Winter with family and friends

After a second Christmas in France, we decided to spend the winter with family and friends in the Cayman Islands. On the way, we stopped in Florida to visit friends.

florida_lake_and_manatees

From France, we flew into Miami and drove to Marco Island, where we had a wonderful boat trip with our friend, Karen, and her family. Next, we visited Heather and family on the beautiful Sanibel Island. Amelia loved riding their beautiful white pony, Firefly, and we all enjoyed the CROW Clinic where Heather is the head wildlife veterinarian, the Shell Museum, beaches, shells and boating, and the beautiful nature reserves and bike paths. Unfortunately we all got COVID-19 so we had to leave too soon – we spent 10 days in isolation at an Airbnb on Pine Island watching movies, drinking orange juice, and relaxing on the sunny deck. Once recovered, we went to Tampa to spend time with our friends Rachel, Rob, Mimi and Evie. The kids especially enjoyed Mote Marine Lab , a manatee viewing area which was near where we stayed, and the playground at St. Pete pier. We then headed north and stayed in a beautiful lakeside Airbnb. Free kayaks were provided and the weather had turned chilly so we enjoyed the cosy house & fireplace. On a sunny day we kayaked the Ichetucknee River. We’ve heard the Ichetucknee can be too busy in summer but it was absolutely spectacular out of season: crystal clear water, cypress trees covered in Spanish moss, herons, ibis, and woodpeckers, hundreds of turtles and we were surrounded by manatees. Definitely a highlight of our time in Florida.

We arrived in Cayman and spent a wonderful two months with family and friends – celebrating Pop and Wendy’s wedding and revisiting many of our favourite places. Our time ended too soon, but we wanted to get back to Europe for the spring.

bassin_de_la_villette

When we returned to France, we spent a few days in Paris where we enjoyed staying near the Bassin de la Villette: this is a walkable area within easy reach of other areas by metro. We enjoyed pastries along the canal and a day at Disneyland Paris. Amelia finally got to climb the Eiffel Tower (a first for all of us). We took a train to Les Eyzies, where we had left the motorhome, and quickly set off for Greece – driving through many miles of snow on our way to southern France. The French Riviera is absolutely stunning but difficult for motorhome travel: many parking areas and wild camp sites have reviews about vehicle break-ins, so we found it difficult to feel confident leaving the motorhome to hike. We enjoyed visiting the Falaises de Cassis observation deck (near Parc National Des Calanques) and staying at France Passion sites such as Domaine Saint Jean de l’Arbousier during our quick visit.

It was only a flying visit to Italy, but we found time to make a quick visit to Rome, Lucca, and Pisa. We were able to meet up with friends Linda and Steven (The Chouters & Bijou) while they took a break from motorhoming to walk the Via Francigena pilgrim path, Gary’s friend from South Africa, Paul, who was working in Genoa and our friends from Cayman, Doug and Laura, who are growing olives and other produce in southern Italy. But after just two weeks, it was time to take the ferry to Greece – however our motorhome garage full of delicious Italian food and wine, and with plans to return one day.

Practicalities of Travelling in France:

This is a compilation of other blog posts (see here and here) that focuses on the day-to-day practicalities of travelling in France.

Where we stayed:

Practicalities of Travelling in France

France-Passion: We stayed primarily at France-Passion sites – over 2,000 farms, vineyards, etc. that allow you to park for free in exchange for looking at their products if they have anything for sale – there is no obligation but we never walked away empty handed. We bought red, white and rose wine, champagne, grape and apple juice, goat cheese, pasta, gingerbread, jam, eggs, and vegetables. All the sites we tried were open and welcoming: www.france-passion.com. An annual subscription is approximately €30.

Aires: These are free or paid parking areas provided by the towns and cities. They often include wastewater dumping, blackwater dumping, paid electricity, freshwater, and sometimes bathrooms. We found them through the Park4Night app (can be used offline after subscribing and downloading a regional map). All of the aires we visited were open for parking, but a few had services shut off for the winter, especially high in the French Alps. We did not stay at motorway aires; they are not generally recommended for staying the night but do have services (gasoline/petrol/diesel, blackwater dumping, picnic tables, restaurants, etc.).

