When I was growing up we didn’t go to France unless we were driving through it on the way to visit my grandparents in Austria (stopovers in Reims were memorable!). Other than the odd trip to Paris and, luckily for me, visits with school friends to the Cote d’Azur, I reached my twenties without really knowing how fantastic holidaying in France can be.
Fast forward a few years and my parents-in-law bought themselves a second home in the Lot region, close to the Dordogne river and all that the Dordogne region has to offer.
Their intention was to provide a place for them to live at certain times of year and create a comfortable family home for the kids and grandkids to enjoy. We’ve been visiting the area at least once a year for nearly nine years now, and over that time have built up a pretty good knowledge of where to go and what to do with and without kids and at different times of year. So here you are, our top tips of what to do in the Dordogne / Lot regions! If you’d like to know more detail about anything mentioned let me know in the comments below and I’ll create a separate post.
Mess about on the river
You can’t miss it, this big, winding river that dominates the region and gives it its name – the Dordogne. Many campsites in the area proved direct beach access, but there are plenty of public places to pop down a towel and go for a swim – whether it’s in a village like Vitrac with café, restaurant and public toilets, or a quieter spot that you come across on a drive or cycle. Close to the shore the river is often shallow and good for kids to paddle in, but it can get deep quickly and the current is strong, so children should be closely supervised. We also highly recommend water shoes! Most local supermarkets sell all sizes from very small to adult. We usually travel with our Labrador, and in the heat of the summer we love taking him to our closest river beach for a swim to cool down.
A popular activity is to get in a canoe and paddle down the river. There are many hire places along the river to choose from (Carsac, Vitrac, Domme and Beynac are popular spots) and usually you’d pick up a canoe or kayak, then paddle down river to an agreed point where you jump on a shuttle bus back to the car. We highly recommend booking in advance in high season. If you take the risk and just turn up, be prepared to wait at least an hour before your desired combo of canoes and kayaks are available. We tried to go when our youngest was three and were turned away. This year, when he was five, we were successful and both kids sat in the middle of a 4-man canoe and had their own paddles. We spent about three hours on the river which included stops for swimming and snacks which we’d brought with us.
If all of that sounds a bit active for you take a trip on a ‘pirate ship’ from La Roque-Gageac. Ok, so they’re not actually pirate ships but replicas of gabarres, flat-bottomed boats used on the river in the 18th and 19th centuries. The boat trip has an audio guide giving historical information and is a great way of seeing the riverside villages and some of the region’s many castles. We recommend Les Gabares Norbert.
Play at being knights
The region is dotted with castles so there’s really no excuse not to visit one. They are usually perched high up on a hill above the river so there’s always going to be a fantastic view – and very often a vertiginous drop. If heights aren’t your thing, beware!
Our favourites, in no particular order are:
• Château de Beynac – best for views and heart-stopping steep drops!
• Château de Fénelon – best for exploring at leisure
• Château de Castelnaud – best for entertainment. Our boys took part in a knight school activity one Easter which they loved.
Not exactly a castle, but a great place to visit are Les Jardins de Marqueyssac. A great place to explore, lots of playgrounds and lovely views. Our favourite time of year to visit is Easter when they put on an amazing Easter Egg hunt in which the kids hunt for real, coloured eggs. See my post about it here.
It’s a holiday to France, so it wouldn’t be complete without visiting a market and buying basketfuls of local produce and arts and crafts. By far the biggest and most popular in the region is the market on Wednesday (high season only) and Saturdays at Sarlat-la-Canéda. Even with the crowds it’s absolutely worth a visit. Go early and make the most of it before the mid-morning tourists arrive. It’s bursting full with local saucisson, duck produce (foie gras and cassoulet), walnut pastries, honey, cheese, wines and liqueurs. You can also pick up fresh fruit and veg and be tempted by massive pans of paella or racks of rotisserie chicken to take away. We love all of the little independent shops in Sarlat where we like to pick up quirky items for the house or buy gifts. Top tip – to appreciate the beauty of the town itself visit out of season or avoid market day. It really is a lovely place.
As anyone who’s holidayed in France will know, seek out your own local market and make a plan to pop by in the morning. You’re bound to be tempted by something lovely!
