Kid-Friendly Travel in France

kid menu 4As a parent, I’ve been there and done that as far as sight-seeing and eating out with kids in France. Here are some tips, mainly for eating out with kids. Restaurants seem to be the most-fraught moment in many travelers’ trips to France, what with the different customs and language barriers (especially when menus use terms that are clever but not very clear about what will be on your plate). This is a repost, because today is C.R.A.Z.Y.

It’s fairly rare to see children at fine restaurants in France. It isn’t that the French don’t love kids–they have a higher fertility rate than other developed countries (1.98 kids per woman in France, compared with 1.91 in the U.K. and 1.86 in the U.S.). and government policies around maternity leave, job protection and pay are strong (I don’t want to say “generous,” because that sounds as if it isn’t deserved, when in fact it’s earned).

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Choice of slice of ham with fries or mussels with fries. Yes, the kid’s menu has mussels.

All the same, kids and adults occupy distinct realms in France. And to have the best experience possible while traveling with kids, it’s good to know the cultural expectations (you can always flout these–it’s a free country–but you will be subject to Gallic scowls).

Dinner is late in France. Most people I know eat between 7 and 8 p.m. at home (BTW, the French use the 24-hour clock, so it would be 19h (h for heure) and 20h). But it’s rare to find a restaurant open at 7. Most start service at 8. When toddlers need 12-14 hours a night and even preteens need 9-11 hours, it’s logical that they are in bed around 8 p.m. The French deal with this by leaving the kids at home with a babysitter.

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Opens at 7 p.m.! The owners have kids, so they’re understanding.

The other challenge is the French expectation that dinner should be enjoyed slowly. It is difficult to enjoy dinner when you have a ticking time bomb of a toddler sharing your table. We would target one of the few restaurants that opens at 7, La Grande Bouffe, which suited the Carnivore just fine, as it specializes in large slabs of red meat cooked (well, quickly passed near) a wood fire right there in the dining room. We would get there the minute it opened and order quickly, lest a big table arrive and overwhelm the one-man kitchen.

Our child would sit angelically for an hour, which seemed like quite a feat for a one- or two-year-old, but after that, all bets were off. First fussing, then increasingly emphatic demands to get DOWN. However, even in family restaurants, kids don’t wander the way they do in the U.S. Restaurants do not provide crayons and special paper placements for coloring. Bring your own. Also a sippy cup, because they also don’t have plastic glasses, and you can’t enjoy your meal if you are trying to keep your kid from dropping or knocking over a glass glass. A stroller is a good option (if there’s room–some restaurants are tiny), because they can go to sleep.

There are options, such as brasseries, with wider hours. Informal family restaurants–mostly chains like Hippopotamus or Buffalo Grill–open early and have reliably OK food but do you really want to spend your meals in France in the equivalent of Applebees? (I like Applebees well enough but I wouldn’t cross the ocean to eat at one.) One Parisian restaurant that’s quite loud–in a raucous, not discotheque way–is Nos Ancêtres Les Gaulois, a medieval-style place where the servers, dressed in period costumes, stab your knife into the table. It is not gastronomic, but pretty fun, a bit like our medieval meal last summer.

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Sirop is usually grenadine mixed with water; sometimes other flavors are available. Milk is almost never an option. Pom’pote is applesauce that you suck out of a little plastic bag.

Nice restaurants in France are quiet. In the U.S., the louder the better, but that doesn’t hold here. Everybody speaks in a whisper. That means you have no cover or plausible deniability when your kid shrieks. And nicer restaurants rarely have children’s menus or high chairs (and forget about changing tables!).

If you don’t want to go downmarket to family-focused restaurants, consider nice restaurants with outdoor seating, where the ambient noise level is higher. The catch is that all the smokers want to sit outdoors, but you might be able to score a spot upwind or with nonsmokers around.

Another option is to shift your schedule and eat your “nice” meal or main meal at lunch. The expectations for calm are somewhat less strict at lunch, plus the menu usually is cheaper–double win.

If a place doesn’t have a kid’s menu, they sometimes will offer the same menu as for adults, with half portions at half the price. One of our favorite restaurants in Carcassonne, Le Clos des Framboisiers, does the half-size, half-price option. Our favorite Chinese restaurant, La Jonque, suggested a stir-fry of chicken and vegetables with rice–not on the menu, but it was a big hit with our kid.