Wild Camping: Wild camping is legal in France (with some conditions and limitations) but with a big motorhome and a small child we didn’t want to risk having to move in the night, so we were cautious in selecting a spot. We found it difficult to be sure that we would feel comfortable with a site based only on online reviews but if we found a site that looked good we used Park4Night to check if there were any reviews for the area (for example, one of our favourite sites was a quiet stretch of road on the banks of the Rhine, where we wild camped for two nights at what was originally planned to be a lunch spot; it looked like it would be OK to stay and we confirmed on Park4Night that other people had stayed without any problems).

Campsites: These range from 1-4 stars depending on the facilities available and can also be found on Park4night. We stayed in a few campsites at the beginning of our trip and then stopped using them when we had figured other solutions for internet, laundry, and dumping waste. Many campsites close for winter.

Water/Electricity/Dumping:

Water and electricity are available on some France-Passion sites (indicated in the guidebook). Otherwise we used Park4Night to find aires – often stopping en route to a France-Passion site rather than staying the night if they had paid parking or were busy.

Driving:

Our most essential navigation tip for motorhomes is to set your GPS for the size of your vehicle – so you are not directed toward low tunnels, weak bridges, or very narrow village roads. Unfortunately, this is not possible in Google Maps. Our inbuilt motorhome GPS has this feature and when it stopped working during the trip we switched to the CoPilot app. The app works offline on a cell phone and we have found it mostly reliable though it has directed us toward a few small streets; if something doesn’t look right, we do not follow it. We see fewer problems when we use the ‘easiest route’ rather than ‘fastest route’ setting. We used Google Maps to find bakeries, grocery stores, etc. and downloaded offline maps of each region so we can use it without an internet connection. Tip: If the search results appear limited, search for the foreign language word, such as boulangerie instead of bakery.

Practicalities of Travelling in France

Priorité à droite: The French highway code states that a when two drivers approach an intersection from different roads, the driver on the left is required to yield, unless directed otherwise by signage. This means that a driver pulling onto a road from the right could have right-of-way. In practice, there seem to be signs overruling priorité à droite almost everywhere  – but we have seen some villages where it is in place. This article from The Local explains it quite well.

Tolls (Péage): It has always been possible for us to pay tolls by credit card however tolls, in general, can be expensive – one 7km tunnel cost us 17 euros! (as the toll is based on the size of the vehicle). We mostly set our GPS to avoid toll roads and we have seen some beautiful country and villages (and also some terrifying narrow village streets and one-lane roads).

Food:

Large chain grocery stores (such as Intermarché, Carrefour, SuperU and E.Leclerc) tend to be located on the outskirts of towns and cities and have parking lots large enough for our motorhome. We have found most of the staples we need (sometimes only after googling “what is X called in France” or “where can I buy X in France” (e.g. baking powder is called levure chimique or levure alsacienne, peanut butter is usually in the organic (bio) aisle). The stores often have a petrol station.

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

The best food we bought came from France-Passion sites, speciality stores (e.g. bread – boulangerie, pastries – patisserie, cheese – fromagerie, goat cheese – chèvrerie, etc.) and local markets. Market days can be searched for on this site (select “chercher un marché” (search for a market) “autour de moi” (around me).

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 gougères (pastry puffs). Amelia loved the strawberry banana popsicles.

General:

Laundry: We have some heavy clothes like jeans that take too long to air dry. We struggled to find places with washers and dryers other than campsites until we noticed the washers and dryers which are available in the parking lots of many grocery stores. These can be found on this website (search “a proximite” – nearby – and be sure to find a “laverie” – not a photobooth).

Homewares: Grocery stores have some housewares and we also visited Ikea when stocking our motorhome.

Clothing/Outdoors: Decathlon was a useful stop for hiking boots and warm clothes.

Practicalities of Travelling in France

Money: We make all of our payments using a Revolut card. Revolt is an online bank and will do currency conversions at the Interbank rate.  You also get a virtual card (that you can link to Google Pay or your Apple Wallet) for free that can be used for online shopping. You can fund your Revolt account by charging your current credit or debit card.

LPG: Our heater and stove run on LPG gas (called GPL in France). We also used gas designated as GPLc with no problems. Sites supplying LPG can be found on:  www.mylpg.eu 

Internet: We purchased a sim card from a provider called Free and use it in a mifi device (which provides wifi for our motorhome). For €20 per month, the Free sim gives us 210 GB per month in France (and 25 GB per month while roaming). We purchased the sim from a kiosk (bourne) inside a tobacconist shop. You will need to put an address in France. From what we understand, there is no contract but we have not yet cancelled.  Update April 2022: We found that the 25 GB per month outside of France was not sufficient and so have switched to Tiekom.com based in Spain. They offer 300 GB per month for a monthly €40. We have encountered no issues. We learnt about it here and Camino was very helpful. You have to have the SIM card mailed to you and the package must be signed for.

