The perfect family camping destination in France…..? We know it, but do you?
We are only telling you this because you’re special…. so don’t go telling too many others!
One of our (many) homes away from home is the beautiful Dordogne area in south-west France, up river from Bordeaux. I spent much of my childhood summer holidays here and as soon as Morts was ‘on the scene’, he was soon introduced to this firm family favourite. Infact, the Dordogne was Oskar’s very first holiday destination, aged just 5 months old. Flashback photo below!
Although as an extended family we have normally stayed in/around the town of Sarlat, this time we were heading to the much quieter little village of Creysse, which is just over the ‘border’ into the department of ‘Lot’. This is where I was based when I started out as an adventure tour leader (back in the day), leading cycling, walking and canoeing trips around the area; I was based out of a little campsite called ‘Camping du Port’, owned and run by the oh-so-typically-French Monsieur Pierre Circal.
As well as running the campsite, Pierre was in charge of all the logistics for my trips: canoe drops offs/pick ups, bike repairs, dropping our gear at the many different campsites we used to stay at, and just generally looking out for me and ensuring that I had everything I needed. That summer was epic…. The combination of great weather, an awesome tour, a beautiful area and a great team. From that moment (11 years ago now!), Pierre became a great friend and Morts and I have been back to stay and visit on a number of occasions since.
This summer, we were due to spend a week at Camping du Port, and after all the craziness of finishing the school year, moving, renovating, and Morten being away for 5 weeks, we were really looking forward to some family time in a familiar and friendly place. We got an early 7am ferry from Dover to Calais and then bombed down to Creysse in one go. The journey took 8.5 hours, but the drive was uneventful…. The roads were totally clear (you gotta love the French motorways), we took loads of stops to break up the journey, and Oskar was on great form; singing, colouring, playing with his Paw Patrols, building Lego, eating endless snacks (obvs), snoozing, and only in the last 2 hours watching his DVD player (this was more to give us a break rather than him!). We pulled into Creysse by 6pm to be greeted by a smiling Pierre.
The awesome thing about Camping du Port is that it is so low-key. Pierre could easily double the number of people/pitches in the campsite, but instead he keeps numbers low, meaning massive, spacious pitches. Although Pierre has a website for the campsite (with some pretty hilarious French to English translations), he does not even advertise – pretty much everyone is there from word of mouth. But everyone agrees… don’t tell too many people, because it’s one of the areas best kept secrets!
The campsite extends from the village, right down to the Dordogne river so you can walk straight down onto the pebble beach and paddle/swim/canoe straight from the campsite. There is also a great swimming pool, which is nice and shallow so the kids can play and swim without you having to worry.
There is a pool/snack bar during the day, and a different bar/restaurant for the evening (totally low key – just in an old barn). It’s the sort of campsite that feels so safe for kids and you are happy to just let them wander around and do their own thing. I know I am gushing, but genuinely if I was to run a campsite, this would probably be it. It’s perfect.
We had decided NOT to bring our own tent on this trip, but be kind to ourselves after all the craziness and just rent a little mobile home for the week so save on the packing. We were so grateful for this. We love our green tent as you know, but actually not having to do a big pack up and worry about all the cooking equipment, etc for once was quite refreshing.
There are a number of options of accommodation at Pierre’s, from mini mobile homes to large safari-style chalets – we went for an interestingly-named ‘Tithome’, which we later found out was an abbreviation for ‘petit’ home (though I think they may have been better just going for the extended version!) But weird name or not, we came to love our Tithome…. A snug double room for Morts and me, and a double-bunk for Oskar (O on the bottom and all our stuff on the top!). There was then a loo, and a kitchen/dining area, which was not solid like the rest of the rooms, but canvas covered, so you could just unzip it and open it all up. It was a perfect family-sized space.
Our days were divided between totally chilled days just hanging out at the campsite – by the river or at the pool – and day trips out and about to any of the awesome local places to visit; most of which we had been to 100 times before but which equally deserved a re-visit and will no doubt be re-visited time and time again.
Being right down in a valley, campsite mornings often started off foggy and a little chilly, but we would leap in the car and drive the 5km up the hill to the medieval town of Martel, (Town of the Seven Towers) where our favourite café awaited. It was a total sun-trap and all the locals were in-situ by the time we arrived. It was so brilliantly French.
So we would do as the locals would and walk over the road to the boulangerie to get our stash of croissants/pain au chocolat and pain au raisin and then bring our brown paper bag of goodies back to the café to enjoy with our café au laits (OK, so if we were like real locals we would have Café noir but given I am not usually a coffee drinker, the ‘au lait’ was as far as I could go). Oskar would have his warm milk, we’d munch our pain, bask in the sun and watch the world go by… utter joy.
On the Sunday night it was the Creysse ‘fete’. At the end of August, many of the villages throughout the Dordogne and Lot have their summer fetes and they really are a fantastic insight into local village life.
The Creysse fete involved a meal for all the locals on a long table running through the centre of the village, which lasted for about 3 hours while the frivolities went on around them.
There was a bandstand with a band playing traditional music and ballroom dancing! Everyone from young to old got involved; Oskar barely left the dancefloor for the entire evening…. Until he inevitably absolutely crashed and burned at about 11.30pm, shortly before the firework finale, which Morts and I were forced to watch from our Tithome window (but which looked epic).
There is SO MUCH to do in this area you could go on a day trip every single day for a two week holiday, but having spent a lot of time here before, we took it slightly easier and just returned to a few old favourites.
