So, after two years living between Devon and France there is so much I want to share with you about this little corner of the Charente region that we now call home. To be honest, my heart has always called France home, ever since I was a small child spending endless summers running wild in the Dordogne. Memories of swimming naked in rivers; going to sleep at dusk listening to crickets and the smell of the sun-baked earth through the bedroom window; early morning trips to the boulangerie with my sister, arguing all the way as to who was going to say ‘deux grands pains s’il vous plaît’ and the never-ending lunches, the table heaving with food and friends… as a country, it just makes me properly happy.
I love that we have put down our own roots here and now have a proper home – and what a home she is! Living somewhere, even if it is part-time, is so very different to holidaying there. We have made real friends, not just with other expats but with our neighbours, the stall-holders at the local market, the lady in the pharmacy who is as skincare obsessed as I am…
So, I thought I’d create a dedicated section of Countryfille for all things French. Reviews, recommendations, great places to visit, city guides, interiors inspo and my favourite flea markets to visit… the works. I’ll also be interviewing interesting women who have also made the move across the channel and carved a new life for themselves in the South West of France.
Reliving my childhood summers in France – renovating a manoir, writing and wrangling two under 5s
As a child, the day school broke up we would load up our 80s Volvo and head for the ferry ports. Hopping across ‘La Manche’ and down through France for summer in the Dordogne region – spending two months swimming in rivers, drinking watered down wine, gorging on soft fruits from the street markets and falling asleep to the sound of crickets… We would return on the eve of the autumn term, brown as berries with sun-bleached hair, freckly noses and a serious injection of vitamin D to see us through the winter. All my favourite childhood memories are wrapped up in those hazy, sun-drenched summer days and guess what?
Fast forward 30 years and yup, I’m in France. For a whole 8 weeks, by myself with the two boys (4 and 10 months). Gulp.
As a family, we bought this beauty last year as a place for the whole clan to convene for summers, en masse. The OH has had to stay in the UK for work so I am here principly to oversee the builders (as the only French speaker) and to forward plan the next phase of internal major works for winter.
Since buying the house we have been flitting back and forward, frantically slapping paint on the walls and trying to get the main rooms we use most frequently habitable and furnished. The house was far from derelict when we moved in – the double glazing had been done, central heating, wood burners, kitchen, bathroom etc – but there is still a mind-boggling ‘to do list’ to make this 3,000sqm behemoth the dream family home we know it can be.
With two under 5s in tow I’m not denting the ‘to do list’ at the rate I’d like, but as I finish projects I will post some before/afters and do a bit of a house and garden tour – everyone loves a nose round other people’s houses don’t they?!
The boys are astonishingly good at cracking on and entertaining themselves. The 4yo is train mad and has brought his whole set with him, so can be left engrossed for hours in fantasy worlds of landslides, derailments and cargo deliveries. The 10 month old just wants to be near me. Preferably clinging to my leg at all times, which makes painting and decorating a tad tricky, but it’s amazing how distracting a set of Tupperware and a noisy, flashing toy can be.
Throw into the mix a few writing projects I’ve taken on and it all feels a bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time!
That said, I am ensuring that it’s not all work, work, work (or is that werk, werk, werk?) and the 4yo and I sneak off to the newly finished pool every lunchtime while the baby sleeps to splosh about for a couple of hours.
As all our initial budget has evaporated, with only a quarter of the rooms furnished, I am having to get pretty creative to make any progress with the remaining portion of the house. I’ve been trawling local junk shops, antiques markets and charity shops and found some incredible pieces – again, expect various posts over the summer charting my French interiors finds.
It’s been 35 degrees and rising this week, which has been amazing – if not a little soporific! Mowing the 2 acres of lawns and orchards was a serious task with my little petrol push along mower!
We are heading to the beach at the weekend (we are approx. 90 mins from the Atlantic coast around Royan/La Rochelle) with friends and our steady stream of visitors (aka free labour) start arriving next week.
Until then, I hope you’re enjoying your summer! If you want more snaps from our French vacances you can follow me on Twitter for daily updates (@countryfille).
After travelling a dozen times to France in the last 18 months, plus last week’s jaunt to Italy and various UK staycations with the 4yo and 10mo in tow, I feel pretty qualified to impart my top bits of kit for travel with under 5s. For what it’s worth. None of these are sponsored and we own and love them all:
Snooze shade £24.99, www.snoozeshade.comThe 10mo is a stickler for routine, he likes his daytime naps and on holiday when it’s impractical to keep nipping back to our base so he can nap in his cot, this is a godsend. It keeps him shaded from the sun/wind/rain and gets things nice and dark. It’s universal and pops over pretty much any buggy. Imagine a sheet over a parrot’s cage. It’s a bit like that.
