Epic castles, horse-riding and fresh food markets are every day in France, Geordie Torr writes about her favourite Normandy kids activities.
France was the first overseas country that our two daughters, Sarah, 12, and Zoe, 10 visited when they were each 9 weeks old. Both of their visits were to Provence. Since then, we’ve been all over: Burgundy, Brittany, the Dordogne, the Loire, Carcassonne, Paris, Bordeaux, Alsace, Champagne – the list goes on.
But the region we keep returning to is Normandy.
Why does it keep you coming back for more?
The reason we return is partly down to convenience – from our base in Winchester in the southeast of England it’s a shortish drive to Dover, a quick ferry or train ride across the English Channel and we’re virtually there. However we’ve also developed a real affection for the region.
We love its authenticity; it doesn’t feel as though it has been overrun by Brits, as places such as the Dordogne and Brittany can.
The villages of Normandy have been unaffected by tourism and the countryside is beautiful, with its undulating cow-dotted fields, quaint villages and collections of stone cottages clustered around an ancient church, its spire pointing heavenwards.
Although Normandy was hit hard by the two world wars – the second in particular – many of the smaller rural towns and villages were spared and still retain some of their classic half-timbered Medieval buildings.
And, of course, the food is heavenly – it is France, after all.
Like much of rural Europe, Normandy is economically depressed.This has both been caused by, and led to, a flight from the countryside over the past few decades. One of the more noticeable effects of this is that the villages are awash with abandoned farm buildings.
The beneficial side effect of this for visitors is that many of those buildings have been bought up by Brits and lovingly (or hastily) restored and turned into holiday accommodation.
So, it’s possible to rent, relatively cheaply, a wonderful stone-built farmhouse that dates back to the 16th century or before.
Activities you will love
And there’s plenty to keep visitors occupied. The girls loved the Bayeux Tapestry when we took them to see it when they were 5 and 3 years old – walking slowly along its length marvelling at the intricately embroidered details.
Normandy has forests for leisurely walks and placid lakes for swimming. You can visit the majestic Mont Saint-Michel and the D-Day landing beaches – fascinating and poignant but also bleak and windswept (don’t bother to bring your swimmers).
Indeed, World War II history is ever-present in Normandy. Concrete pillboxes dot the coastline, many shop windows display black-and-white photos of liberating Allied troops, and you’re never far away from a war memorial or cemetery.
Particularly impressive is the American Cemetery and Memorial, with its sweeping rows of stark white crosses and Jewish stars. It is also home to a very good museum.
In Sainte-Mère-Église, the first village liberated by the US Army on D-Day, there’s even an effigy hanging from the church tower of Private John Steele, a US paratrooper whose ‘chute got stuck on the church’s pinnacle.
But mostly, when we visit, we just take it easy and hang out. Travelling to France from Australia, the temptation is to see everything: the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre, Versailles, Provence and the Cote d’Azur and so on.
However, a much better way to experience the ‘real’ France is to hire a farmhouse in a rural backwater. This way you and the children with a chance to kick back and get a proper feel for how life is lived there.
Our favourite memories
On our most recent visit, as with most such trips, our days followed a regular routine:
Breakfast from a local patisserie; a visit to an outdoor market.
Coffee in a little bar tabac and a wander around town
The plat du jour at a small brasserie or auberge for lunch;
A visit to a hypermarket in the afternoon and then back to the farmhouse for some cheese, ham, bread, wine and relaxation;
Finally dinner, made from ingredients bought fresh that day.
Some of our favourite experiences on these trips revolve around every day Normandy village life. Simple experiences such as…
Standing in a crowded boucherie, boulangerie or fromagerie as the locals order their meat, bread and cheese
Buying a sugar-and-lemon crepe or a grilled sausage in a baguette, or a crisp-skinned rotisserie chicken from a van in the market.
Cooing over a puppy, duckling, chick or a plait of garlic at a market stall.
Visiting a tiny bar tabac in a tiny village and sipping an excellent espresso at the bar as the racing plays on a TV screen in the corner.
- Wandering a cavernous hypermarket scoping out the unusual food products – and then taking some back to the farmhouse to cook for dinner.
A welcome break from electronic entertainment
As both of the girls are learning French at school, the visit was a welcome chance to immerse them in the language. During our trips, we take every available opportunity to get them to interact with the locals – buying food at the market, asking for the bill in restaurants and so on – encouraging them to practice their French.
Because we tend to just take it easy, these trips offer us a rare opportunity to reconnect as a family. The farmhouse in which we stayed recently was particularly favourable as it lacked any connection to the internet.
In fact, while we stayed there, the girls didn’t even turn the television on.
Instead, in between our exploratory drives and market visits, we played pétanque on a purpose-built terrain while the farmhouse horses looked on.
We also went for walks in the forest adjacent to the farmhouse or just sat by the open fire and read.
Our love affair with Normandy has grown so intense that we’re now contemplating buying one of those crumbling farmhouses ourselves.
The only thing stopping us right now? The thought that we would be tying ourselves to one village when there’s so much more to see.
The benefits of the regular visit
Regularly returning to the same destination offers numerous potential benefits:
You get to know the rhythms of a place – when the best markets are on, when the local festivals take place, the times of day when everyone comes out to socialise, when the crops are harvested, and so on.
Eventually you learn all about the local specialities – the dishes, produce and products that make a place, well, special.
You slowly stumble across the hidden gems – the best restaurants and cafes, the sweet little parks, the quirky museums.
Familiarity breeds serenity – knowing where things are and how things work takes a lot of the potential stress out of a holiday.
Best time to visit
To avoid the crowds, visit in April, September and October. However, if you want to enjoy the sunshine and warmer weather, June to September is perfect for beach hopping.
Kids of all ages. Besides the beautiful historic sites, families can go on adventures such as rail biking, seaside boat trips, mazes, theme parks and even mini golf.
Virgin Airlines fly from Sydney to Paris and then it’s a three-hour drive to Normandy.