itself, and I could not agree more.
Wanderlust is my periodic travel fix. I will either review one of my favorite destinations or share some research on a dream destination. My aim is not to provide a comprehensive travel guide, but rather to inspire you to feed your travel bug. The world is a huge, wonderful place. I can’t see it all, but I can try!
Travel Review #3: France (with an infant)
A more idyllic scene I could not have imagined. The three of us—my 9-month-old son, my wife, and I—lazed in the dappled sunlight on the banks of the Dordogne following a lunch of crusty baguette, tart goat cheese, grated carrot salad, sliced sausages, and fresh fruit from the market. Our languid mood was no doubt assisted by the empty bottle of Sancerre in the grass beside us.
I could get used to this.
Bringing the bébé
Ah, France. Is anywhere more perfectly suited for a baby’s first trip abroad? Non!
- Direct flight from our city to Paris? Oui.
- Safe (we went in 2014, before any terror incidents)? Oui.
- Cheese, bread, and wine? Oui.
(Confession: Non, oui, bébé and croissant are the extent of my French language knowledge.)
With a 9-month-old in tow, we jetted to Paris in mid-September for a lovely, slow-paced 2 week holiday. The weather was warm, the sun shined, and the markets buzzed during our time there.
After a few days indoctrinating our son with raw milk cheese and late-night dinners in Paris, we decided to get off the beaten tourist path with a stay in the village of Saint-Cyprien in the Dordogne—a bucolic, picturesque river valley extending east from Bordeaux.
We spent much of our time in Paris in recovery mode. My wife and I had studied abroad in Europe and spent a few days in Paris then, so we decided to skip the previously-seen Louvre and Eiffel tower.
If you have researched a visit to Paris, you will be familiar with the age-old debate over which arrondissement (neighborhood) is the most Frencherrific. We settled on the 4th arrondissement—on the right bank (north) of the Seine—which contains Notre Dame Cathedral. Our Airbnb rental sat on the square across from the Pompidou Centre, the largest modern art museum in Europe. Embarrassingly, we never made it there even though we could see it from our window; it was a case of, “We’ll go tomorrow,” and then we ran out of tomorrows.
Paris was a pleasant blur of pastries, afternoon strolls, and wine with lunch and dinner—and our son napped his way through much of it. A few highlights (for the adults) included the Orsay Museum, which we had not visited previously, a lovely evening picnic in Montemarte, and a guided food tour with Edible Paris.
Before you could say croissant, our time in Paris was up.
The goal for our remaining ten days in France was to settle into village life: somewhere quiet and slightly less touristed by the masses (this eliminated Provence). A few inquiries on travel forums pointed me toward the village of Saint-Cyprien in the Dordogne River valley.
We hit the road in our Sixt rental car for the five-hour drive south out of Paris into the countryside. Once we left the main highway, the scenery turned up the charm: quaint country lanes, stone walls, meadows filled with sheep, countless vineyards, deep green forests, and, eventually, the meandering Dordogne River. A GPS or equivalent phone map are a necessity, as some roads are poorly signposted, and the quickest routes can entail many turns.
Our home rental was an eight-hundred-year-old, four-story, kinda-stinky house, heavy on the charm and light on the air conditioning. We knew going in that the steep, rickety stairs would require constant supervision for our son the speed-crawler, but we escaped without any serious tumbles. The most serious issue with turned out to be the third-floor toilets; low water pressure and high toilet elevation required a water pumping system, which emitted an ear-splitting shriek each time the toilet was flushed.
Let’s just say we let the yellow mellow overnight.
Within France, the Dordogne conjures thoughts of a few gourmet food items: walnuts, truffles, and especially foie gras.
Yes, the Dordogne is the epicenter and capital of the ever-controversial foie gras. If aliens visited and found us paying top dollar for diseased livers harvested from force-fed geese and ducks, they might reconsider if they had discovered intelligent life on Earth. Foie gras is on the menu at every restaurant, and it seems the locals even sprinkle it on their Cheerios in the morning. I will admit I ordered a few dishes in which it was included. Frankly, it’s just okay, but what do you expect from fatty livers?