Translations: we use Google Translate and downloaded the French dictionary so we can use it offline. The camera mode (point it at text to translate) has also been very helpful.  If you are connected to the internet, Google Translate can perform a real-time voice/dictation translation. Update May 2021: DeepL – is much better at high quality translations

Covid: We used https://reopen.europa.eu/ for information on requirements for crossing borders and this site to search for places offering covid tests in France (in case we needed to get tested before crossing a border). We use The Local for French news in English.

Practicalities of Travelling in France

Attractions: We visited many farms and vineyards via France-Passion and we also enjoyed visiting some of the villages designated as the most beautiful villages in France (“Les Plus Beaux Villages de France”). They might be crowded during the summer; during the off-season they have been perfect. We have also – by chance – found ourselves following some driving routes such as the “Route du Grande Alpes” – there are many of these routes promoted by local tourist offices. Information on walking/hiking paths can be found on www.sentiers-en-france.eu.

Back to France and our second French Noël

After an incredible Scandinavian summer, at the beginning of October we arrived back in France. While we had spent 6 months in France previously, we knew that there was much more that we wanted to explore in the motorhome. First, however, we spent a few days in a gite (guest house) at a horseback riding stable where we could relax while Amelia took riding lessons. She was also excited to cook some treats in a bigger kitchen with an oven, including homemade strawberry granola bars for the next stage of our trip. 

Monets_Garden

After our break,  we visited Monet’s house and garden in Giverny. The garden has been planted with an incredible array of seasonal flowers so that it bursts with colour throughout the spring, summer, and autumn. We were lucky to visit on a sunny afternoon in mid-October and we had the Water Lily Pond to ourselves for a few minutes at the end of the day. It was magical in a way that such heavily visited destinations seldom can be. 

Sunset

We then began exploring the coast following a list of suggestions sent to us by our Les Eyzies friend and neighbour Antoine, who is originally from Normandy. Our first stop was the Alabaster Coast where white chalk cliffs stretch from Dieppe to Étretat. We explored the beautiful small town of Veules-les-Roses and wild camped with incredible sunset views. Our next stop was the busy port of Honfleur, where we shared a motorhome aire with 180 motorhomes (Amelia carefully counted them and noted the countries that they had come from), rode the merry-go-round, and had crepes and hot (and very alcoholic!) cider spiked with calvados. Then we visited France’s smallest port, Port Racine, enjoying the beautiful country views on the Cotentin peninsula. Throughout Normandy, we stayed at France Passion sites to stock up on local products: apples, apple cider, apple juice, calvados, and fresh cheese. 

Normandy

As we continued through the countryside, Mont Saint-Michel appeared in distance like fantastic fairy-tale castle floating in the sea. Much like Carcassonne, it is more alluring from a distance (the interior is filled with tourist shops) but we still enjoyed a walk around the ramparts. We then returned in the evening to see it surrounded by water and to catch a glimpse of the city by lamplight. As we returned to our shuttle bus, we were hit by the first bands of rain from a terrific storm. That evening, the motorhome rocked wildly and branches broke in the wind but we escaped without any damage. Our final stops in Normandy were more sombre. We visited the Bayeux Tapestry – woven almost one thousand years ago and showing scenes from the battle of Hastings in life-like detail – and the D-Day beaches along with the Normandy American Cemetery, where white crosses marking the graves stretch as far as you can see.

Rose_granite

It was then time to move on to Brittany. Our first stop was a big campsite with many activities – a treat for Amelia and still very quiet because it was not yet school holidays. Over three days, Amelia spent about 12 hours in the heated indoor pool/waterpark and she rode the ziplines and tried the tree climbing adventure course. This was good practice for a bigger tree climbing course, the Forêt Adrénaline Carnac, which was one of Amelia’s highlights in Brittany. We all also enjoyed the rose granite coast (another screen-saver bucket list item!), the misty and mossy Huelgoat forest, the mystical standing stones around Carnac, and a smaller site where it was possible to walk amongst standing stones without a guide – another magical experience.