Travel blackout blind, GroAnywhere, £24.99, www.gro-store.com The only stipulation my two have for a good night’s sleep is a room that’s darker than Lord Voldermort’s soul. It literally has to be ‘can’t see your hand in front of your face’ black. Which is fine at home with their industrial strength black-out blinds, not so easy in European high summer where it doesn’t get dark till 10pm. This travel black-out blind folds down to nothing and converts any window into a blackhole. Literally not a chink of light. Genius.
This was a last minute purchase for Italy last week, how did I live without it?! It come in a teeny weeny bag that pops into my handbag or under the buggy and unfurls to reveal a slightly complicated to get your head around, yet non-the-less brilliant chair harness that converts pretty much ANY chair into a safe highchair for babies 6-30months. Just watch the assembly video before you go.
We did the 15-hour journey to France when our youngest was 5-weeks. And have been doing it every 6 weeks since. I know. We must really love our new house. Recommendations are that babies under 6 months don’t sit all hunched up in their car seats for long journeys. Their spine doth protest. This lay-flat car seat from Britax is FAB. I was sceptical as self-titled ‘Captain Safety-Conscious’, but once fitted it is literally super-glued to the back seat and they have a three-point safety harness inside. It’s not compatiable in all cars and takes up pretty much all the back seat, but he was so snug and comfy and it clipped straight onto our Britax B-Agile 3 buggy base too, so we could whip him in and out the car with ease. Best bit of kit we’ve invested in so far. Our offspring are vertically challenged (seriously, on the 2nd percentile), but longer babies might not fit in this for the full 6 months. He was touching the bottom by 4. EDIT: Shit, I’ve just seen this item has been ‘retired’ by Britax. It’s still available from other online retailers, SNAP ONE UP WHILE YOU STILL CAN!
I won’t have a bad word said against this travel cot. Yes, cheaper travel cots are available, but I defy you to find one with a comfier, thicker mattress, nor one you can set up one-handed while holding a sleeping baby. I rest my case. This still looks like new and our 4yo slept in it almost weekly till he was 2.5yo. It’s roomy, but folds into a neat travel case that wears a mere 6kg. That’s less than my cat. For us it doubles as a playpen during the day on hols and you can unzip it all from the sturdy steel frame when they projectile vomit at 2am. Bonus.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know your tried and tested travel essentials!
Sometimes the simplest laid plans turn out to be the most stressful don’t they? In the midst of end of term mayhem, organising our 2-month trip to France for the next phase of Chateau renovations and a teething 10 month old, we decided to just nip to Naples for a brief weekend to eat pizza, look at volcanoes and hang out with the OH’s family. No biggie.
Only Easyjet had other plans.
Our first attempt ended in an 8-hour stand-off at Bristol airport, an overtired baby and a gutted 4yo. So back home we came, disappointed but not defeated. Some diary-wrangling and a week later we were soaring through the skies, Napoli bound. This time minus the OH (god love self-employment), but with pizza firmly in our sights…
We were staying with family in a gorgeous converted Palazzo in the centre of Naples and arrived (late again) at the stroke of midnight, to 30 degree heat and a baptism of fire for the 4yo. I forget what a total country bumpkin he is and how mind-blowing a city like Naples is for the uninitiated. It was hot, noisy and beguiling. His little nose was pressed against the taxi window drinking in the cobbled alleys, moped horns and asking in a tiny voice ‘why are all these people not asleep?’
We awoke next morning a little travel-weary but determined to explore. With no set plans and the mercury hovering around 32 degrees by mid-morning we aimed low and settled for a day down by the water at the castello, eating fennel sausage pizza, looking for the fabled crocodiles in the moat and taking the train-obsessed 4yo on his first tube ride… to a station named after him. Mind. Blown.
Toledo station routinely tops the list of ‘world’s most impressive metro stations’ – it’s like an underwater cave/gallactic mash-up, crammed full of artwork.