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“Pitchou” is a term of endearment for “child” in the South of France. The menu choices are hamburger (without bun), fish or chicken breast wrapped in hame and cheese and breaded. Sides are homemade fries, vegetables or penne pasta. Dessert: two scoops of ice cream.

Some years later, our kid asked to have a birthday sleepover with two friends, with dinner at La Jonque–ALONE. So I called and reserved two tables, specifying that they should be as far apart as possible in such a small place. The chef and his wife have kids, and understood. We arrived all together, then split into opposite corners of the dining room. Another family with kids about the same age were there, and those kids stared wide-eyed with naked jealousy as ours ordered on their own and seemed to have a great time at their very own table.

If you have decided your main “nice” meal is lunch, then you can have something simple or even get takeout for dinner. This is one of the best arguments for renting an apartment, where you can feed your kids, put them to bed, then relax with a glass of wine. I am not one of the people who will put a child to sleep in a hotel room and then go down to the lounge in the lobby. But it’s no fun (been there, done that) to sit IN the hotel room in the dark while your kid sleeps for 12 straight hours. A separate bedroom lets them get the sleep they need (a tired kid is a cranky kid), while letting you look over plans for the next day or just zone out in front of the TV.

The way to hold out from noon to 8 p.m. is to adopt the French snack, called un goûter (a taste), un quatre-heures (a 4 o’clock–this one doesn’t follow the 24-hour system) or even un petit quatre-heures (a little 4 o’clock). Don’t even get me started on how un quatre-heures is masculine when heure is feminine.

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An example of the lunch menu being the same as the dinner menu but cheaper.

I have found that an essential element to good behavior in children is to use up their energy. France has great parks and playgrounds. The lovely Place des Vosges in Paris has a big playground, full of beautifully dressed kids (wearing artfully tied scarves) being watched by their chicly dressed parents. Our kid’s eagle eye would detect playgrounds from a mile away. “Maison!” I would strain to pick it out, and sure enough, on the corner of a public square otherwise filled with café tables, there was a playground with a little house on stilts and a slide coming out. Just watch out for the “Pelouse interdit”–keep off the grass–signs and stick to the actual playground.

In Paris, in the basement of the Louvre, there’s a shopping gallery, and at one end, there’s a big empty space where you can see excavations of the ancient foundations. Almost nobody goes there (“What’s this?” “Old stones.” “Cool. OK, what’s next?”). This is the perfect place for some little ones to run and scream their heads off before dinner. It’s especially good on rainy days when they can’t run and scream outside; one of the few indoor places where outdoor voices are OK. Even if you’ve been hoofing around sight-seeing, your toddler has probably been strapped into a stroller and is dying to move.

With a little planning, your kid can have fun, you can relax and people around you won’t be annoyed.

Itinerary in Action

IMG_1438So much to do, so little time. My cousin came to visit recently. Just a short side trip to say hi during a work trip on this side of the Atlantic. We wanted to put on a good show.

L arrived late Wednesday afternoon. We strolled through la Cité of Carcassonne while waiting to pick up the kid from sports practice nearby. We skipped the museum, but stopped to admire the rope marks dug into the lip of the big well, and the stone steps to the Basilique Saint Nazaire et Saint Celse, which slope from the wear of 800 years of the faithful’s steps. Little details like that make time real, for me at least.

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That’s the basilique’s steeple.

We came home to a dinner of coq au vin that I had prepared in advance. Dinner was all about catching up, though. L was a pure joy. The difference in our ages meant I was out of the house—out of the country—by the time L was starting school. We barely know each other. But we know the same people, the same houses, the same neighborhoods. Stories about our shared grandmother were more vivid because when L talked about Grandma’s kitchen, I could picture every detail–the green linoleum table that was her only counter space for her incessant and abundant cooking, the pies cooling in the pantry, the celadon bowl of salt (she measured with her fingers, always).

 

The next day was a little crazy. I let our kid stay home from school. Good grades, rarely absent, why not. First we did a tour of our little village, then L asked what the garrigue is. So we set off past the vineyards to get a taste—a whiff—of the tangle of brush and pines and wild herbs that make the garrigue special.We had asparagus omelettes for lunch, then headed to Caunes-Minervois to see a really pretty village. We went into the abbey and down to the 8th century crypt. Since it was a gorgeous day, we moved on to Lastours, about a 12-minute drive away. There, we were perhaps overambitious. The lady at the reception told us it would take at least two hours to go up and come back. I was thinking, oh, the castles are right above us—it’s no problem. I had been there when our kid was small and got tired and had to be carried. I had taken my mother-in-law, who was not a walker. I had been there with a former colleague in his late 70s. No sweat. barrage-lakeWe were there for an hour and 52 minutes—I can see it on my Fitbit. We didn’t stop. It’s up and up and up, then down and up and up and up. As I’ve noted before, no guard rails. At least we were alone and didn’t have to share the narrow trail.