Steampunk_Animals

Amelia was keen to celebrate Halloween/trick-or-treat, but because trick-or-treat is not a typical French custom, we decided to visit the Broceliande forest for the Celtic festival of Samhain. This included a witches’ market and a fire show. Finally, we stopped in Nantes to shop in a Mexican market and see the city’s incredible steam-punk machines, such as a carousel of fantastical sea creatures and a 12 m / 39 ft tall animatronic elephant

When we arrived back in France, we had also posted on Worldschooling and French home education Facebook groups so that we could find some playdates for Amelia. Our first visit was with Tracy and her family in Normandy: Amelia had a wonderful time exploring a corn-field jungle and jumping on the trampoline with a welcoming group of English-speaking children. Next, we were happy to be invited to visit the “Traveling Twins” family – Amelia loved meeting their girls and we enjoyed chatting about traveling and worldschooling with Anja and Nick. As we left Brittany, we squeezed in our last visit with Kat, Mark, and kids. Mark cooked up a delicious South African potjie, we chatted and laughed late into the night, and decided to stay an extra day! Our last stop was a France Passion to pick up some cognac and then we arrived back “home” in Les Eyzies in our friends’ little cottage where we have spent so much time. 

Horse_riding

We were very happy to visit with our friends and catch up on their news and we settled in to enjoy our second French Noël (Christmas), this time without a lockdown. We picked holly in the forest and enjoyed having a fire, a Christmas tree decorated with homemade ornaments, and lots of meals involving melted cheese. Amelia was able to take riding lessons (group lessons in French but the owner speaks English) at the beautiful Ferme Des Eymaries and a wonderful art class with a group of English-speaking children, where she was very happy to catch up with her friend Lauren. Independently, Amelia practiced her new passion of gymnastics – learning from videos, our neighbour Agnès, and even an online Outschool class.

Bordeaux

At the beginning of December, we were treated to our first snowfall in Les Eyzies – the snow only lasted a few hours but it transformed our familiar landscapes into a winter wonderland. We visited local markets in Le Bugue and St Cyprien (full of olives, oranges, and seafood) and Christmas markets in Sarlat (Mexican-themed with ice-skating!) and Bordeaux (we saw beautiful Christmas lights and tasted delicious aligot). Near Bordeaux, we also hiked on the Dune du Pilat (the tallest sand dune in Europe). We had a wonderful time feasting, toasting, and celebrating Christmas eve with our neighbours Antoine, Peter, Agnès – and of course their dogs Happy and Topsy. For the new year, we are visiting Cayman, and then we will see what the future brings – perhaps Italy and Greece in the footsteps of our friends The Chouters & Bijou and Frenchy Le Van

Low vs High Tide

We arrived at the end of Saltfjorden (outside Bodø) at low tide. Six hours later it was high tide and the parking spot was much busier I took another photo.

Drag the slider left and right to compare the two photos.

This turned out to be one of our favourite campsites because of the people we met. We chatted with a couple from the Netherlands in another Weinsberg motorhome; they left us a note and entirely unexpected gift of Norwegian candies when they drove off early the next morning. Then Amelia met three French children travelling in a campervan – the kids played on the beach for hours and we shared an after-dinner glass of vin de noix and of vin de sureau (both made in Les Eyzies) with their parents!

A Roll of the Dice – We Land in Les Eyzies and Keep Coming Back

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 which 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 he 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 replace, picking holly in the forest , and sipping vin chaud at markets were all new experiences. After 6 weeks, the lockdown nally lifted, and we stayed for Christmas and New Years with new friends (bringing Amelia home from Christmas dinner immediately after dessert – at 1am). 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 (link) 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.

Recommendations:

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 (link to the travel in France blog) our options seemed limited. Would we be eating pasta at home? But luckily, bakeries, cheese shops, 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 speci c 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 che e se shop, Fromagerie D’Audrix, was in Le Bugue and they also had stands in local markets. We were very intimidated by the selection at rst 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 corn bread 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 co ee – also serving what Amelia says is the world’s best hot chocolate).
  • Picard is a French chain which o ers 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, forti ed 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.

Les Eyzies:

  • 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 in the towns that we visited were quiet due to Covid – we may have had a di erent 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 lmed 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 14 century bread oven (Four Banal).

Canoeing:

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 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 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 avour. 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 rst 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 o the beautiful sweet-smelling petals.

Horses:

  • 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.

Favourites:

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!

More suggestions?

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 affliates of these entities nor do we earn any commission from them.

