In late October 2020, we were meandering around in wine country near Chablis, waiting for our long-delayed motorhome license plates. Newspapers had been reporting higher Covid case numbers every week, but everything felt normal in this part of France – we were not under the curfews or other restrictions that had been applied in other areas. We knew that the French president was scheduled to give a speech but thought that additional regional restrictions would be the most likely outcome. However, a strict national lockdown was announced, going into effect at midnight the next day and applying to all parts of France. What to do? Gary went to sleep, knowing that there would be a long drive the next day, wherever we were going. Janice stayed up most of the night contacting friends, posting questions to Facebook, and researching options. Through the night and when we woke up we were stunned by the kindness and generosity of friends and strangers across Europe and the UK. They offered us ideas and connections and invited us to park on their properties. We were unsure about staying in the motorhome in winter without the possibility of driving regularly to charge the batteries and empty the toilet, so when friends offered the use of their holiday cottage in Dordogne, France, we immediately said, “That’s the place!”. With no more planning, we set out for a 10-hour drive to the south of France. We arrived in the small town of Les Eyzies after dark, passing cliffs towering over the road and arriving at a small stone cottage surrounded by mist. Kathy, who kept the key to the cottage for our friends, kindly let us in and loaned Amelia a wonderful stack of children’s books and DVDs to help us with the lockdown.
It was a strict confinement, with movements limited to only essential trips and a 1 km radius for exercise. All movements required attestation forms (sworn statements with our reasons for leaving home). We first ventured out into our town and we were amazed by the ancient rock shelter and medieval buildings above Les Eyzies. We stood out as the only ‘tourists’ gaping at the rocks and communicating with gestures and Google Translate in the bakery and the Post Office. Rumours soon spread around town that we were an “Australian” family with a “camping car” (French term for motorhome), stranded by Covid.
Just after we arrived, we met our wonderful neighbours Peter and Agnès and became great friends. Peter is Irish, raises guide dogs (Amelia fell in love with his two dogs, Happy and Topsy) and has walked the length of France. Agnès is French and has taught English in France and French in London. They met on Peter’s walk through France when Topsy hurt her paw at Sorcerer’s Cave and Agnès offered them a ride back to their campsite. Agnès started giving us French lessons, starting with survival phrases so we could stop pointing and start asking for what we needed. She had a brilliant technique of helping us write dialogues for the bakery, the markets, etc., and then practicing them with us dynamically, repeating the words while moving around the house. The dialogues included both sides of the conversation (both what we needed to say and also the likely responses) so we could ask for what we needed and so that we were no longer confused by instructions, questions, and pleasantries such as “Would you like a bag?” and “have a good day”! She also introduced us to the brilliant online translator DeepL. You can reach Agnès here.
Despite the lockdown, we loved the area with its deep mossy forests and incredible history. Coming from the Caribbean, sitting in front of the fireplace, picking holly in the forest, and sipping vin chaud at markets were all new experiences. After 6 weeks, the lockdown finally lifted, and we stayed for Christmas and New Year’s with new friends (bringing Amelia home from Christmas dinner immediately after dessert – at 1 a.m.). After traveling to Portugal in January, so Amelia could attend forest school, we returned to Les Eyzies in May – as it turned out, just in time for France’s third lockdown. Well, we were used to being confined in Les Eyzies and soon this lockdown was over and we started visiting more of the attractions in the area. We didn’t like the idea of leaving before we could go canoeing and try other activities so we went on a small trip to the south of France and then returned for more exploring. Here are some of our favourites from our time in Les Eyzies. We could not have ended up in a better place and we can’t thank Tim and Andrea enough for hosting us and our friends in the area for all their ideas, suggestions, and the new places and experiences they have introduced us to.
Food Shopping and Markets:
- Our first challenge when we arrived during the lockdown was to find the best places for food shopping. We had been excited to try new foods in France but with restaurants closed and no more visits to France Passion sites our options seemed limited. Would we be eating pasta at home? But luckily, bakeries, cheese shops, and markets all were deemed essential and stayed open (other “essentials” were another story).