If you’re looking for something to entertain active kids and teens you might be surprised to know that there are a couple of places to go for a ropes adventure in the trees.
We went to La Foret des Ecureuils near Sarlat when the boys were four and six. Our 4yo had two or three routes he could go on, with an adult walking alongside or nearby. Our 6yo was at the minimum height for the medium height ropes courses – his main challenge was that on occasion he wasn’t able to reach the rope and required some help to get from one obstacle to another. Other than that he absolutely loved it. It was all about the zip wire of course!
Word of warning to adults of a nervous disposition! Unlike the British equivalents we’ve been to, the participants clip on and clip off as they go around the course. Each participant has two carabiners and the idea is that you unclip one and clip it to the next line before unclipping the second carabiner. If a child is likely to get distracted or rush it’s something to be aware of.
Our older nieces (now ten and thirteen) always make a beeline for the ‘squirrels forest’ and are delighted that they get to go on higher and higher ropes as they get older.
Take a turn around a bastide town
Much of southwest France is dotted with bastide towns. These are fortified medieval towns built during the 13th and 14th centuries. Mostly built on a grid system around a central market square they are definitely worth a visit. Build in a stop for a café grand crème and a croissant or a menu du jour and a visit to a bastide can pass a very pleasant couple of hours. Our favourite is Domme, situated high up over the Dordogne, but we also love Monpazier which is full to the brim of instagrammable details.
Dinosaur – rah!
If you haven’t got young children you can skip this bit! If you have and you’ve had your fill of classic French holiday experiences, this will help you mix it up a bit.
Head over to the Préhisto-dino parc, Lacave near Rocamadour. The route of the park, which includes steep down and uphills, takes visitors past ‘life-size’ dinosaurs, some of which move and make noise. It’s a fun place to wander through and is mostly in the shade so a good place to head to on a hot day.
On the rocks
To make the most of a visit to the Dordogne and Lot regions it’s best to have a car with you and be ready for lots of ups and downs and windy roads. Dramatic views from and of rocky cliffs are a familiar site in the area. There are two places we recommend to up close to life on the rocks, and that’s La Roque-Gageac in the Dordogne and Rocamadour in the Lot. The former, on the banks of the Dordogne river, is easy to get to. The riverside road is lined with restaurants and souvenir shops and you can explore the houses higher up which are built into the cliffside.
Rocamadour, in the Parc Naturel Régional des Causses de Quercy, is far more dramatic. You can park at the top, where there are restaurants and great views, but we prefer parking at the bottom of the cliff then taking the petit-train up the windy, steep road to the medieval, cliffside village of Rocamadour (kids love a road-train!). Take the time to visit the religious buildings and explore the narrow lanes of the village. Try going early in the morning or out-of-season to avoid the throngs of tourists which crowd the main street.
In the rocks
Not quite satisfied with visiting a village built into the rocks? Then find a cave to explore. There are many in the region, but our closest is the Grottes de Cougnac near the town of Gourdon in the Lot. It is amazing inside, stalactites and stalagmites galore and some cave paintings but…and I can’t stress this enough…the tour of the caves takes at least an hour and is only in French. I can speak some French, but this detailed description of the history of the world was way beyond me! Our kids coped remarkably well considering and still remember the moment the guide turned all of the lights out for a minute so we could experience the pitch darkness. Perhaps a cave best saved for adults and kids who already have an interest in caves, and those whose French is better than mine!
Tour de Dordogne
The road cyclists out there will already know that the Dordogne boasts some Tour de France routes and will have already planned their bike escapes. It might be a bit of a surprise, therefore, that the area also has some great family-friendly cycling. One route we can recommend is the Sarlat Voie Verte from the market town of Sarlat. Much of it runs along a converted railway line and as such is mainly flat. The section between Carsac and Sarlat which we’ve cycled a couple of times now goes through tunnels, on a bridge over the Dordogne and through a section of temptingly climbable rocks and small caves. We’ve tended to bring our own bikes on holiday but there are plenty of bike hire places in the area, including at the Sarlat end of this Voie Verte.
I hope you’ve found some of this useful. If there’s anything else you’d like to know about the region do let me know. If we haven’t done it I’ll add it to my list of things to do! If you’d like more detail about anything I’ve mentioned here please let me know and I’ll work on creating a separate blog post.