Incredible caves near Les Eyzies

Grouffe de Padirac

Yesterday we visited an incredible cave – Gouffre de Padirac. We descended into an open pit, walked through a tunnel filled with stalactites, and then took a small boat along a subterranean river. We had heard of underground rivers but never imagined crystal-clear water in enormous, vaulted chambers. The ceiling of the Grand Dome in Padirac is over 300 ft above an underground lake, due to erosion over millions of years.

Splash stalactite

Padirac was first explored in 1898 with rope ladders and a collapsible canvas boat called the “Crocodile”, which once capsized and plunged the explorers into total darkness in the depths of the cave. Luckily one match survived which allowed them to light a candle and find their way out. We were glad to go on a tour and see the cave illuminated with electric light – a tourist attraction in itself when it was installed in 1900. The early explorers could not see the height of the chambers with their lanterns so they raised a small paper balloon on a string to measure the height of the Grand Dome. They also used dye to map the river; it is now known that it flows underground for 20 km before joining the Dordogne River. 

Before we left Les Eyzies we had another stunning cave experience only a few kilometres from home: historic sites have reopened after the lockdown and we finally saw the prehistoric etchings and paintings in the caves of Combarelles and Font-de-Gaume. Group size was limited to 4 people due to Covid so it was just our family and our friend, Agnès, who had previously worked in the caves and is passionate about prehistory. We felt incredibly lucky to have a “private” tour.

The term “Cro-Magnon” comes from a location just down the road from us (by Hôtel Le Cro-Magnon!) where Homo sapiens skeletons were discovered during the construction of the railroad. The Cro-Magnon people in the area lived in rock shelters (open cliff overhangs) but they painted and carved the walls of many immense caves. The caves go back thousands of feet – it is amazing to think of people crawling and wiggling through low, narrow tunnels with only early animal-fat oil lamps and yet they still managed to etch and paint the deepest parts.

Lion at Combarelles

When we visited Combarelles, we looked at the walls and saw nothing but scratches. Then the guide traced a shape with a light, and suddenly an etched animal leapt out at us. The etchings in Combarelles and the paintings in Font-de-Gaume show mammoths, cave bears, woolly rhinos, reindeer, horses, bison, and even lions (can you see the lion to the left?) – we found it incredible to think of these animals living in France. We could see the contours of muscles, shading of fur, animal expressions, etc. – incredibly life-like and detailed though they were made about 11,000 to 17,000 years ago. The shape of the walls was used to make the animals more 3D and, in some cases, as a trick of the flickering light, they appeared to move…we saw a reindeer running!   

Amazing experiences, and incredible caves, which gave us a glimpse of the scale of geological time and human history.

An amazing trip to the south-east of France

We had only planned to spend a couple of weeks in France but delays with getting our licence plates and then the late autumn lockdown resulted in us spending far longer in the country. Two upsides are that we’ve made some truly wonderful friends and we’ve come to realise that the country has so much to offer in terms of variety, be it wines (of course!), but also scenery, wildlife, history, etc., etc.

In July, we are hoping to head towards Scandinavia so before the summer heat and crowds arrived in France we decided to head south towards Carcassonne and the Mediterranean coast. Three years ago, we made a whistle stop tour along the French Pyrenees in a campervan and loved the area. The idea of our ‘big trip’ was already forming and we wanted to see if we could live in a campervan; within a couple of days we had decided that a van would be too small.

Château de Quéribus

Before we headed back to the area, fellow motorhomers and new friends, John and Kellie, suggested we visit Quéribus and Peyrepertuse, two Cathar castles in the southwest of France. Catharism was a religious movement between the 12th and 14th centuries; its followers were ultimately annihilated by the Catholic Church after many bloody battles and sieges centred in Pays Cathare (Cathar country). The drive to the parking area at Château de Quéribus was a winding “first gear up/first gear down” road but the views from the top were absolutely stunning. The château is first mentioned in 1020 and was one of the “Five Sons of Carcassonne”: five castles strategically placed to defend the French border against Spain. We were amazed at the effort needed to build a stone castle on the high peak. We also spent a night in the aire in Duilhac-sous-Peyrepertuse with views of Château de Peyrepertuse. We didn’t visit the castle this time as the access road was too narrow for the motorhome but we would love to go back. While exploring Duilhac, we came across the Fontaine des Amours with a verse from Ronsard (a 16th century poet) inscribed above the fountain. It stated that whoever drinks from the fountain will fall in love – and though we recently celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary we thought it couldn’t hurt to take a sip!

