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Best home base for 3-4 week family trip to the country

We're wanting to travel to France next year (Spring or Fall) with our 5 kids (5-14 yrs) for 3-4 weeks. My ideal spot would be a good sized village where we can stay in a house with a yard, but still walk or take buses to get around town. I'd like a town with enough to do on a daily basis to let my kids experience French life, but within day trip distance to other places of interest via trains or buses. My order of interests are 1. Everyday French life & culture 2. History 3. Food 4. Nature. I've been to Paris and Nice, both lovely, but haven't been in the country much.
Is this realistic to be able to travel via public transportation? Or maybe just so within the town, but rent a car for day trips?
Provence, Cote d'Azur, Alsace, Normandy? Thank you in advance for the input.

Posted by
156 posts

How lovely! My initial thoughts are Provence or Burgundy. In Provence, for history Accessible by public transport Avignon would be a good base - you can visit a lot of other towns with fascinating history via train, and there is lots to see in Avignon itself too. Or for somewhere quieter, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, the smaller town across the river, would be a good option. Very short drive to the train station, and if you don’t have a car you can call a cab. Then you might want to rent a car for more nature-y excursions.

For Burgundy, I’ve only been once so don’t have as much experience with the area to draw on (maybe someone else here will have more thoughts), but I thought it was such a gorgeous region. I stayed in Beaune and there were some interesting historical things to see there, charming town, fabulous market. Lots of cycling opportunities in the countryside, vineyards to visit, chateaux and abbeys to see. You can get to other towns like Dijon via train.

Both regions have fabulous food.

Posted by
4163 posts

You have many good options for France.

1) SE France- along the Rhone River, there are several places that are great. Yes, Avignon is one, also, Arles or Vienne.
2) NW France- Normandy, suggest Bayeux.
3) Central France- Loire Valley, suggest Blois.
4) NE France-Alsance, suggest Strasbourg.

Posted by
16843 posts

Your range of viable day-trips via public transportation will probably be considerably broader if you choose to base in a town with rail service. If you have to take a bus to get to a town with a train station, there may be fewer excursions that don't involve a lot of sitting on vehicles. The presence of a regional rail line along the southeastern coast of France (Cote d'Azur) gives easy access to many destinations without needing to use a high-cost TGV train. However, you might find that area feels a bit less French than your other options.

There's a substantial difference in the May and September weather in Normandy versus Provence and the Cote d'Azur. Alsace is also cooler than the south, though a bit warmer than Normandy on average. The two northern areas are likely to present a lot more days with rain. From my one experience of May in Provence and the Cote d'Azur (2017), I'd says the weather tends to be somewhat unsettled in the early part of the month and get much warmer (potentially hotter) toward the end. In both May and September it's likely to be hot enough that you should pay attention to lodging reviews--specifically, if the rental isn't air conditioned (and I believe few are), be sure previous renters speak highly of the cross-ventilation possibilities and report positive results from keeping shutters closed during the hot part of the day.

France has so many lovely areas. In terms of suggestions for specific towns to stay in, you may get a greater number of ideas that work for you if you give us a population range to work with. I've noticed on previous threads of this type that people have very different definitions of "town" as opposed to "city" or "village".

Posted by
2 posts

Good question on population. I wasn't sure what size that type of town would be to be small enough to be quaint, but big enough to have enough daily life things to do and some transportation. But as I look at different lists and pictures, some quaint towns have populations in the hundreds...I imagine that's too small for a home base. I'm guessing more in the tens of thousands, maybe 20k-100k?

Posted by
16843 posts

Colmar (pop. 69,000) might work for Alsace if you prioritize physical beauty. It's gorgeous (and has a fine museum), but it's very popular, so the central area is very touristy. I was there for several nights in 2017 and didn't regret it, but others have felt the town so touristy they were glad to leave after a few hours. If you chose one of the little wine villages you'd probably have to have a car; in Colmar you could get by without one for a good part of your stay since it not only has rail service but also some bus connections to the little villages you'd want to see.. Strasbourg is probably larger than you want. I day-tripped to Selestat (which of course isn't the same as spending a night or two there) and found it nearly devoid of foreign tourists. It's an attractive town of just under 20,000, and it has rail service. I think it's worth considering.

I totally enjoyed my 2+ weeks in Nice, but most of the Cote d'Azur is awash in foreign visitors. I suspect that's not the feeling you're looking for. Certainly Nice itself is larger than you want. Menton is located way off-center, practically on the Italian border. Some people on the forum really like Villefranche-sur-Mer (a bit small for me); others like Antibes. All of those are on the coast (tourists!) and on the rail line (convenience). When you head off the coast, into the hills, you've got real transportation challenges if you want to visit a bunch of the (charming) neighboring villages and towns, because you'll probably be spending time on a bus to get to a train station. One place I quite liked was Vence, but it's at least 25 minutes by bus from Cagnes-sur-Mer, which I'm guessing is the nearest RR station. Vence is farther from the coast than the tiny but tourist-swamped (in the middle of the day) St-Paul-de-Vence. I can't imagine staying in a place the size of St-Paul-de-Vence (or Eze) for a month.