In the decade I’ve been with my Italian OH I’ve been to Naples and the Amalfi Coast countless times (you can read my pre-children full city guide to Naples here), but this was my first with kids and I hadn’t appreciated what a child-friendly city it is. The underground was a breeze with the buggy, clean and with lift access at every station. The 10mo was not such a great fan of the noisy, jolting journeys but we found our fellow commuters more than willing to play, sing and cajol him into a smile. It’s a cliché but Italians really do adore babies. We saw photos of beloved grandchildren proudly whipped out of wallets and a great deal of doe-y eyed smiles and cooing in shops, queues and restaurants – our sons have particularly Neapolitan names, which went down a storm with their new found fans.
Eating out is a breeze; pizza and pasta are the staple diet of most under 5s (ours more than most) and the waiters entertained our two without the blink of an eye, even medicating the grouchy teething 10mo with some lemon granita for his gums.
Day 2 was spent shopping on Via Roma for a/ sfogliatelli for moi (my all-time favourite Neapolitan pastry) and b/ the 4yo’s first Swatch watch. Such a Euro kid tradition that the OH and I remember well. We finished the day travelling up to the hills overlooking Naples on the finicular railway to the Vomero. Quieter, wider pavements and cooler. A good shout when Naples reaches boiling point.
If we’d had longer I’d have loved to take them for a boat ride to Ischia, or perhaps when they’re older out to Pompeii, or for a peer into the crate of Vesuvio… next time, we’ll be back – my love affair with Naples has just begun a new chapter.
Tomorrow: My Top 5 bits of travel kit for travelling with under 5s.
So, we’re off back over the channel to France this week to meet the builders and get some more renovation plans scheduled for the summer (namely some more bathrooms, the house currently has an 11 bedroom: 1 bathroom ratio!). We are flitting back and forward every six weeks at the moment, which means we are become quite adept at 15-hour journeys with a new baby and a fidgety 4-year old.
Whilst my friends think I am nuts, this will be our 12th trip in 18 months, and my second solo one with the boys, so we have pretty much got the schedule down pat. It’s an early start (5.30am), but we are tucked up in our French beds by 9pm.
Which isn’t much of a hardship when we wake up to this:
The four-year old is hardened to it now, he’s been making the trek since he was 2. The excitement of being at the docks and then on the ferry still doesn’t grow old (the cranes! the smell of diesel! cargo!).Neither does the 12-hour window when all good parenting skills go out the window and he gets to play on the iPad for hours and eat more chocolate than he does in a month. Here he is at a pit-stop 10 hours in, slightly crazed on Mikados.
So, what are my top tips for travelling long distances with under 5s?
Make life easy
Travelling with small people is exhausting for all concerned, so if it makes life that little bit easier to spend an extra £5 on a closer car park to the airport, to get the ready-made formula or say yes to ANOTHER ice cream – do it. You won’t ruin them, my mantra is ‘when in transit, all parenting bets are off’.
2. Plan, plan, plan
I am pretty confident that with a bit of forward planning I can pre-empt most scenarios on the journey now after a dozen trips. Before we leave I ensure we have plenty of blankets, water, snacks, batteries, toys, WIPES, a thermos of hot water (I had to give the 7mo a strip wash in a layby after a rather explosive bowel movement once), Calpol, first aid kit, audio books (hands down the best thing for car travel), spare clothing for everyone and chargers. Although I know the route in my sleep, we have often had to be diverted, or I simply want to know our ETA, so I use the Waze app to track our journey. I also have a travel wallet by my side that contains all our documents, passports, health cards etc, plus bank cards for tolls, spare Euros and driving licenses for when I get stopped for speeding. Ahem.
3. Make the journey fun
It might sound simple, but from the moment you close your front door, you are on holiday. Once I got into this mind-set, rather than having to ‘endure’ the journey to our destination, it made things easier. If you’re children are old enough, make the journey an adventure. We play stupid car games, discuss the sights we see from the car window, have frequently stops for a swing at the playpark or ice cream and sing, LOUDLY. Yes it makes the overall journey that little bit longer, but if we’re going to be stuck in a small metal box, hurtling down the motorway together for 15 hours, we might as well make it fun.
4. Pack light
Unless you are going to outer Mongolia, pack light. Ironically, having two small children has made me a much more efficient and frugal packer. Especially if you are travelling to the developed world, you can buy nappies anywhere people. Ditto wipes, toiletries, even a few cheap clothes. Obviously specific things like formula or medicines will need packing, but we now only take minimal clothes for the boys and do a big supermarket shop the day after we get there for the rest. I am also unabashed about siding up to another French mum in the supermarket and asking her advice on the best brands. I’m sure they think I’m nuts, but it’s great to get some insider advice when faced with a wall of jarred baby food.