Before the trip, we had also made contact with a couple of home-/world-schooling families and planned a route that would allow Amelia to meet some other English-speaking children for outdoor playdates. She had an amazing time with a new friend in the small town of Caunes-Minervois splashing through a small stream while the parents sipped coffee at an outside café – our first time since September!

Tunnel at Minerve

While in Caunes-Minervois, Michelle and Denis suggested we visit Minerve. Denis showed us a video and we were sold. The walled village is surrounded on 3 sides by a gorge, and inside the gorge the river has carved a tunnel (the ‘Ponts Naturels‘) through the rock. Truly amazing and our photos don’t really do the village, the gorge or the tunnel justice. When we create a list of must-see hidden gems, Minerve will definitely be on it! Minerve had been a Cathar stronghold which was attacked and fell in 1210. The attackers had four trebuchets (catapults), with the largest one known as Malvoisine or “bad neighbour” which was aimed at the village’s well.

Sunset over Lac de Montbel

We had another playdate with Petra and her two daughters at Lac de Montbel, just outside Chalabre. Originally we had planned to leave the lake at 8pm and drive to the aire in Castelnaudary; if all went according to plan we’d arrive minutes before the 9pm curfew. Luckily, we managed to find a parking at Lac de Montbel and we decided that it was a perfect location to stay the night. This allowed us to extend the playdate and watch one of the most beautiful sunsets we had seen; the sky and the lake glowed a golden/orange colour with the snowy Pyrenees in the background. When we arrived at Castelnaudary at 2pm the next day, we took the second-to-last spot. If we had arrived at nine o’clock the previous night, the aire would have been full and we would have had to drive on after curfew. In general, there are a lot more motorhomes on the road and the aires and France Passion sites are often busy; unlike October last year when we were often the only motorhome at our sites.

Petra also suggested that we see flamingos at the coast. Wait, what? But it’s true that wild flamingos are found in France. Peyriac-de-Mer was on our route so we made a detour and there they were!

It was an amazing trip to the south-east of France. We enjoyed our flexible route, with many suggestions from friends, as well as other serendipitous experiences such as showing Amelia how locks work on Canal-du-Midi, France-Passion stops with beautiful views, friendly hosts, and wonderful products (including sparkling pink Crémant and kilograms of cherries!), and stumbling upon the Aude River at Belvédère du Diable (Belvianes-et-Cavirac) where Amelia played for hours.

There were a couple of ‘learning’ experiences too. Like many other things in France, many petrol (gas) stations are fermé (closed) on Sundays; while you can still self-serve petrol this means that there is no GPL (propane) available. We suffered without our morning tea and coffee!

Never cut corners when the turn is between two buildings on an extremely narrow road – we almost got wedged! It didn’t help that the elderly homeowners were trying to tell us in French that we needed to reverse (how?) and that our motorhome was too big and didn’t belong there (too late!). Our wheels were up on the side of the road and our roof was tilting toward the buildings but luckily we had few centimetres to spare and we managed to escape without a scratch.

Beware passing trucks on narrow roads – we stopped on the verge to allow a truck to pass but it still scraped the side of the motorhome. Fortunately, the wheel nuts had plastic caps so we only ended up with the smallest of scratches.

When your GPS sends you down a narrow dirt road that doesn’t feel right, stop and back out while you can (the fox and her two cubs were cute though – and they very looked surprised to see us).

All-in-all it was good to be back in Blue Fern.

Bon voyage!

Gary, Janice and Amelia

Winter vs Spring

The sun was shining across the valley this morning and view was amazing.

I remembered I had taken a similar photograph on a cold, frosty, misty morning – the opposite of today. An ideal set of images to try Juxtapose and the plugin!

Drag the slider left and right to see the changes in the seasons.

It’s amazing how the sun lifts your mood!

2020 – a review of our year

What a year!  But we and our close family and friends are all in good health so we have very little to complain about.  Certain doors closed which resulted in disappointment and a lot of other doors opened resulting in new friendships and new experiences.

It feels like a lifetime ago that life as we knew it came to a stop when Cayman went into lockdown.  For a while (and while we were allowed to) we went for a snorkel or beach walk daily.  Amelia’s cycling improved as we would cycle between 2 and 5 kms daily.  Yes, our trip to Colombia was cancelled and the start of our travels were delayed but, as a family, we were doing things and spending time together.

