“Smarter” family travel: A tale of two castles

“I don’t think we can drive across that!” Matt stared through the windshield at the narrow suspension bridge, glinting in the summer sun. The car would fit – just – but the bottom of the bridge was made of wooden slats. Could it possibly have been intended for automobile traffic? The GPS seemed to think so, and it was all we had to go by. We watched as a pack of cyclists pedaled happily across. It certainly seemed more suited to their mode of travel than to ours.

I still couldn’t tell you exactly what river that bridge crossed. We were somewhere in the south of France, the Dordogne to be specific, which sounds a lot more romantic and carefree as I type it now than it did at that moment. We were headed from a tour of the painted prehistoric cave at Lascaux to see Castelnau, which several of my friends had assured me is one of the best castles in Europe to tour with kids – full of armor enough to satisfy any school-aged boy. It seemed, however, that our journey might be at an end.

Montignac is actually very charming, and has a river running right through the center where you can kayak or canoe.

Please click on photos for full-size versions

And the day had started out just fine. We drove from Bordeaux, where we were staying for a week in an apartment loaned to us by a friend’s father, to the medieval town of Montignac, just down the road from Lascaux. That drive took the expected 90 minutes without a wrong turn. We had gotten an early start, and had thus plenty of time to get lost on the village’s torturous streets, park blocks from the tourist office, get hot on the walk over, discover that the only tour in English that day was just before noon, purchase tickets, and have incredibly nasty coffee in a nearby café and equally yucky pastries from a bakery across the street. Because even in France it is possible to have nasty coffee and yucky pastries when one hasn’t really made an appropriate plan.

Alright, I’ll admit, it was not an ideal start, but not the worst. Forgivable certainly.

It really was all fine because we were on vacation and the tour of the cave was as incredible as I had hoped (that’s a story for another day) and when we were finished we drove back into town and parked next to what looked like a charming lunch spot. Aux Berges de la Vezere (On the Banks of the Vezere) had a lovely shaded patio that overlooked the river. I checked the posted menu, and it was chock full of local specialties including confit de canard, preserved duck legs that are a personal favorite.

Although the restaurant was bustling, there were still a few tables open on the patio, and I anticipated some wine and a leisurely lunch before an afternoon of armor viewing. But I had forgotten that we were in France where restaurant staff won’t seat you if they can’t serve you food in a timely way. Yes, there were empty tables, but it was busy and the staff was stretched thin. “Complet!” the waitress said. Full!

The boys didn't seem to mind that our lunch in Montignac wasn't all that great.

More walking, this time in the noon sun. Lunch was indifferent and the highlight of it was watching the man who looked to be the town drunk lurch down the street feet from our table. The meal dispatched with, if not enjoyed, we headed for the car and I punched an address into the GPS. This was an address I had hastily pulled off the French national monuments website the previous evening. I was surprised to see that the drive was an hour and a half – my friend had told me it was closer. For some reason (was my intuition dulled by heat?) I shrugged and assumed she’d just gotten that detail wrong. It’s a wonder to me still after the events of the morning that I would move so blindly forward.

The Dordogne region in France is postcard pretty.

We headed blithely into the countryside, which, if one is going to wander, is certainly not a bad place to do so. Rolling green hills, ancient stone farmhouses, piles of hay smelling of sweet summer; I was utterly charmed. Of course, I also didn’t have to drive, as Matt did, on increasingly narrow and twisting roads. Have I ever mentioned that Matt really hates driving on narrow and twisting roads? He hails from Wisconsin, where right angles and wide streets are the norm.

We drove and drove and drove and drove into the golden afternoon and it was very beautiful and I wasn’t too worried about how far we had gone…and then the GPS started to get low on battery power. We had a USB port to plug it into in our rental car, but doing so meant that I lost the navigation screen.

We had no paper map.

So I did the only logical thing; I plugged the GPS in for a few minutes at a time, checking frantically to make sure we hadn’t missed our turns or taken the wrong exit at one of the many roundabouts. And we were doing just fine following the directions until we pulled up to the bridge that now had us flummoxed.

I still couldn't tell you where in France this bridge is.

Matt pulled the car off to the side and we sat there for a moment in disbelief, until another car came roaring up behind us and crossed the bridge without a moment’s hesitation. So we followed suit, laughing and not falling into the water below. And not too long afterward the castle came into view, looking as imposing and regal as a castle should on a hill overlooking the fields. We crept up the hill, circled an ancient tower, and ended in a parking lot that looked like it sat on the end of the earth. When we climbed out of the car, the full afternoon heat hit us in a wave, and even the five-minute walk up to the gatehouse was punishing.