France claims inventing the world’s first restaurant, so it’s no surprise they do eating out well. Three Dordogne restaurants stood out for different reasons:
- Le Bistrot d’Epicure, Saint-Cyprien: Just down the road from our house, this restaurant came highly recommended by locals, and did not disappoint. The unusual experience here was not the food, but the reservation. We tried early in the week to walk in for dinner. Peak tourist season had passed and the restaurant was nearly empty, so we anticipated an immediate seating. But as we approached the maitre d’, we were greeted with a pained smile and informed they were booked for the evening. We made a reservation for later in the week, and were the only diners in the restaurant during our entire meal.
- Restaurant Le Gabarrier (no website?), Allas-les-Mines: My wife and I are experienced travelers and have dealt with our fair share of communication issues. Thanks to English’s place as the unofficial world language, others can usually muddle their way through a broken conversation with us. At this unpretentious restaurant at a gorgeous spot on the banks of the Dordogne River, we had no such luck. The owner/waiter spoke nary a word of English, and our French was similarly lacking. Nevertheless, we managed to order a delicious if somewhat mysterious meal and, although we can’t be sure, the owner seemed to like us.
- Le Vieux Logis, Trémolat: The best meal of our trip was lunch at this Michelin-starred hotel restaurant. The details of our tasting menu are a bit hazy three years later, but I remember pigeon was in there somewhere, as was foie gras, of course.
Markets markets everywhere
Perhaps best part of French food culture is the pride they take in seasonal ingredients, epitomized by their countless village markets. Our tiny village of Saint-Cyprien had a twice-weekly market with tantalizing produce, cheese, meat, honeys, and baked goods.
With all of the delicious food we sampled during two weeks in what is arguably the culinary capital of the world, the standout best was perhaps the simplest: fresh raspberries. We hit during peak season, and all of us gorged ourselves on these perfectly plump and sweet-tart beauties.
We also spent a day in nearby Sarlat-la-Canéda (or just Sarlat), home to a large and impressive market and large and impressive hordes of tourists. Despite the crowds, the village was quite lovely and the selection of drool-inducing foods extensive.
We managed to distract our mouthes from the food and wine long enough to explore a few other sites of note.
- Beynac fortress: Rising high above the banks of the Dordogne River, this cliffside fortress played a key role in the Hundred Years’ War (1336–1453) between the French and English, among countless other conflicts. A steep but short walk leads you to the picture-perfect castle 500 feet above, with expansive views of the surrounding greenery.
- Gardens of Marqueyssac: Slightly further up the river from Beynac lies these impeccably landscaped gardens situated on a large plateau. Its original buildings were erected by the French during the Hundred Years’ War as a strategic lookout on the English, encamped on the river opposite Beynac. We spent a lazy day here ogling the impressive topiary and flowers, and meandering through wooden paths.
- Prehistoric painting at Lascaux: Perhaps the most famous tourist attraction in the Dordogne, these 17,000-year old cave painting sit just outside the village of Montignac and have been a sensation since their rediscovery in 1940. Tourists are no longer permitted in the original caves, as years of exposure to thousands of heavy breathers and outside air have created a serious mold problem. Don’t fret: a full-sized replica of the cave and paintings has been created nearby for your tourist dollars.
How great is France for travel with young children?
France is ideal for travel with young children. The country’s infrastructure is modern and familiar, and the outdated reputation of French unfriendliness is simply wrong. Travel with children breaks the ice and often creates a connection with other parents we meet. On more than one occasion in France, someone would have a conversation with our son in French before turning to us and continuing in English.
While asking questions on travel forums during the planning of this trip, a not uncommon response was, “Don’t take the kid!” Would it have been simpler for my wife and me to leave junior with his grandparents? Sure, and we have done that for short trips in the past. Although we know they have few memories of these early explorations, we will treasure our memories of time spent with them on these trips.