And yes, we were alone. It is utterly glorious to have four medieval ruins to oneself, to look out over the rugged mountains and on over the plain until you see the other mountains, the Pyrénées, snowcapped on the horizon. The mountain air is sweet and clear. Only occasionally the rumble of a car on the winding road far below reminds us of which century we’re in.683.Lastours10Having descended, which entailed a surprising amount of climbing, we were surprised to discover the exit roped off, a sign pointing to a gate. It was unlocked and put us directly on the single road, a two-way thoroughfare with room for one car most of the time and no shoulders. In fact, it was at the bottom of a cliff on one side and a river on the other.

On our way down we had spied a group of hikers and now we caught up to them. They were a tough lot. All retirees. Considering how tired we were from our hike, we were impressed. The hikers spread out like a flock of cats all over the road. A car came and had to slow to a crawl as the retired hikers stayed planted in the middle of the tarmac, giving it no heed. Finally the car came to a wide spot and maneuvered around them, but not quite enough for one hiker.

“Attention aux mémés!” she yelled. “Look out for the grannies!”661.Lastours3 We got home in time for a short nap and shower before going to our favorite restaurant, le Clos des Framboisiers. I promise to go interview the chef sometime. The food was as wonderful as always, the service impeccable as always, the parking lot full of 11 license plates (locals), except for one car, as always. L was astounded. The menu is fixed price—€32 per person—and includes an apéritif (on this visit it was sangria), appetizer, main course, cheese and dessert.

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L’s first steak tartare, a starter.
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Followed by fish.
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The Carnivore had meat. Duh.
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Strawberry soup.
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Chocolate ganache. The little meringue was lavender-flavored.

IMG_1431On Friday, we took it easy. (The day before we covered 10 miles, or 24,635 steps and 135 floors, according to Fitbit.) First, we went to Montolieu, to poke around some bookstores and admire the views, no climbing or hiking involved.

Then we returned to Carcassonne. We went to les halles to buy a cassoulet from a butcher for dinner. It’s a great deal. They have different sizes, depending on how many people you’re serving, and it comes out to about €7 per person. It comes in the cassole, the earthenware pot that gives the dish its name. You pay a €7 deposit for the cassole that you get back when you return the dish, or you can keep it (and €7 is a very reasonable price). It was all ready to pop into the oven—for an hour, at 220 C (425 F).  The Carnivore prepared foie gras as a starter.P1100769We also looked in a few shops, checking out la Ferme in particular for food-related souvenirs. That store is heaven. Food downstairs; kitchen and dining accessories upstairs. The store itself is beautiful.

We had lunch en terrace at Place Carnot. Simple, but good. Then we checked out the French beauty supplies at the Grande Pharmacie de la Gare. The staff there are very helpful in explaining and finding just the right thing. 

L wanted to see a supermarket, so we went to SuperU in Trèbes, which is just a supermarket and not a hypermarket (they don’t sell refrigerators or TVs or baby car seats). I agree that a supermarket reveals a lot about local culture. Milk and eggs in the same aisle, not refrigerated! An entire aisle, on both sides, of yogurt! Octopus in the fresh fish section! IMG_4419On Saturday, we of course went to the market. We also stopped for cheese at Bousquet; I should have given more thought in advance to my order because just looking around is overwhelming—I want some of everything. Cheese and some good baguettes from the Papineau boulangerie across the street, plus some charcuterie, would be our lunch. And fresh strawberries. 

After lunch we went back to la Cité to take in the museum in the château (la Cité is a fortified city with a château inside it). We braved the wind to walk the ramparts.IMG_1442

 

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Wavy glass!

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The detail on a knight’s sarcophagus…
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A close-up of the hinge on the boot/leg covering. I love details like that!

Then we cooked. I dragooned L into making cheese soufflé. Our kid made strawberry-mushroom risotto. I made a mustard-crusted pork roast and leeks. And we had pineapple-mascarpone parfait for dessert, which L also assisted in. 