Thankfully Cayman was able to test all frontline workers which enabled the islands to eliminate local transmission of the virus.  We were able to take a trip to Little Cayman with friends followed by a trip to Cayman Brac with family before the start of our European travels.

With a mix of sadness, excitement and trepidation, we boarded the flight to Heathrow.  Our adventure was about to begin.

Misty Cottage

A delay with obtaining the licence plates for the motorhome (ended up being a 3-month delay!) resulted in us spending more time in France.  When the French President was scheduled to address the country in late October, we (well, Gary) thought there would be more restrictions but not a lockdown.  Luckily, I’m not a betting man.  We had 30 hours to figure out a plan for the lockdown.  Ideas bandied around included staying in a campsite, driving to Italy, being parked in a stranger’s driveway, driving to the UK and, the option we chose, staying in a friend’s vacant cottage.  An 8-hour, 600km/375mile drive and we were in the Dordogne

Friendly neighbours helped us settle in and in the last 2 months we’ve learnt some basic French, figured out how to use a wood burner and been for walks in woods where the trees are covered in thick layers of moss and lichen.  We have thoroughly enjoyed our time in Les Eyzies.  We had expected to slow travel (rent an apartment for a month or so) but not after such a short time living in the motorhome!

We are planning to drive to the Algarve (Portugal) in early January for some warmer weather.  When the weather warms, we hope to return to the Dordogne to visit the various prehistoric, troglodyte and medieval attractions (which are presently closed) before heading to Germany and other European countries.  What we have learnt is not to plan too far ahead!

Family at Château de Commarque

Despite the various setbacks, we are truly grateful for the opportunities and experiences we’ve enjoyed in 2020 (we’re working on a blog post of what we learnt and enjoyed during our 2 months in Les Eyzies).  We are looking forward to see what 2021 brings.

Wishing you a bonne année! Gary, Janice and Amelia

Our practical guide to France motorhome travel – before the 2nd lockdown

These are our notes on motorhome travel in France in September and October 2020, before the second national lockdown. Currently, recreational travel is banned – see here for updates.

Where we stayed:

France-Passion: we stayed primarily at France-Passion sites – over 2,000 farms, vineyards, etc. that allow you to park for free in exchange for looking at their products if they have anything for sale – there is no obligation but we never walked away empty handed. We bought red, white and rose wine, champagne, grape and apple juice, goat cheese, pasta, gingerbread, jam, eggs, and vegetables. All the sites we tried were open and welcoming: www.france-passion.com. An annual subscription is €30.

Aires: these are free or paid parking areas provided by the towns and cities. They often include wastewater dumping, blackwater dumping, paid electricity, freshwater, and sometimes bathrooms. We found them through the Park4Night app (can be used offline after subscribing and downloading a regional map). All of the aires we visited were open for parking, but a few had services shut off for the winter, especially high in the French Alps. We did not stay at motorway aires; they are not generally recommended for staying the night but do have services (gasoline/petrol, blackwater dumping, picnic tables, restaurants, etc.).

Wild Camping: wild camping is legal in France (with some conditions and limitations) but with a big motorhome and a small child we didn’t want to risk having to move in the night, so we were cautious in selecting a spot. We found it difficult to be sure that we would feel comfortable with a site based only on online reviews but if we found a site that looked good we used Park4Night to check if there were any reviews for the area (for example, one of our favourite sites was a quiet stretch of road on the banks of the Rhine, where we wild camped for two nights at what was originally planned to be a lunch spot; it looked like it would be OK to stay and we confirmed on Park4Night that other people had stayed without any problems).

Campsites: these range from 1-4 stars depending on the facilities available and can also be found on Park4night. We stayed in a few campsites at the beginning of our trip and then stopped using them when we had figured other solutions for internet, laundry, and dumping waste. Many campsites close for winter.

Water/Electricity/Dumping:

Water and electricity are available on some France-Passion sites (indicated in the guidebook). Otherwise we used Park4Night to find aires – often stopping en route to a France-Passion site rather than staying the night if they had paid parking or were busy.