5. Finally, aim low
I was a travel writer in a previous life, flitting off to the most incredible destinations as part of my day job. I remember fondly the days when I used to relax with a glass of fizz, waiting to be called for my flight, then don my eye mask and get in a good solid sleep on board…. Once you’re a parent you need to aim A LOT lower. As long as you don’t lose anyone, you avert most major tantrums and everyone remains on speaking terms you’ve won, and you’re on holiday!
If anyone is travelling to France this summer and wants any specific tips/advice then just ask!
In the last few months we have been between London, Somerset and Cornwall, with half a house to pack up each time (highchair, travel cot, baby monitors, toys etc) my own packing has had to become super quick, efficient and minimal.
To that end I have edited my travel toiletries to a bare minimum, all pre-packed ready to go.
Clockwise from top:
Elemis Frangipani Monoi body oil – this was my hands-down beauty travel essential… until Elemis discontinued it. They still do the straight forward body oil blend but this is the ‘moisture melt’ version that is solid at room temperature, thus avoiding any travel spillages. You simply pop it into a sink of hot water whilst you bathe and voila – a warm, tropically scented, nourishing body oil to slather on when you get out. In hotter climes I even use it as an overnight hair treatment.
Elemis Fresh Skin Gentle facial wash – The Fresh Skin range from Elemis (targeted at teens-twenties) is fab too. I use the daily exfoliator at home plus the facial masks (see below). This gentle daily face wash blitzes dirt/make-up but doesn’t dry my skin.
Elizabeth’s Daughter intensive moisturiser – This independent brand makes a damn fine moisturiser. A thick layer of this intensive, soothing balm overnight and my skin is plump and hydrated (I apply it in-flight too, to keep moisture levels up). I love the cocktail of super antioxidants and mix of exotically scented oils (Argan, Tahitian Monoi and Mango butter). Just shows you don’t need to be a big name to make a great product.
Percy & Reed Splendidly Silky Moisturising Shampoo – I got this sample sized shampoo with a copy of Glamour and chucked it on the ‘travel pile’. I’ve used it a few times now and even when I skip the blow-dry my somewhat-temperamental waves are frizz-free and shiny.
Eyemask and earplugs purloined from a flight. I’m a terrible sleeper when I’m not in my own bed so these are a must.
Mama Mio O-MEGA Feel Good mini kit – I was given this as a baby shower gift and have fallen in love with these two products. The Body Buff is gentle and kind (no abrasive salts for tender, post pregnancy skin) with sweet almond oil to stop it drying you out – it’s perfect for face and body. 2-in-1 products are great for travel kits. The shower cream was a life-saver post c-section. It’s a jam-packed mix of Omega 3, 6 and 9, with Arnica to heal and a bevvy of oils to cleanse and moisturise. It’s the only thing I trusted on my scar for months. These come with me everywhere I go.
Estee Lauder, Advanced Night Repair Eye – every facialist I’ve ever met has said: “If there is one product you invest in, make it an eye cream.” I wouldn’t pay £36 for a teeny tiny pot if I didn’t see results but this silky serum glides on and seems to change the texture of the skin around my eyes from crepey to smooth and bright. You get a lot of technology, research and pedigree (it’s the eye version of EL’s bestselling Advanced Night Repair Serum) for you buck here.
Jo Malone, Grapefruit Cologne – This miniature came in the Jo Malone Travel kit I used to swear by. I love the fresh, clean zing of this cologne – it has pepped me up on many a long-haul flight.
Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse– I really rate this French brand, inparticular this mini of their hero product, a nourishing dry body oil embued with golden flecks is perfect after a day on the beach to enhance your tanned limbs.
This Works Turbo Balm and Breathe In – The Turbo Balm is a one-pot wonder. My go-to for dry cuticles, rough heels, burns and chapped lips. The Breathe In roll-on is a mini vial of essential oils (Frankincense and Eucalyptus) that helps me zone-out as a nervous flyer or when I can’t sleep.
Elemis Fresh Skin face mask sachets – These handy sachets from Elemis come in a box of six. There are 3 hydrating, softening masks with Aloe Vera (perfect after a day in the sun) and 3 purifying and rebalancing ones – great post-flight to give you a deep clean.