And that was it. A full trip, I think. Not many photos of the visit–we enjoyed the moment. Thanks to L for coming and bringing such wonderful conversation. We miss you!IMG_1450

Hotel or AirBnB?

kitchen fireplaceHow do you choose where to stay when you travel? I have some criteria to help you decide:

—Food: do you have limited interest in restaurants and prefer to eat some meals in? Or do you like room service, or the convenience of going downstairs to an excellent hotel restaurant?

Answer: please eat out in France! You can cook at home! But yes, eating out for every meal makes the pocketbook get thin and the waistline get wide.

Do you always miss the hotel breakfast hours? Then AirBnB. You have what you want for breakfast, when you want it.

Otherwise, it can be convenient to have breakfast in the hotel and then head out for the day. Breakfast at a café may cost more than the hotel—it depends on how fancy the hotel is—but going out and picking up croissants to have at your AirBnB with coffee you made yourself will definitely cost less. Plus, some hotel breakfasts consist of one croissant and half a baguette with butter and jam; maybe you want TWO croissants and no baguette! Or pain au chocolate (but call it a chocolatine down here). Or maybe you want eggs. 

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The photos here are from our AirBnB, L’ancienne Tannerie.

—Independence: do you know where you’re going? Are you OK making reservations? Can you figure things out? Can you call a cab or Uber? 

If so, then you’re fine with AirBnB. As AirBnB hosts, we’re always happy to make recommendations or even call for dinner reservations for guests who ask. But we, like many hosts, aren’t at a 24-hour desk on site. If you want help—getting taxis, asking directions, getting recommendations, then hotel. Of course, there are AirBnBs where you stay in a bedroom in somebody’s home and the host is there. But that is too much sharing for me. 

—Length of stay: are you traveling for a month, in which case few people can stand to eat three meals a day in a restaurant? Also, you would need to do laundry, which can be pricey at a hotel. 

If yes, then AirBnB. Otherwise, if you’re in a place for a short time, either AirBnB or a hotel is fine.SONY DSC—Size of the traveling group: Are you traveling with family, friends or solo?

Do you have kids with you? Then AirBnB. Before it was created, we traveled to New York with our kid, who was then in a stroller. We were on a budget and stayed in a hotel where the room was only slightly larger than the bed; hotels with suites were crazy expensive. Our kid slept between us. But at that age, they go to bed at about 7 or 8 p.m., so that meant I had to go to bed at 7 or 8 p.m. There was no option to sit up and read—the room was too small. I am not the kind of parent who would wait for my kid to fall asleep and then sneak out to the lobby for a nightcap. When AirBnB started, we tried it out on another trip to New York, staying in a brownstone in Park Slope. Our kid had a separate bedroom. We could sit and have a glass of wine and read over things to do for the next day. Perfect. SONY DSCTraveling solo is the opposite. When I lived in Brussels, a colleague in Paris had offered his apartment on weekends when he was at his country place. I took him up on the offer a couple of times a month. I loved it. However, a few times I trekked across Paris, long after the last metro and unable to find a taxi, and I thought, nobody will know if I don’t make it, not until Monday when I don’t show up at work. 

A hotel with 24-hour desk staff means someone is checking on you. Also, if you’re traveling for a long period, it’s nice to have people to chat with—usually hotel staff are very friendly and full of suggestions.

Traveling with friends or a bigger family group can go either way. It can be nice to have separate rooms to get a little alone time, which can work with a hotel or a large AirBnB. It also can be nice to have a central gathering spot–a hotel with a good lobby or the living room or kitchen of a rental apartment.SONY DSC—Privacy and Walter Mitty factor: Do you put the “do not disturb” tag on the door because having to put your stuff away even a minimum irks you more than the great pleasure of somebody else making your bed? If so, AirBnB. 

Do you want to pretend you’re a local, to feel like you’re coming home, to get comfortable? If so, AirBnB.

I understand that someone who has never traveled abroad might opt for a tour where everything is taken care of, and if that’s what they need to go see the world, then better a tour than not traveling. 

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Taste of Minervois, a food and wine festival. A great way to participate in local culture.

To me, travel is about immersing myself in a new place, thinking about how the people live. I love museums and architecture and am happy to walk the streets, soaking in the atmosphere of a foreign place. But I also love figuring things out, talking to locals, and pretending to be one. I used to go to tango dances in whatever city I was visiting, and they were a great way to slip into the local scene, to discover hidden venues, sometimes in unlikely suburban locations. 