Driving:

Our most essential navigation tip for motorhomes is to set your GPS for the size of your vehicle – so you are not directed toward low tunnels, weak bridges, or very narrow village roads. Unfortunately, this is not possible in Google Maps. Our inbuilt motorhome GPS has this feature but stopped working during the trip so we switched to the CoPilot app. The app works offline on a cell phone and we have found it mostly reliable though it has directed us toward a few small streets; if something doesn’t look right, we do not follow it. We see fewer problems when we use the ‘easiest route’ rather than ‘fastest route’ setting. We used Google Maps to find bakeries, grocery stores, etc. and downloaded offline maps of each region so we can use it without an internet connection.

Priorité à droite: The French highway code states that a when two drivers approach an intersection from different roads, the driver on the left is required to yield, unless directed otherwise by signage. This means that a driver pulling onto a road from the right could have right-of-way. In practice, there seem to be signs overruling priorité à droite almost everywhere  – but we have seen some villages where it is in place. This article from The Local explains it quite well.

Tolls (Péage): it has always been possible for us to pay tolls by credit card however it can be expensive – one 7km tunnel cost us 17 euros! (based on the size of the vehicle). We mostly set our GPS to avoid toll roads and we have seen some beautiful country and villages (and also some terrifying narrow village streets and one-lane roads).

General:

Laundry: we have some heavy clothes like jeans and for much of our trip it was too rainy for air drying. We struggled to find places with washers and dryers other than campsites until we noticed the washers and dryers which are available in the parking lots of many grocery stores. These can be found on this website (search “a proximite” – nearby – and be sure to find a “laverie” – not a photobooth).

Shopping: large chain grocery stores tend to be located on the outskirts of towns and cities and have parking lots large enough for our motorhome. We have found most of the staples we need (sometimes only after googling “what is X called in France” or “where can I buy X in France” (e.g. baking powder is called levure chimique or levure alsacienne, peanut butter is usually in the organic (bio) aisle). The stores often have a petrol station.

The best food we bought came from France-Passion sites, speciality stores (e.g. bread – boulangerie, pastries – patisserie, cheese – fromagerie, goat cheese – chèvrerie, etc.) and local markets. Market days can be searched for on this site (select “chercher un marché” (search for a market) “autour de moi” (around me).

Grocery stores have some housewares and we also visited Ikea when stocking our motorhome.

Money: we make all of our payments using a Revolut card. Revolt is an online bank and will do currency conversions at the Interbank rate.  You get a virtual card (that you can link to Google Pay out your Apple Wallet) for free and can pay for a physical card. You can fund your Revolt account by charging your current credit or debit card.

LPG: our heater and stove run on LPG gas (called GPL in France). We also used gas designated as GPLc with no problems. Sites supplying LPG can be found on:  www.mylpg.eu Update (January 2021): We filled our LPG tank in October when France uses a ‘summer mix’ (with a higher percentage of butane). Once the lockdown in France ended and we started using the motorhome again the heater would register a ‘low gas’ error even though the tank was almost full. Only once we got to the Algarve and the temperature was warmer did the heater work again. I subsequently learnt that France switches to a ‘winter mix’ on 1 November which contains a much higher percentage of propane. So beware, you can’t use butane when the temperature falls! Details of the different mixes found in the various countries can be found here.

Internet: We purchased a sim card from a provider called Free and use it in a mifi device (which provides wifi for our motorhome). For €13 per month, the Free sim gives us 80 GB per month in France (and 10 GB per month while roaming). We purchased the sim from a kiosk (bourne) inside a tobacconist shop. You will need to put an address in France. From what we understand, there is no contract but we have not yet cancelled.  

Translations: we use Google Translate and downloaded the French dictionary so we can use it offline. The camera mode (point it at text to translate) has also been very helpful.  If you are connected to the internet, Google Translate can perform a real-time voice/dictation translation. Update May 2021: DeepL – is much better at high quality translations

Covid: We used https://reopen.europa.eu/ for information on requirements for crossing borders and this site to search for places offering covid tests in France (in case we needed to get tested before crossing a border). We use The Local for French news in English.

Attractions:  we explored Burgundy, the French Alps, Alsace, and many areas in between. We visited many farms and vineyards via France-Passion and we also enjoyed visiting some of the villages designated as the most beautiful villages in France (“Les Plus Beaux Villages de France”). They might be crowded in a normal year, but this year, and during the off-season they have been perfect. We have also – by chance – found ourselves following some driving routes such as the “Route du Grande Alpes” – there are many of these routes promoted by local tourist offices. Information on walking/hiking paths can be found on www.sentiers-en-france.eu.