WHERE can you combine culture, history and French vocabulary lessons with a bit of bonkers fun? Le Dordogne, naturellement
T HERE must, I thought idly in the chill of a Scottish February, marching my five-year-old home from his after-school French class, be a more civilised way to do this. The notion returned later as I huckled my daughter through her vocabulary. “J’aime jouer au volleyball,” I heard myself lying, a desperate note of false jollity in my voice.
Four months later, we disembarked from Flybe’s dinky turboprop aircraft on to the melting tarmac of Bergerac airport. Le soleil was shining. The sky was a splendid shade of cloudless bleu. Driving towards our gîte, there was history (medieval castles, prehistoric caves), geography (do we actually want to be going towards Saint-Cyprien?) and useful vocabulary (Carrefour, menu prix fixé, cave des vins) at every turn. I had a week to turn my pale Glaswegian children into bronzed, r-rolling Francophiles. Pas de worries there.
This was the plan. Base ourselves somewhere central yet scenic and peaceful, with a swimming pool. Alternate educational and historical outings with daft fun stuff, all the time remembering that, when faced with an idyllic, unspoiled 16th-century village, a five-year-old’s first question is, “Can I play on your phone?” Go self-catering, thus allowing the adults to go wild and crazy in the market without having to transport kilos of tomatoes home in hand luggage. It also meant we could eat really, really well on a tight budget. French supermarkets are enviably fantastic, and Carrefour’s discount range soon became the trip’s official sponsor.
The Dordogne was an obvious choice. Its position, inland in the balmy south-west of France, with the rivers Vézère and Dordogne flowing through, mean it is toasty of climate and bristling with enchanting waterside picnic spots and castles dating back to the Hundred Years War. The region also has some of the best prehistoric caves in the world and wonderful troglodyte villages, built into the rock and inhabited until the 16th century.
These attractions appeal to more than sun-starved Scots who want their children to improve their irregular verbs; the patriotic French also love coming on holiday to the Dordogne, which means there is an excellent infrastructure of gîtes, water parks, adventure centres and reasonably priced restaurants for those whose euros must stretch a long way.
It was, perhaps, a little optimistic to take the wee fella to les Jardins du Manoir D’Eyrignac – a spectacularly lovely topiary garden – when it was 40°C. Bushes in the shape of hens – “Look, les poules!” – are certainly delightful but they offer no useful shade. Neither did any of the other immaculately pruned trees, plants and shrubs. The adults marched manfully on, feet sliding sweatily within their sandals. All the children wanted to do was jump into the ornamental pond.
That trip would have been much more enjoyable the next day, when the weather broke. Instead, we sheltered from the grey skies beneath the tree canopy at Le Conquil. A three-in-one fun park we first spotted on a lakeside picnic in Saint Léon sur Vézère, it promised “parc aux dinosaurs, parcours aventures dans les arbres and site naturel troglodytique”. If that would not entertain two children on a grey day, I would punch the T Rex.
The parcours was not quite as thrilling as Go Ape but did give those who like that sort of thing an adrenaline hit, and those who can’t bear that sort of thing the chance to enjoy a lovely sit down. The dinosaurs were large plastic models, scattered through a bottom-beautifying trail. A specially designed one for clambering over, then taking pictures, was particularly popular.
The troglodyte site was fascinating and terrifying in equal measure. We had already seen one of the best-preserved rock-face villages, at La Roque Saint-Christophe, where there were safety barriers, no-entry signs and other 21st-century refinements to make wandering through a honeycomb of shallow caves safe. Le Conquil has a smaller, less developed and more shambolic version, which we explored in between swinging from the trees and eating our picnic. We kept going until the wee fella went through one small opening and informed the rest of us that there was no more. He scrambled out. Those of us over 4ft tall would not have found it so easy.
The painted caves at Lascaux, a Unesco world heritage site, were becoming damaged by gawping visitors such as ourselves. Happily, the replica, built a mere 200m away from the original, is a breathtakingly good copy. As we shuffled through in the dark, the guide shone her torch at the horses, deer and bison on the wall. It was extraordinarily moving to see even copies of these Paleolithic Fauvist marks made at least 17,000 years ago.
Caves are good but, when you are five, castles are even better. Château de Castlenaud was the highlight of the wee fella’s holiday. Towers. Battlements. Rooms and rooms full of weapons. And, joy of joys, an interactive game, thus allowing him to combine his love of medieval war machines and computers. He treasures his prize, a poster, to this day.
His sister, who couldn’t care less about trébuchets, adored Jacqou Parc. There is only so much vocabulary that anyone can absorb, so the last day of the holiday was spent at this truly bonkers water park with its own zoo and circus. At first I thought the ¤12.50 per head entrance fee was steep. By the time we left, at 6pm, having been on every ride several times, swum and flumed until we were prune-skinned and seen all three performances in what must be the world’s smallest big top, I pronounced it excellent value.
There were lamas, sheep and honking geese surrounding the flume and pool area, higgeldy-piggeldy with the rides, all of which were free, plus shady picnic tables where you could eat your own food. We had to search for someone to sell us a cup of coffee. It was relaxed, a bit bonkers, great fun and, we all agreed, in our fantastic new accents, très, très French.
• Flybe (www.flybe.com) flies directly from Edinburgh to Bergerac, May to September, from £58.99 one way, including taxes.
Gîtes start at £200 a week (www.gites-de-france.com).
Details of attractions are available from the local tourism site (www.dordogne-perigord-tourisme.fr).
Le Conquil (www.parc-aux-dinosaures.com).
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Saturday 18 May 2013
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