Much of the fun comes from getting outside your comfort zone (believe me, I was nervous walking solo into some tango clubs—I remember a basement dancehall in Madrid, a former warehouse in Amsterdam, a garden with a live band in the Olympic Village neighborhood of Rome). There are other ways to get outside your comfort zone, all completely safe. Grocery shopping can be perplexing in a foreign place, but it’s far from dangerous. The worst that can happen is you buy something and don’t like the taste. The best that can happen is you start a conversation with the grocer or another shopper and, in a combination of who knows what languages plus mime, they help you discover some great local delicacy. fireplace-boiserieIf you want to explore the south of France, the “other south of France” that is still authentic and not all polished and plastic, then consider Carcassonne, and do check out our rental apartments. They are the same size, each about 900+ square feet/85 square meters. L’ancienne Tannerie, in addition to a generous bedroom, has a tiny bedroom with a twin bed plus a sofabed, so it sleeps up to five people (plus it has a sauna! and a huge kitchen). La Suite Barbès has a ridiculously huge bedroom (380 square feet/35 square meters). Both have chandeliers dripping with crystals and antique furnishings and marble fireplaces and elaborate moldings and 13-foot/four meter ceilings.SONY DSCLastly, if you choose AirBnB, please book one that is paying its taxes. Undeclared rentals hurt cities by depriving them of tax revenue. They hurt the legitimate hosts who do pay taxes. They hurt the hotel industry, which employs lots of people. They may hurt you, because they haven’t been inspected. AirBnB is supposed to start reporting the total rental income for listings in France, but that won’t happen until next year.

Logo 4 étoiles 2017
Your guaranty of quality.

So are you Team Hotel or Team AirBnB? Or do you switch, depending on your trip?

Australia in France

kangaroosIt’s hard to believe, but there are French people who dream of traveling far away. Yet, many French families just have the budget for a modest vacation in a sunny corner of their homeland. The places they go and the things they do offer some great tips for all travelers, but especially those with families.ostrich closeupFor those who would love to go to Australia but can’t afford flights, the Australian Park near Carcassonne beckons. It’s also great for families. It’s also a popular place for local kids to hold birthday parties, not to mention school trips.white kangarooIt’s like a small zoo, which is good. My hometown in the U.S. has a world-class zoo, which has grown and grown since I was a preteen earning spending money raking leaves there in the fall (it’s quite interesting to rake leaves while being watched intently by elephants). But it’s so huge that it’s impossible to see everything, and the weight of all those other animals presses one to keep moving rather than spending the time to observe (and anyway, so many animals sleep during the day that there isn’t much to watch).kangaroo 1Visits at Le Parc Australien take place in small guided groups, so you get to go into the animal enclosures, including one with 150 parrots that you can feed. There are other birds, including ostriches and emus, and other animals, including wallabies and dromedaries. There’s even a nursery with babies. Even though the park is small and the variety of animals is limited, a visit can take the better part of a day because you don’t just look and move on but can interact.kidThere are other activities, such as playing a didgeridoo, throwing a boomerang, playing aboriginal games or panning for “gold.”

The park was created in 2001 by a biologist, who was the first to raise ostriches in France. All the animals were born in captivity in Europe, because Australia stopped exports of animals in 1964 to protect its species.

The park is about three minutes from la Cité, just past the suburb of Montrédon and near the Lac de la Cavayère. The hours change by season; check the site.ostrichesIt is funny to see what other cultures find to be exotic. There is one cupcake shop in town, and it has turned into a roaring success with, as far as I can tell, almost exclusively local clientele. I make a mean cupcake, so I’m not about to shell out €3 for one, though I wouldn’t hesitate for one of those perfect strawberry tartelettes that are standard in French bakeries. A few years ago, hamburger joints appeared everywhere. Then bagels (not everywhere; just two bagel restaurants in the centre ville). Now it’s Mexican restaurants, whose menus are heavy on hamburgers and lacking in enchiladas.  birdsMy kid’s kindergarten class visited the Australian Park, and in second or third grade they went to a zoo in Toulouse. There’s also a kind of safari park at Sigean on the coast that we visited. The landscape at Sigean actually reminds me a little of Africa. While I feel kind of sorry for the animals in zoos, especially having seen them in the wild in various places around the world, they are important in making a connection with kids, so they don’t view nature and animals as abstractions on TV or in books. The Australian Park is especially nice, because of the petting areas. A real hands-on experience.kissing kangaroos

Casablanca

IMG_4442We recently spent a few days in Casablanca. I had visited Morocco several times, but never Casablanca. I have to tell you, it doesn’t deserve its reputation as ugly, or not having anything to do. It admittedly isn’t touristy–it’s Morocco’s biggest city, with 3.5 million residents, and its economic engine, accounting for half the country’s gross domestic product. In such a bustling place, you get to see real life, instead of a sanitized tourist version.

