The Dordogne is a destination filled with history and cultural riches for many French, and for families with children of all ages.
This land of flowing, winding rivers, forested hills, sweeping farms, deep limestone caves, and medieval cliffside villages and castles in the southwest has a many layered history, from its prehistoric cave art to its array of medieval castles.
Understated Family Pleasures
Families who choose to travel to the Dordogne are richly rewarded with plentiful opportunities for historical and cultural sightseeing as well as excellent walking, bicycling, canoeing and other recreational pursuits. And, of course, along the way the culinary adventure is superb as well.
The beauty of the Dordogne is immense, but so understated; no spectacular mountain precipices here, nor any endless coastlines with frothing seas and magnificent dunes. Instead, the Dordogne offers sparkling and remarkably fast-flowing rivers as they very peacefully coexist with patchwork fields, castles and villages that could re-inspire the medieval lines of Playmobil and Lego.
During days spent wandering by sunflower fields, through walnut groves and on forays to taste truffles and foie gras, there is an insistent and seductive softness to the land and its fragrant breezes. It is a magical land: old and gentle, with soft, cavernous hills of limestone and sandy soil where everything grows. In short, living feels easy in the Dordogne.
So, with land like a caress and food fit for gods, why bother to take the kids, you ask? That’s a legitimate question. The answer lies in the region’s history, because while the scenery may not be jaw-dropping, the historical sites most certainly are. Giving kids a dose of history while on vacation can seem like pedaling a tandem bike up a steep hill while the parent does most of the work. But learning history in the Dordogne is more like coasting downhill. And those pseudo-sophisticated youngsters who have learned to roll their eyeballs at the mere mention of the term ‘museum’ can mostly relax: there are few in this region. (If anything, teens can save the rolling eyes for Romanesque church interiors.)
The two most prominent eras of the Dordogne’s past are its prehistoric age, as evidenced through cave painting and other archeological finds, and the medieval Hundred Years War (1337-1453.) Not only do these eras most lend themselves to cultural touring, but they are also where France’s Ministry of Culture devotes its resources in the region.
Prehistoric Cave Art in the Dordogne
Tens of thousands of years ago, early inhabitants of southwest France made use of the area’s numerous deeply recessed and networked limestone caves. Their purpose was not as underground shelters, but for a more mysterious and possibly religious or prophetic intent. Down along underground corridors, and in intimate caverns, the walls of the caves are covered with engravings, drawings and paintings, mainly depicting abundant animal life.
While anthropologists still can only speculate about the exact purpose of the cave art, it is evident even to ordinary tourists that the art served a clear purpose to those who created it and their communities. Not mere graffiti nor simple decoration, the works reflect compassion for animals and humanity more than barbaric attention to everyday survival.
Most remarkably, the paintings reveal significant skills of both observation and technique by the artists who created them. The natural rock contours are incorporated in order to suggest muscle and mass. The angle of view is accommodated for in the creation of naturalistic horses, bison, mammoth, reindeer, lions and numerous other animals. Flickering light creates the illusion of movement amid a herd of bison. The realism achieved by the cave painters, in fact, is part of what inspires the hushed awe from those tourists lucky enough to be ushered in to view these treasures.
It is well worth the effort for families to plan carefully for a visit to the caves in France, because a good tour of original cave art can provide memories that will last a lifetime. Disappointment is common, since the number of daily visitors to original sites is strictly limited. Of course, the replica of the Lascaux caves and a prehistoric museum are visited by scores of tourists, but they will not leave a lasting impression on either you or your children.
Most of the authentic caves open to the public are centered in the town of Les Eyzies, which makes a good base for a day or two of touring in the area. Make reservations to visit each of the caves well in advance; these can be made by phone and it is a good idea to request a tour in English when possible. The guides also serve as escorts into the caves, and groups are limited in size, but all are especially attentive with children, patiently tracing the lines and features of a cave drawing with their penlights until each child experiences her own ‘Aha!’ moment as the image comes to life.
Plan on two excellent choices, the Font du Gaume and Grotte de Combarelles, within walking distance of the village hotels. For cave reservations at Grotte de Font du Gaume and/or Grotte de Combarelles, call ahead 05.53.06.86.00. The staff speaks limited English, but at our visit, 45-minute tours were offered daily from 9am-12 pm and 2pm-6 pm.
What kid doesn’t grow up with a toy castle or two and at least a few knights, if only in painted plastic armor? The Dordogne region is where the fantasy world of medieval splendor, pageantry and battle comes to life with a mere nudge of the imagination. There, standing high on a castle wall, you can survey the surrounding countryside as though it were a chessboard, easily understanding the importance of walled cities, ramparts, and battlements in the shifting loyalties of the great barons of medieval times as knights galloped across the fields.
This is the home of Richard the Lionhearted, son of Eleanor of Aquitaine. It is the source for much of the medieval poetry sung by the troubadors. It even served as the location for the movie ‘Ever After”starring Drew Barrymore.
Two of the most impressive (former rivals) castles along the Dordogne River, built high on the cliffs, are Beynac Castle ( 03.35.53.29.50.40) and Chateau Castelnaud. During the Hundred Years War, Beynac served as headquarters for the four lords of the French Perigord, while the lords of Castelnaud fought for England.
Today Beynac Castle, through extensive restoration, is an intact medieval fortress. Visitors are escorted through by guides, and there are ample interactive demonstrations of medieval life. Castelnaud has been restored to house a museum of medieval siege warfare, including a reconstructed, working catapult. Good-natured French guides, dressed in medieval attire, show youngsters the uses for such weaponry. Both guided and self-guided tours are available in French and in English; no advance reservations are necessary.
I highly recommended some background reading on the Dordogne region. For adults, I liked Freda White’s classic, “Three Rivers of France. The National Geographic Society’s Painters of the Caves by Patricia Lauber is an excellent introduction to cave art for children, teens, and adults.
Getting to the region is easy; it’s about a five-hour train ride from Paris, with stops in Brive or Souillac. Local public transportation is not available, so families will want to rent a car for the duration of their stay. It is also possible to walk between villages and arrange for taxis and luggage transport through tour agencies.
There are many good small hotels in the area, and the restaurants are renowned (phone ahead for reservations.) There are also excellent camping facilities that are heavily used by French vacationers. For extensive local cultural and historic information, including an extraordinary list of annual festivals (note the Fat Bullock and the Omelet Festivals), click on http://www.tourisme-aquitaine.fr/en. For general France information and a list of authorized hotel reservations services, visit www.francetourism.com and click on the Aquitane region. Once you’re set with the practical advice, go to www.info-france-usa.org, the site sponsored by the Embassy of France, for a fun-for-kids area with games about France.
Try to avoid traveling to the area in late July and August when all of France is on vacation. But if that is the only time you can visit, you will still have a wonderful time!
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.