There is much that is great about France such as fab wine and cheese, sunny days in the south and snowy winters in the mountains.There is, of course, much that is annoying in France such as nothing ever being open when you want it to be, annoying little dogs everywhere and stupidly-phased traffic lights (that one might just be me.)
Similarly, there are aspects which make it a great place to travel as a family and others which make it more difficult. I’ve written a piece about it for this month’s edition of The French Paper – and thought I would share it here. Let me know if you agree.
The brilliant thing about travelling in France is that you have nearly everything within one country, mountains, beaches, countryside, pretty little villages, large, chic cities. Since moving to the Ariege two years ago I can almost (but not quite) see why many French people rarely travel outside of their own country for holidays.
As a journalist specialising in travel with children, I have travelled widely with mine (now aged six and eight) since they were babies – not just in France, but all over Europe and in many ways, France is a great place to travel as a family. When I was heavily pregnant, I was delighted to be ushered to the front of a huge queue outside the Musée d’Orsay in Paris – it turns out in isn’t only in the supermarkets that pregnant women get to jump the queue. And the next time we visited Paris with Toby in a buggy, station staff whisked us past an enormous queue of people waiting for a taxi straight into a waiting car.
Many of our French holidays in the children’s early years were skiing holidays in the Alps where we found the local crèche very well-run and there were many events organised within the resort especially for children – on Christmas Eve Père Noel arrived on a sleigh to give out sweets and in the early evenings there were old fashioned wooden games to play in the square.
Another great thing about travelling in France, it being a large land-mass attached to mainland Europe, is the option to use the excellent and very reasonably-priced train network rather than having to fly. While flying is still sometimes the cheaper option, its incumbent luggage restrictions and hours spent waiting around at airports can means that travelling by train, when you can take a travel cot without breaking the bank and your children can walk up and down the aisles as much as they like, can make the slightly-longer journey worthwhile.
However, there are difficulties with travelling in France as a family too. The main one, especially if you are travelling with very small children, is the difficulty in finding anywhere to eat before 7.30pm outside of large towns – and if you miss the golden hours of 12 to 2pm lunchtime that can also cause problems – children don’t like to go hungry!
While we have found that children are always, almost without exception, welcome in restaurants, most children’s menus n France tend to be unimaginative and unhealthy (nuggets or steak haché usually) and facilities such as a high chair or somewhere to change a nappy can be lacking. We also felt that when they were babies and more prone to being noisy they were tolerated in restaurants rather than welcomed – unlike the Moroccans, for example, who just wanted to smother the children in kisses however they were behaving.
One joy of travelling in France is that we have often found we have been able to do things which in many countries, wouldn’t be allowed for health and safety or insurance reasons. A few years ago we went donkey trekking in the Haute Sarthe region – the idea being that is was a good way to see the countryside when your children are too young to walk too far. I assumed we’d be accompanied, having no experience of donkeys or the area but no, we were introduced to our donkey, given a map and sent on our way – which felt quite liberating (even though we did get lost and the donkey lived up to their stubborn reputation.)
Our first beach holidays with the children in France were taken on the Cote d’Azur which in retrospect, turned out to be a mistake. Quite aside from it costing a fortune just to go to the beach, once you get there there is little room for children to play. These days we go to the Atlantic coast which as well as being significantly cheaper and much less crowded offers beautiful sand and vast beaches for the kids to play on.
Since we have been living in France we have very enjoyed the freedom to be able to pack up the car and go somewhere without having to worry about booking flights weeks in advance. As well as taking many trips in France, several times last year we drove into Spain and in the summer we took the train to Holland. France is beautiful and has loads to offer – but there’s still a world out there to explore for us.
Catherine Cooper is author of Travelling with Children: A Parent’s Guide available from www.amazon.co.uk,RRP £9.99. She blogs about her family travel experiences at http://catherinecooper.wordpress.com/
Tips for travelling with kids in France
Plan mealtimes – it can be difficult to find food outside of 12 to 1.30pm and 7.30pm to 9.30pm. If you get stuck, look for McDonalds or Buffalo Grill – your kids will be delighted.
Long car journeys – If you are planning a long drive, consider getting seat-back DVDs or hand-help computer games for your children. Watch out though – they can make some feel car sick. Audio books also work well for breaking up boring journeys. We offer bribes of biscuits at each peage gate if they have been well-behaved since the previous one.
Nappies and other baby products – cannot usually be bought in a pharmacy – you need to go to a supermarket.
Motorway service stations – Generally poor quality and expensive but many have pleasant outside areas and even playgrounds. Take lunch with you if you can – your children will appreciate the chance to run around.
Trains – Special deals are available when you are travelling with children. If you are a Famille Nombreuse (you have three or more children and are resident in France) you can benefit from further discounts (you will need to apply for a card at www.voyages-sncf.com
Arrival day – If you are arriving on a Saturday, bear in mind that the vast majority of supermarkets are closed on Sunday. Take essentials with you or arrive early.
Avoid Chassée Croissée – the weekend at the end of July/beginning of August when the people who have holidayed in July are returning and the August holiday-makers are leaving. If you are travelling in July and August it is also best to avoid Saturdays, the most common holiday changeover day.