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There ARE touristy things, like the huge beach, the Corniche.
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And Rick’s Café…no, we didn’t go there.

I have way too many photos for one post, so you’ll get more about Casablanca in the future. All these were taken by our kid, whose eye for detail I admire.

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Crossing the Pyrénées from France to Spain.
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Over Spain…already a change.
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Over Morocco…more change.
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Casablanca

I was very thankful our kid saw Casablanca. It was an eye-opener. The poverty was a shocker–and Morocco isn’t even that poor; it’s considered a lower middle income economy. Poverty dropped to under 5% in 2014 from more than 15% in 2001. That is a huge achievement. (If you are a regular reader, you know this is not the blog for “10 Most Luxurious Spas in Morocco” or “Five Most Instagrammable Spots in Casablanca.”)IMG_4440At the same time, our kid succinctly expressed what I couldn’t help thinking: “They really need a day where everybody goes out and cleans the place up.” Not just litter, but sidewalks that are broken in inexplicable places and gorgeous Art Deco and colonial buildings that are abandoned but that seem to have so much potential.

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The view from our AirBnB. Lots of white buildings, as the name would imply.

Speaking of crumbling Art Deco, we stayed in an AirBnB between the train station and the central market. It was a convenient location, but it turned out to be the red light district, though we never saw any evidence of that. I regret not taking my second choice, which I too late learned was owned by a friend of the person we had traveled to Casablanca to see. Here it is–the good one.  And once I figured out the lay of the city, I realized the other apartment was equally convenient but in a much nicer neighborhood.

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A mosque in the old medina.
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A white house (casa blanca!!!) in the old medina.

The old medina was simultaneously laid back and frenetic. Of course, we were wooed by shopkeepers, but they weren’t insistent. Of course, a couple of guys offered to be our guide, but we generally navigated by joining the dense flow of humanity coursing through the narrow alleyways. A few times when we got off track, we were directed by kind bystanders–kids playing soccer in a quiet corner who stopped their game to call to us when we headed the wrong way; a chic young woman on her way home who took the time to lead us through the maze and who was a delight to talk to en route. Nobody who helped us asked for money. Random people would strike up conversations with us–a fellow shopper who waxed on about the wonders of argan oil, for example. It was genuine friendliness, not tourist-friendliness. I liked it.IMG_4444The insane traffic also had a surprising lack of aggression. On the one hand, everybody started honking as soon as the cross-traffic’s light turned yellow–about two seconds before they actually got a green light. Plenty of cars would slide through the light change, triggering more honking. Nobody stayed in a lane. This made crossing the very wide boulevards a dance with death–except that cars swerved or stopped for pedestrians, who seemed as unperturbed as bullfighters in the face of a charging bull, deftly dodging danger. To cross streets, we adopted a strategy of sticking with locals, and the more the better, figuring we had safety in numbers and they knew when to stop or go.IMG_4430The times we took taxis it was impossible to figure out whether the rule was priority on the right, as in France (in principle, yes, but practice is another thing), yet the rides weren’t scary–the starts and stops were gentle, like a dance rather than a battle. It was chaotic, but a shrug-your-shoulders, what-can-you-do chaos, not a my-way-or-the-highway mean chaos.

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Can you see the crescent moon? This fortress turned out to be a restaurant, La Sqala.

We ate at La Sqala, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in a little oasis on the edge of the old medina, next to the waterfront.IMG_4466IMG_4457

It was very good and a nice experience. The Carnivore had a hunk of meat (lamb), our kid had salmon, I had a vegetable tajine.

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The white stuff is cauliflower purée (it was a hit).
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Sublimely seasoned vegetable tajine.
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A row of tajine dishes.

More to come on Casablanca, as time goes by….