The entire place had a deserted air and the English brochure they gave us said nothing about armor. But it definitely said Castelnau at the top – Castelnau-Bretenoux Castle. Built in the 13th century, “it had the glory and splendour of the grandest lordly homes, before being abandoned in the 18th century…It was bought in 1896 by Jean Moulierát, a lyricist, who saved if from ruin.”

Bust of Jean Moulierat, who graciously saved Castelnau from ruin

A lyricist for the opera was the last person to live here? That certainly hadn’t been on my radar. Uncertain but obedient, we took two poorly translated scavenger hunts from the woman at the counter, promised to return to the courtyard for a tour in about 45 minutes, and my well-trained children circled the building under that sun, looking for plants in the herb garden and searching for “someone we call an ‘atlas figure’” in the small chapel.

The boys, like the expert travelers they are, completed the scavenger hunt at Castelnau

The best castle in Europe? Really?

We were well done exploring by the time we joined the two other French families who had been wandering the grounds alongside us. This was our last hope of seeing any armor, as the public areas of the castle had proved disappointingly empty.

Our guide was straight out of French central casting: Short, dark haired, with Gallic eyebrows and a kind but patronizing manner, he made no effort to slow down or translate anything he said even though nearly half of his audience clearly couldn’t understand him. With intense concentration, I could catch about every other word, although this left me no opportunity to translate for the boys. But I did understand when in the midst of his description of the castle I heard him make reference to “l’autre Castlenau” –about 80 kilometers away. And imagine he went on to say– although they are pronounced the same way, they actually have no connection. They aren’t even spelled the same! The “other” Castlenau has a “d” on the end!

I desperately hoped that Matt’s schoolboy French hadn’t picked up that last part, but miraculously he had developed the sudden ability to translate. His eyes swiveled my way accusingly. I pretended not to notice.

We walked into the first room, which contained eight enormous Victorian wardrobes and nothing else. Apparently they were really wonderful examples of wardrobes of the time period though, because our guide discussed them for a good ten minutes, his voice rising and sinking gently but insistently.

Tommy gamely tried to look as if he was enjoying himself

The tour continued like a parody of all that any child (or adult for that matter) would hate. Here was a room where Moulierát’s mother lived (of course he lived with his mother). Here was a room where he hung his china collection on the wall (of course he had a china collection). There was virtually no description of the castle’s history or architecture, only a minute examination of the last owner’s collection of miscellany. The guide ignored any and all yawn, groans, and grimaces from his audience, politely and insistently describing every piece of furniture, every painting, every bit of bric-a-brac that was in his script with the patience of a man who had all day and part of the next.

There was not one single suit of armor, not even so much as a helmet.

You may have guessed that what the hours-long drive back to Bordeaux entailed. Yes, we once again had to retrace our steps and cross that narrow bridge. Matt did so, jaw clenched, while I cowered in my seat, alternately checking our directions on the GPS and then plugging it in so that it could charge a little. Since I had no map or guidebook for the area, I couldn’t – and didn’t dare, given the set of Matt’s face – suggest stopping anywhere to try and get something to eat, which means the children were reduced to licking the crumbs from the insufficient packages of cookies and pretzels I had brought as a snack. Worse still, I knew I had left the refrigerator back at our apartment virtually empty. This mattered particularly because the residential neighborhood we were staying in was pretty much empty of cafés – strange for France, but true. There was no place to grab a bite to eat.

Once we made it back to the main highway and I had a signal on my phone, I called our friends in the city to check and see when the neighborhood grocery store closed. They looked online and assured me it would be open until 10. Which was good because we pulled into the parking lot of our apartment building at nearly 8 p.m., exhausted and ravenous. I immediately headed out to buy food, thanking Heaven above that in France you can buy wine along with your other necessaries. It was only a ten-minute walk, so I assumed I had plenty of time.

I’m not sure you can imagine the magnitude of my horror when I discovered that the store actually closed at 8.