- For basic food shopping, we went to Intermarche in Le Bugue or Carrefour in Sarlat. We learned that if you are looking high-quality products in super- or hyper-markets it helps to look for the AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) or the old AOC (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) label – this is a protection for products produced in specific regions using traditional methods. We also picked up lots of delicious cheeses which were marked down to two euros because they were nearing their expiration – there was an area for these cheeses in both supermarkets
- Our favourite cheese shop, Fromagerie D’Audrix, was in Le Bugue and they also had stands in local markets. We were very intimidated by the selection at first and we would stand frozen at the counter until we started asking them to choose for us: “Trois fromages pour un assiette de fromage?” (three cheeses for a cheese plate).
- We love all the French pastries that we tried, including incredibly light and flaky croissants, pain aux chocolat, pain aux raisins, and chaussons aux pommes. There was also a wonderful choice of interesting fresh bre ad including pain aux noix (walnut bread) and pain bûchette spécial au maïs (not cornbread but bread made with cornmeal). In our local bakery, Amelia always got a lollipop and we learned to ask for our baguettes “Pas trop cuit” (not too cooked) to accommodate her wiggly teeth. Maison Lissajoux in Sarlat has incredible pastries and bread, including flavors such as fig and goji berry, etc. – well worth a special trip.
- Most towns have a market day. For all markets, go to https://www.jours-de-marche.fr/ and select ‘chercher un marché.’ We particularly enjoyed the markets in Saint- Cyprien, Sarlat, and Le Bugue (where there is a stand with Ethiopian coffee – also serving what Amelia says is the world’s best hot chocolate).
- Picard is a French chain which offers good quality frozen food. We would plan to buy a couple of items and end up with a bag full of frozen goodies, including salmon, international foods such as falafels, and surprisingly good French favourites such as gougieres (pastry puffs). Amelia loved the strawberry banana popsicles.
- Decathlon was a useful stop for hiking boots and warm clothes. There is a small store in Sarlat and a larger one near Perigueux.
- We got haircuts! Planet Hair is a mobile hair salon at the market in Plazac (as well as other locations) – no English spoken but we did ne with showing photos of what we wanted: Amelia got a cute bob. While waiting, we walked through town to see the medieval gardens, fortified church, and ancient cemetery.
- Ecomusee de la Noix in Castelnaud has wonderful nut products, including caramelized walnuts (cerneux de noix grilles et caramelises aux noix de perigord).
- Our favorite local wine was a recommendation from Ruud from the wine list at Hôtel Le Cro-Magnon – Saint- Exupery vineyard.
- Hiking trails: When we arrived in lockdown, we started exploring the walking trails in our area during our daily exercise period. There are numerous trails in and around Les Ezyies; ranging from less than an hour to full-day hikes. We often walked along Chemin du Vieux Porche which ends in a footpath that gives views across the valley (and good mobile signal – this was important when we were waiting to get internet installed in the house!). We also hiked the 7 Towers trail and Gorge d ‘ Enfer is also nearby. More details can be found at: https://thedordogne.com/marked-hiking-trails-in-les-eyzies-de-tayac/. Another favorite was a path that runs along the back of Les Eyzies under the cliffs – it is an ancient path, used by Cro-Magnons, and is magical.
- Birdwatching: We saw a Wallcreeper (Tichodrome échelette) at Eglise de Tayac without realizing how lucky we were. We often saw photographers and their telephoto lenses trying to get a shot.
- River: We loved accessing the Vézère River downstream from the school/mairie and also at an island which was perfect for exploring and swimming. There is a small bamboo forest next to the camping car aire – a magical place for children to slip into.
- Playground: For young children, there is a small playground near the school.
- Restaurants: First on our list was our friends’ restaurant at Hôtel Le Cro-Magnon. Everything we had was delicious – don’t skip the luscious desserts and you must also try the amazing homemade limoncello. Neighbours also recommended (but we haven’t had a chance to try) Le Maison and Le Passeur.
- Museums: Les Eyzies has a fantastic pre-history museum. There is a full-sized mammoth, other re-constructed prehistoric animal replicas, incredible rock carvings and artifacts, and comprehensive signage in English.
Picturesque nearby towns:
Too many to mention. We were lucky that the towns that we visited were quiet due to Covid – we may have had a different impression in high season. The Vézère River joins the Dordogne River in Limeuil; along the Dordogne River valley, there is also Beynac (with its castle, Château de Beynac – the movie Chocolat was filmed here) and Domme (a walled hilltop village and part of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France/”The Most Beautiful Villages of France”). Another village with that designation is Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère; it was one of our favorite villages in France. We visited on a canoe trip (see below). See also the markets section of this post – Saint Cyprien and the medieval centre of Sarlat are beautiful and have great markets. While there are no restaurants or other facilities, it is also interesting to pass through the beautiful town of Urval and see the 14th-century bread oven (Four Banal).