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Go Jump in a Lake

IMG_4406Summer is here. It seemed like it arrived a long time ago, but it’s clear that was just late spring–warm sunny days alternated with rain showers and everything was emerald. Now we have day after day of cloudless azure skies. The cigales sang for the first time yesterday. The lawn is starting to go dormant and turn brown. My summer habits have started–closing the east shutters before bed, opening all the windows early in the morning to let in the cool air, then closing them all around 10, when temperatures start to rise. Opening the east shutters and closing the west ones in the afternoon….I like that it’s manual. It makes a rhythm for the day. It’s ancient, effective technology that relies only on my own energy.

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Beware of fire.

In summer, we often find ourselves at a little lake on the edge of Carcassonne, Lac de la Cavayère. It’s a manmade lake, created after a huge forest fire in 1985 ripped through the pine forests that cover the rugged hills. Today, you would never know–the trees are big, and create a cool, sweet-smelling oasis. And, of course, there’s a castle in the distance. Because France.IMG_4389IMG_4407IMG_4417We used to go to the lake’s beach when our kid was little. There is nothing as amusing as sand and water for a toddler, plus it’s minutes away. Eventually the draw became “accrobranche,” which is a portmanteau of accrocher–to hold on– and branche–branch. I don’t think there’s a direct translation to English. You climb up in the trees, which are connected by ropes and various obstacles, and you navigate the course. You can’t fall because you wear a harness that’s attached to a safety rope. There even are zip lines, like Dora the Explorer (Dora, l’exploratrice)IMG_4557IMG_4554

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Even over the water.

There are different courses for different ages/heights, mostly based on how high you have to reach to clip on your safety rope. IMG_4558Now that my kid is a teen and I serve only as chauffeur, I no longer have to wait amid the whistling pines (and provide moral support) but can go for a walk or run around the lake. It’s lovely.

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Army training…it’s true some of the hills are steep.

The lake has added more beaches, so they aren’t too crowded. And there are more water activities, like a slide and a bunch of floating islands that are designed for losing balance and pushing each other into the water. A couple of friends come late on moonlit nights to swim the length of the lake.

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Climbing stuff and falling in water. What could be more fun?

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Teleski…you’re pulled by a rope. No motorized things (boats, jetskis) are allowed on the lake.

IMG_4413There’s a sports center that local schools use. My kid’s class did cross-country running and kayaking at the lake this year. I am astounded. We did not have kayaking when I was in school. Plus, they did it in winter!

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Plus paddle boards and paddle boats.

It’s not too late. In July and August, the city sponsors free courses in kayaking, as well as other sports like beach soccer, nordic hiking, mountain biking and Krav-Maga. Under threat of a phone ban, my kid reluctantly agreed to “do something,” and tried archery….and loved it. Went back every day. They supply everything. It’s free. Open to all ages. IMG_4388Even though it’s close to town–there’s city bus service–it feels like the middle of wilderness. The beaches are beaches, with lots of people shouting and laughing and splashing, but as you walk the lake’s perimeter, you pass through a fragrant forest and hear only the songs of birds. It’s quite a different definition of summer in the city.

 

14 travelers, ages 2-76, in Italy

IMG_6047One of the highlights of my life is a family vacation in Italy with my parents, my siblings and their families, plus an aunt. It was before the arrival of the Carnivore and our kid. I was the tour guide.

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Room with a view. The top photo was also shot from our villa.

Here were the calculations: Europeans go on vacation in July and August, because school vacations don’t start until then (some places get out in mid-June). So for smaller crowds and lower prices, we would schedule the trip for right after the kids got out of school in late May. 

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Second youngest with second oldest.

Having so many people was going to be tricky, especially with kids ages 2, 3 and 4, and elders ages 61, 71 and 76, none of whom were up for walking all day. We wanted to sleep under one roof (which ruled out my one-bedroom apartment in Brussels) and have a place for two minivans to park. Good weather would be a plus (which also ruled out Brussels). IMG_6048These things also eliminated Paris–we’d have to get pretty far out before being able to find a house big enough and in the price range, and getting around Paris isn’t very easy if you aren’t on foot (and no, I was not going to try to herd 13 people in the Metro). The weather could be freezing or gorgeous, most likely both…in the same week. So despite the fact that I adore Paris and had the advantage of speaking French, I opted for Tuscany. (I had been to the south of France only once then, so I didn’t think of it—now I know better! But Tuscany was great.)IMG_6049“You don’t want to go to Italy, hon,” Dad informed me, pronouncing Italy like IT-lee. “It’s a mess. You can’t drink the water. I’ve been there.”

 

Yeah—when he was in the Army, with the U.S. occupation after WWII.

