For most children a holiday in the French countryside would be exciting enough, but in this area of France the experience is quite magical – there is so much to see and do! There are magnificent rivers and grand chateaux to explore, medieval towns, colourful villages and lively markets with a variety of great food on offer, all waiting for you to taste. If you like cycling along wooded lanes and cycle-way, canoeing down a winding river, or finding out how our ancestors lived as hunters in this rich landscape, making stone tools and painting caves, then you’re ready to experience this spectacularly beautiful part of France.
TAKE TO THE RIVER
Canoes, St Julien de Lampon
(4 km) Hire a canoe from near the bridge at St Julien de Lampon; the operator will drive you upriver to Souillac so you can paddle back to St Ju, or you can paddle further down river to a designated pickup point. Summer only. 06 81 21 53 39; http://www.cap-evasion.fr
Hiring a canoe further down river means you start off closer to the castles of Monfort, Castelnaud and Beynac and the swimming beach at Cenac, where you can pull in for a picnic. Grolejac – Explorano www.canoedordogne.com ; Cenac – Cénac Périgord Loisirs www.canoedordogne.pro
Gabarres, La Roque-Gageac
(24 km) If canoeing is not for you (or the children are too young) you can still go out on the river – on a gabarre – a replica of the old river barges that moved freight on the Dordogne for centuries – but with tourist seating. The trip takes about an hour and includes a commentary on the river, its wildlife and the buildings on the riverbank (in French but with some translations). Summer only. 05 53 29 40 44; http://www.gabarres.com
Bike tracks (5 km) The former Dordogne valley railway line is now a cycle track, which you can access from Rouffilhac, just acros the river from St Julien de Lampon. It runs in both directions, east towards Souillac and west towards Aillac, Grolejac and Sarlat. The gradients are gentle and the scenery is spectacular. The track crosses a road in a couple of places so care is required but it’s a great way to see some countryside and the river.www.sarlat-tourisme.com/en/sarlatcazoules-greenway
Bikes can be hired from near the bridge at St Julien in summer. 05 53 28 32 98 http://www.canoe-sur-dordogne.com). There is also bike hire at the Sarlat end (07 81 24 78 79 liberty-cycle.com).
Take a trail ride through the countryside, for an hour or half a day. The closest is:
Centre Equestre de Souillac (17 km)
05 65 32 64 62
MEET SOME ANIMALS
Parc Zoologique, Calviac
(10 km) This small eco-zoo is set on a hillside above the St Julien–Sarlat road and has an interesting collection of endangered animals for which it operates a breeding program. It features smaller species such as lemurs, fossa (mink), poteroos, and birds including owls and ibis. The displays are informative and the access to the animals surprisingly good. Some of the paths are quite steep so small children may need to be carried for parts of the visit.
0553 28 84 08; http://www.reserve-calviac.org
Forest of Squirrels, Sarlat
(16 km) This tree-walk activity park for kids and adults earns high praise from parents and children alike. There are several courses, graded for age, skill and the adventure level. Trees are carefully managed and safety equipment is provided. The park can get very busy during high season and booking is advised to avoid disappointment.
06 89 30 92 99; www.laforetdesecureuils.com
Monkeys and eagles, Rocamadour
(36 km) Two wildlife parks here can be combined with a visit to the cliffside town.
Rocher des Aigles features a display of trained eagles flying high above they valley and then swooping back to their trainers. 10.00 am till midday and 14.00 pm till 17.00 or 18.00 depending on the season.
05 65 33 65 45; www.rocherdesaigles.com
Forêt des Singes, further east from the top of the town, a woodland park is home to macaque monkeys. Wander through while the monkeys cackle and jump around but watch yourself – and your possessions. 10.00 am till midday and 14.00 pm till 17.00 or 18.00 depending on the season. Open all year.
05 65 33 62 72: http://www.la-foret-des-singes.com
Grottes de Cougnac, Gourdon
(8 km) the closest caves to the house (4 km north of Gourdon) and well worth a visit for its 25,000 year-old Cro Magnon drawings and limestone formations. The keen-eyed may also spot tiny sleeping bats.
05 65 41 47 54; www.grottesdecougnac.com
Lascaux II and Le Thot, Montignac
(39 km) Lascaux II is the classic copy of the original Lascaux cave containing prehistoric paintings including the Hall of the Bulls; it is very cleverly constructed – and well worth a visit. Tours in English are available in the high season. Check at other times. Entry to Le Thot prehistory park is included as part of the Lascaux II entry ticket. Open every day except Monday. 10.00 am till 12.00 and 14.00 till 17.30, longer in high summer.
Le Thot ‘espace Cro-Magnon’ at Thonac, close to Lascaux II is a museum and park. The museum explains the beginnings of prehistoric art and contains many audiovisual displays. The open-air display is of all things prehistoric with animals that were around in prehistoric times—aurochs, European bison etc as well as ‘animatronic’ mammoths (quite realistic and therefore a bit scary!).