I think most people find Provence more "French" than the Riviera, and I think you'd probably be happier spending 3-4 weeks in that area than along the coast. But public transportation is more challenging. A fair number of the cute small places people like to visit seem to have little if any bus service (not to mention trains). They may be linked to only one or two places where you might reasonably stay (without depending heavily on a car, I mean). So if you opt for this area you should consider what places you want to visit and be sure you're positioned so that you're not going to need a car for the entire trip, unless you're OK with that. I think Arles and Avignon are a bit better located than Aix-en-Provence. Each of those places has its proponents. Several posters (all of whom I believe had rental cars) have really enjoyed staying in St-Remy-de-Provence, which is an attractive town of about 10,000. I visited it briefly; it was attractive and affluent--but it has no train station. Most side-trips by public transportation would begin with a bus ride to Arles or Avignon and a connection to another bus or a train. I think that would get old long before the end of a 3- or 4-week stay. In this area, I think you'd be happier with a car, which would open up a lot more possibilities for you. But to cover the area well I believe you'd do better to set yourselves up in at least two different places.

When it comes to Normandy, I think of Bayeux (13,000) and Rouen (110,000), both with nice historic centers. Rouen's is larger (much-rebuilt to repair massive wartime destruction), and there's quite a difference in the feeling of those two places. I'd go nuts in Bayeux after four or five days; it has a rail connection to Caen (modern city), and most public-transportation side-trips would require a transfer there. But Bayeux is well-positioned for exploring the D-Day sites, and it has an unusual number of things of tourist interest for such a small town. I really think you'd be car-dependent there for most of your stay.

Posted by
11738 posts

My top recommendation for a family would be a campground on the Atlantic coast south of Bordeaux. They don't open very early in spring or stay open very late in fall. I stayed at one in early June (before the big summer crowds arrived). They have pools, restaurants, laundry, cabins to rent (or tent sights) and are walking distance to the beach. Mine had a small lake and you could rent paddle boats. You can rent bikes and ride the bike trails to lakes, beaches or the big sand dunes. I picked one about 25 km south of Arcechon, not far from Bordeaux. Nothing was expensive. There's a ton of similar places that all offer very similar experiences. The reason I'd recommend it is you will meet European families, it's a very family oriented activity. I had nice conversations with an older couple from Rotterdam and a young couple from New Zealand who were camped next to me. This is something that, once you arrive, you could live without a car while staying there. Everyone could rent bikes and it's as safe as it gets.

Burgundy is beautiful, lots of tiny medieval towns dotting rolling hills covered with farms and forests. Some areas are vineyards but they don't overdo it. You're more likely to see grazing cattle or horses than vineyard after vineyard. I visited Burgundy in early May and felt it was too early to be there, it was quite cold and most things were closed. I wouldn't suggest it before at least late May. The tiny towns probably won't have much to keep your kids interested without a car. With a car, you can visit some fairly interesting historical sights. I think they'd enjoy Guedelon, the open air museum where they are building a castle using 13th century plans and techniques. Kids can ask questions of the different artisans and find out about making fabric, tile, stone cutting, etc. Most are French but many speak English and/or are English artisans who come to volunteer for part of the year. There is the battleground site (arguably) between Julius Caesar and Vercingetorix that gave Rome control of Gaul for good. I was amazed that both sides wore very similar armor - with a couple key exceptions. There are a lot of really old churches and towns, if you're kids like medieval stuff. Bibracte is a former Gallic town and museum, see what it was like when the Romans showed up. Obviously wine and food are big draws for the region.

Provence? Only in the fall. The spring gets Mistral winds, sometimes for days on end, that will seem like you're in a hurricane zone. I went in late September and it was still very warm. A friend went in the spring and all he remembered was the wind.

The Dordogne area is really pretty too and there are activities, generally you need a car. The kids would likely love the caves with Troglodyte art. There are canoe rentals all around the Dordogne and Lot River Valleys and some of the nicest castles. Most Dordogne towns were rebuilt after the 100 years war, when this area was a front between the English and French.

I liked the Languedoc area a little better. It's also beautifully forested, like Burgundy and Dordogne, but the towns are older (not razed liked Dordogne), more spread out and there are castle ruins on hilltops you can hike to. I was there in 2018, you just hike up and wander around. Other castles are restored and charge admission fees. Languedoc doesn't get as many visitors so prices are really reasonable. Locals told me the Spanish side of the Pyranees is sunnier, but I found the French side to be much prettier. A car to get around is also necessary here (as in Burgundy, Provence and Dordogne/Lot).

Posted by
389 posts

You can find towns with your desired experience but not having a car is unrealistic. I live about 25 miles from the Channel coast in Normandie and would be lost without a set of wheels. Public transportation in rural Normandie is limited and infrequent. Beyond that your goal is achievable and will be a lot of fun. (at least in Normandie which is very familiar to me) Consider having a car is my only advice.