I simply could not return to the apartment empty handed. My phone in my hand, I did the only thing I could think to do: I called our friends and threw myself on their mercy. Yes, they had already eaten dinner themselves and had probably put their two children (who were enrolled in French school and had to get up in the morning) to bed.  Yes, they had already gone above and beyond the call of duty hosting us for a week and finding us a place to stay. I knew those things, and I didn’t care. And I still don’t think I’ve ever seen anything better in my life than their van, with a bag of food they pillaged from their own pantry (And a bottle of wine bless them! Wine!) sitting on the passenger seat. To this day I’m not sure what I would have done if I hadn’t been able to rely on their good will.

I can honestly say that we explored pretty much ever nook and cranny of the castle

It has been seven months since the events of this story took place, and it is now relatively safe to joke about them even in Matt’s presence. But I offer this cautionary tale humbly, because I view it as an example of how hubris got me into big trouble and stole the better part of one of our precious days in France. What exactly were my errors?

Mistake #1: Insufficient preparation. I was tired and distracted by blogging work the night before we left, and so relied overly on the recommendations of people I knew without learning enough on my own, assuming I could wing it. I am a family travel expert after all. Two friends I trusted told me this would be an ideal day trip (which, had I done it correctly, I’m sure it would have been). So instead of making sure I knew the times of the English tours of the cave, the best places in Montignac to have lunch, and the exact location and appearance of the castle we would be visiting, I instead simply looked up directions to the tourist office where we would buy tickets to see the cave and the address of the first chateau with the name Castlenau on the difficult-to-use and uninformative Centre des Monument Nationaux website.

I’d like to point out that relying on word-of-mouth recommendations and the Internet alone proved a big part of my undoing here; if I’d had an English guidebook, I’m sure it would have mentioned that there were two castles with similar names in the region. (And the one thing I would say in my defense is that the name of both castles is pronounced Castle-now; my understanding of French pronunciation is that Castelnaud would normally be pronounced Castle-no. Weak. I know.)

Mistake #2: I had no paper map to back up the GPS. This is such an amateur mistake that it embarrasses me to even type it. Who in their right mind heads out into the countryside of a foreign land without a map? All I ask is that you not unsubscribe from my site – really, I do know what I’m doing.

Mistake #3: I didn’t double check when things didn’t match up with what I had been told. In the U.S., where I of course have access to the Internet on my phone, I’m sure I would have double checked when the GPS told us it would take twice as long as I expected to get to the castle. Lacking a data plan (I hadn’t paid for one in France) I couldn’t verify the address on my phone, but I could have called my friend and asked or stopped in the tourist office to find out. Why I did neither is still a bit of a mystery to me.

Mistake #4: We lacked provisions. Even though this wasn’t the first time in France – on this very trip in fact – that meals hadn’t worked out as I had planned, I had not made certain to have ample supplies of food both with us and back at our apartment.

And there you have the sad truth that sometimes, to achieve wisdom, you must first achieve a lot of stupidity. I certainly earned that badge for my sash on that warm summer day.

P.S. Should you decide after reading this that you really need to visit Castlenau-Bretenoux to see the wardrobes, according to the brochure the recommended time allotted for your visit is one hour, 15 minutes. You might want to give yourself some extra time for the drive.

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  1. Michelle Brennan says

    I totally imagine my husband driving that car and making those faces at me. Been there, done a few things like it. But it’s the mistakes and knowledge learned that makes an expert!

    • says

      Thanks Michelle – I think for me the humbling part is that I needed so much reminding of what makes an expert – after I had been doing this for so long. Just goes to show, you’ve got to stay in the game.

  2. Carina says

    We had a similar experience on a day in France. Except instead of a tour of wardrobes, we had a guide (the first one on our entire trip that spoke English, so we couldn’t selectively translate), with a penchant for bloodthirsty descriptions of the Catholics attacking and dashing babies’ heads against walls and raping women. The kids were mute with shock. And my children are never mute!!!!

  3. says

    I loved reading this post, as I’ve definitely been there in the tense navigational conversations in the front seat sense! Coincidentally, we managed to visit Castelnaud about a year before you. While we managed that OK, we made almost exactly the same mistake in another context, planning the next phase of our journey with a complete misread of the map (not realising that Beynac and Beynac-et-Cazanac were two different villages 130 km apart) that added two hours onto our drive, and made the train tickets we had bought almost redundant.


  4. says

    Mara, I think your third paragraph is just about the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time. (And the rest of it is pretty damn amusing, too…) Thanks for sharing a story that we have all experienced at one time or another. Misery loves company… and a short memory 😉

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