We wanted a short route to leave lots of time for exploring and swimming, so we started in Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, taking a two-hour trip past a waterfall and three chateaus, visiting an island, and rope swinging into the river just before the beach. Another time, we would like to canoe more of the Vézère, passing Roque San Christophe and ending in Les Eyzies.
Caves/ Rock shelters:
- We found Roque Saint Christophe to be a great introduction to the area; rock shelters at the bottom may have been used by Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon people and the upper rock ledges supported a citadel in Medieval times. All the signs have an English version on the back – some aspects are based on speculation but this gave us a wonderful picture of the sweep of history in the area.
- The prehistoric caves of Combarelles and Font du Gaume cannot be missed – see our separate blog post.
- We walked around the Sorcerer’s Cave area before it reopened and couldn’t go in to see the painting of the sorcerer, so we were glad to see a similar painting in Font du Gaume.
- Goure de Padirac was an absolutely spectacular cave – see our separate blog post.
Castles/ Chate aux/ Playgrounds:
- There are many beautiful castles in the area. We visited Castlenaud and another stop was the Jardins de Marqueyssac – it has sweeping views of both Castelnaud and Beynac and playgrounds (including a route through the trees) for children. Beynac is featured as the villain’s castle in the Cinderella movie ‘Ever After.’
- Commarque is an amazing site with a rock shelter below the castle – we were unable to visit the inside, but it was magical being the only people on the site on a cold misty day in December.
- Amelia loved Bois de Lutins – it is a small adventure park on a lake which is well-shaded and has aerial walkways and small cabins in the trees, plus aerial trampolines, a bouncy castle, an obstacle course, etc. Wear closed-toed shoes. You can bring your own food; there are picnic tables and taps for refilling water bottles. It was a very pleasant place to spend a day.
Food and wine :
- We enjoyed the traditional 4-course meal (starter, main, cheese, dessert). It made for very social meals.
- Our neighbour Agnès made incredible fondue from the area where she used to live and also introduced us to raclette – she topped the cheese with shallot and melted it in a special raclette maker.
- Our two favourite cheeses were Mont D’Or and Tomme des Croquants au noix. Mont D’Or can be baked in the oven with wine and garlic and then eaten with potatoes (we liked this recipe from the blog of David Lebovovitz). Thanks to Aunt Emily for introducing us to his recipes. It is a pity Mont D’Or is only available in winter! The Tomme is rubbed with walnut liquer, giving it a nutty flavour. We happened upon the Tomme des Croquants au noix in the market in Domme and then again in the market in Saint Cyprien.
- Irish potato cakes – not at all French but introduced to us by our friend, Peter. The cakes became an instant favourite; a tasty, warm, and filling dinner for a cold winter’s night!
- Vin de noix – notice how many foods contain noix (walnuts)? This a fortified wine made by macerating green walnuts in wine – we first heard of this in the Inspector Bruno books which are set in the area (the fictional town of St . Denis is based on Le Bugue). In June, when our walnuts were ready, we tried our hand at making a batch. We also helped Agnès make vin du sureau (Elderflower wine) – together, we spent three hours pulling off the beautiful sweet-smelling petals.
- Amelia had riding lessons at the beautiful Ferme Des Eymaries. Horses roam wild through the valley and Amelia took lessons with other children and even went on trail rides through the forest. Her favourite horses were a little white pony called Cendrillon (Cinderella) and a chestnut horse called Printemps (Spring).
- We have also visited the beautiful free-roaming horses at Ferme Du Fonluc and we had an incredible trail ride as a family. Make sure to book for at least a 2-hour ride at Ferme Du Fonluc to allow time to visit the prehistoric rock shelter and ride up through the forest and along the ridges above Les Eyzies.
If we had to pick favourites, they would be Padirac, Font du Gaume, canoeing with a stop in Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, horseback riding, and the museum. And if you ask Amelia, Bois de Lutins!
While we spent a lot of time in Les Eyzies, most of it was in lockdown. We are planning to return to the area in the autumn so if you have any suggestions of must-visit places, please let us know!
PS: The links to external websites are for information only; we are not affiliates of these entities nor do we earn any commission from them.