Without fail we go to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Rocamadour every time we are in the region, because it is just so spectacular. We highly recommended a visit, though only go if you don’t mind steps! (This is definitely not a place for buggies, so opt for baby carriers/ backpacks!)
There is also a little road train that you can take up to the village from the car park in the valley, which Oskar loves, but which in reality you will wait longer for than it takes to walk up the hill! But we always take the train up and then walk down.
Unbelievably Rocamadour receives over one million visitors a year as it is an important pilgrimage destination and has been for over 1000 years. The village clings to the side of a cliff and is built on the site of a shrine to a Madonna, which became famous for its healing powers.
Within the village is a beautiful array of churches, shrines, monasteries and historical monuments…. And now the inevitable narrow streets of tourist tat and ice-cream. But its lovely for a wander, there’s plenty to explore and lovely views of the village and river from the top. It’s a must visit.
Another favourite place to visit is the town of Sarlat-la-Caneda (or just ‘Sarlat’), which is a beautiful medieval town that seems to have been largely untouched in the modern era! It is a perfect example of a 14th Century French town and is a delight to wander around.
Well I say that, but be prepared… it gets BUSY! Saturdays are the main market days, so the whole town is over-flowing with stalls selling delicious fresh produce…. Endless saucisson, cheeses, fresh breads, olives, oils, fish, fruit and veg, and craft stalls, clothes, leatherwork, art… you name it.
It is a great place to poke around, sample foods and get lost in the narrow alley ways. Yes it is busy, but it’s still so worth it. Just get there as early as you can (by 9am if I were you!).
There is also a market on Wednesdays, which is just food stalls, but also well worth a visit if you can’t make the Saturday.
Another must-see, especially with kids is the Gouffe de Padirac, an enormous cave that you can walk down into and then navigate by boat on an underground river. I feel like I have visited a lot of caves in my time, but this is absolutely the most impressive. Oskar was amazed, and loved the whole spectacle of walking down the steps into the cave and then taking the boat.
However again, it is worth noting that this is a major tourist attraction for the French and gets incredibly busy. You absolutely MUST book tickets in advance, with a time slot, and my advice…. Book the early slots. We were there for an 8.30am visit and still queued to get in, but only for about 5 minutes. At peak season I know people who have queued later in the day for hours. So make the most of the day and get there early.
One of our favourite mornings was our mini cycling adventure to Chateâu de Castelnau-Bretenoux. This was because this was me attempting to re-trace one of the cycling trips that I used to take my clients on when I worked in the region so it was very much a trip down memory lane, but it is also such a gorgeous area to explore by bike and so easy to do.
We had brought our bikes with us, but you can hire them from just about everywhere (including from Camping du Port). We then drove to Puybrun (having been cruising around to loads of different villages, etc all morning), parked up and enjoyed an easy hour’s cycle towards Chateau Castlenaux-Bretenoux.
It’s a really easy, flat cycle, right up until the last 5 minutes when there is a pretty sizeable hill to climb in order to reach the Chateau.
Other visits include Domme, another stunning medieval town dating from 1281, which has possibly the best view of all down over the Dordogne River and also perhaps the best ice-cream! Totally worth a quick stop and gaze.
A place we didn’t visit this trip, but usually always do is La Roque-Gageac. This is yet another impressive medieval town build into the rock face right on the Dordogne River. It’s compact so easy to walk around, is great to explore and wander up the paths behind the village and is a great one for kids as there is a fun boat ride down the river on one of the old style trading boats.
We always take the boat called ‘Norbert’ for an hour’s ride up and down the river, with historical info about the village and its place in history (the kids are just transfixed by the boat and the river journey).
I know I’m getting carried away, but now I have started to share these treasures with you I feel there is one more I must tell you about… The Chateau de Marqueyssac.
High up on a cliff, with unbelievable gardens with the most amazing ‘nobbly bobbly’ topiary trees, fun clifftop walks through the forest for the kids, plenty of space, beautiful buildings and an impressive house – a great half day visit.
The coolest activity that attracts most families is simply a day’s canoeing/kayaking down the Dordogne, which is something that we did every single year as a child and which I absolutely love. It’s easy canoeing as the river has a decent current and you’re pretty much just carried downstream, and there is so much to see enroute (remember all those clifftop villages and chateaus I’ve been telling you about??)
There are SO many different palces you can hire from, although if you are staying at Camping du Port you can go straight from the bottom of the campsite through Pierre’s adventure company ‘Port Loisirs. They all include the usual… you canoe/kayak down river to a chosen point and then get picked up at a certain time by the bus and brought back to your start point.
The only problem…. It’s a pretty universal rule in the area that to hire and go out in canoes, children must be 5 or over. This meant that we could not do this this year, which we were absolutely gutted; so much so that infact we are now contemplating buying our own inflatable canoe to take with us next time. If we had this, we’d easily head out for at least a couple of days on the river from different points. For memory’s sake, we’ve included a few photos from our trip a few years before when we helpfully had the grandparents with us who looked after O while we went out by ourselves!
So there you have it. The secret is out. The ‘Lot’ (and its neighbor the Dordogne) is just the most incredible location for a family holiday. Pierre’s campsite is superb (although there are clearly many, many more splattered around the Lot and Dordogne region that you could choose from) and there is SO MUCH to do, whether you are looking for foodie, sporty, geological, historical or cultural activities. Plus, the food is amazing; the weather is lovely; and the people are brilliantly French.
So, a bientôt! Don’t tell too many people, but let us know if you do go! Perhaps we’ll see you there next summer?