Parc Prehisto, Tursac
(42 km) The park contains reconstructions of scenes from the daily life of Cro-Magnon people — hunting mammoth and boar with rocks and spears, painting caves, and cooking. The sculptures offer an interesting approach — the scenes depicted are shown in the setting in which they occurred and are based on archaeological research – this can send a shiver down your spine. You may wander around in your own time. There is plenty of space for picnics – and free parking.
1 March till 30 June from 10.00 till 18.30
1 July till 30 Sept from 9.30 till 19.00
1 October till 11 Nov 10.00 till 18.00
05 53 50 73 19; http://www.prehistoparc.fr
Roque St Christophe, Peyzac-le Moustier
(46 km ) This extraordinary rock shelter (abri) high above the valley of the Vézère river was both a fortress and a town. It has spectacular views and gives you a real sense of what prehistoric living was all about. There are some rather gruesome displays (dioramas as only the French know how) give a vivid picture of early skills and lifestyle of the ‘troglodite’ population. The site opens from 10.00 till 18.00 from March-October.
05 53 50 70 45; www.roque-st-christophe.com
EXPLORE A CASTLE
Chateau Fénelon, Ste Mondane
(3 km) For older children the 20-minute walk there along the leafy lane, and then back to Mercadiol on an wooded track following an old stone wall on the other side of the castle is half the fun. The castle kitchens, old well, collection of armour and the ‘curiosity’ cabinet (full of really strange things!) should interest. Outside are ramparts and lookouts. Note, however, that the spiral stone stairs are not pushchair friendly.
Open every day in high season (Jul-Aug); closed on Tuesdays in Mar, Apr, May, Jun and Sept-Oct. Closed from Dec to March.
05 53 29 81 45; website
Chateau de Castelnaud, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle
(28 km) Our favourite local castle to visit with children. In a brilliant position high above the river this imposing fortress is an impressive example of military architecture of the Middle Ages. Its furnished rooms (bedroom, kitchen, etc) show everyday life and there is a heavy emphasis on weaponry, including swords and armour. The castles defences include a giant catapult and a siege machine. It’s fun to explore at your own pace, and has good audiovisual displays. Restore yourself at the café in the grounds, in the village below, or take a picnic to the riverbank below and opposite the village. Not all areas are pushchair friendly.
05 53 31 30 00; http://www.castelnaud.com
Gouffre de Padirac, Padirac
(51 km) This is a huge circular hole in rocky ground with lifts (or the alternative – a caged staircase) that give access to a limestone cavern and river far below the earth’s surface. Tours take about an hour and a half. Visitors are ferried in flat-bottomed boats on the cold waters of the underground river to a vast illuminated chamber with stactites. No photography is allowed underground, but photos of visitors – in their boat – can be purchased on the way out. Open end March to early, November, closes for lunch. Book online to reduce waiting time and go early in the day.
05 65 33 64 56; http://www.gouffre-de-padirac.com.
Grotte de Lacave
(28 km) This is another underground system of caves and lakes but access is by a small electric train (open-topped) followed by a lift or stairs to the gallery of stalactites and extraordinary concretions. Magical reflections in the lakes and lumieres are highlights of the 75 minute guided tour.Open February to end December.
05 65 37 87 03 http://www.vert-marine.com/grottes-de-lacave-46
Suitable for ages: 5 to 10
Abri Le Conquil, St Léon-sur-Vézère
(50 km) This rock shelter in a superb position on a forested valley side above the Vézère river has been occupied since prehistoric times. Wander around at your own pace, up and down steps cut into the rock. Today the site includes a dinosaur park and an adventure park. In season, demonstrations for children such as archery, making sling shots and flint cutting are sometimes available. There is also a picnic area. Open late March to early November.
05 53 51 29 03 http://www.parc-aux-dinosaures.com
Many people swim in the Dordogne River at St Julien de Lampon in high season, but there is also swimming at artificial lakes at Gourdon and Grolejac (towards Domme there is a small charge here), and public pools at Souillac: where ‘Quercyland’ has water slides etc; Sarlat and Gourdon. River currents can be very dangerous, especially near the bridge where eddies develop.
Enjoy M. Hulot’s holiday game–tennis!
(4 km) The nearest courts are at St Julien de Lampon and is hired out by the Mairie (when you book and pay, they give you an entry code for the court).
WET WEATHER OPTIONS
Musée de l’Automate, Souillac
(17 km) This fascinating collection of mechanical toys and advertising displays dates from the 19th and early 20th centuries—it is well maintained and displayed. Some of the models are truly amazing and it’s well worth a visit, particularly on a rainy day, maybe after a visit to the Friday morning food market?
Open all year.
05 65 37 07 07; http://www.musee-automate.fr