“It’s changed,” I told him. “You can drink the water now. It’s all fixed up nice.”

It was before the advent of AirBnB, but online rentals were available, with horror stories outnumbering the selection of properties. OK, confession: it was in 2001.struttura2I found a beautiful villa outside Florence, Casa Il Focolare, on a hill with sweeping views, a pool and lots of bedrooms and bathrooms. They have upgraded the décor; it was more basic when we were there, but very comfortable–you really have to check out the web site to see how pretty it is now. Rural enough that the kids could run wild around the grounds. Not too far for trips to Florence (30 minutes by car), Sienna (45 minutes), San Gimignano (45 minutes), Pisa (1 hour 15 minutes, to see the “bending tower” and also the beach at Livourne) and, twice, Rome (just over an hour). Plus the cute, less famous villages of Tuscany. 

I’d reserved two minivans, but unfortunately, they had only one; the second vehicle would instead be a full-size monster called a Ducato. It had a horizontal steering wheel, like a bus. It held nine people, so we still needed the normal minivan, which held seven.

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Can you see the megavan?

The next challenge was driving from Rome to the villa. My siblings, being pros at crazy roadtrips, had brought walkie-talkies (which, FYI, are called talkie-walkies in French. In Italian: walkie-talkie). I had a cell phone, but it was still early days and so expensive the others would have had to take out second mortgages to pay for international service (what a horror…I also had a “callback” service–illegal–where I called a computer in the U.S. with my Brussels landline and then hung up. The computer would call me back and patch me to an open line from which I could call U.S. numbers at domestic U.S. long-distance rates and not the approximately $5,000 a minute that Belgacom charged for international calls. It’s far more reasonable now). 

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Wine tasting in Chianti…of course!

Anyway the walkie-talkies worked great as long as we were in range. And the patter was nonstop. 

<<static>>”I thought you were supposed to stay on one side of the dotted white line.” <<static>>

<<static>>”Yeah, well, most people think that.” <<static>>

<<static>>”She never could paint inside the lines.”

<<static>>”You gotta fix those things when they’re kids or you can see what happens.” <<static>>

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What one family member called the “bending tower.”

One of the adults would ride shotgun and consult the gigantic fold-out paper map (it was before GPS, too). One time in Rome, I asked my co-pilot which way I needed to go only to see the huge map getting frantically turned around one way, then the other. 

“We’re on … V…I…A…We’re on Via!” somebody from the back seat called out triumphantly.

Did I mention that nobody spoke Italian? (EYE-talian, as Dad said)

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An uncle-niece game of kid croquet.
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Cooking lesson with the villa’s owners.

Another time, some of the women went to Greve, a very quaint town. The guys weren’t there when we got back. When they finally arrived, one made a grand wave at the other two and said, “Let me introduce you to Louis and Clark.” They had gotten very lost trying to go to the supermarket in Montevarchi.

No harm, no foul. No accidents, either.

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The pope! (center, in white)

There was another time, again in Rome, when a local colleague, who had generously gotten us tickets for the Mass with the Pope in St. Peter’s Square, was going to make the handoff as we drove down a boulevard near his home. I was talking to him on my cellphone (BAD) and trying to watch crazy Roman traffic while trying to spy the landmarks he was telling me to look for. Finally seeing him, I eased into the right lane and slowed to a crawl. My co-pilot rolled down the window, stuck a head and hand out, and snatched the tickets before anybody rear-ended us or even honked. Smooth as spies.

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The Duomo in Florence.

Most tourists probably don’t realize there’s an underground parking garage at the Vatican. With low clearance. Happily, the rental company didn’t look at the roof of the megavan when we returned it. 

Then there was the time I got near the Coliseum and looked for a place to park, only to go down a street like a funnel—it got narrower and narrower, until I had to back out. Which mean the normal minivan with the rest of the family had to back out first because they were behind me. 

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The Coliseum in Rome. Big hit with all ages.

And the time I was trying to get the megavan out of the tight turn on the villa’s driveway (which was so steep that our dad described a little grotto alongside the drive as “right before you go over the cliff”). Another guest’s car was in the way (there are also a couple of apartments on the property). One of the guys in front and another in the back directed me: get closer, cut it sharper, crank it the other way. They made catty remarks about how I was riding the clutch. “Might as well burn it out on a rental,” one said. “She’s just warming it up,” the other observed, adding, “She ain’t even spittin’ gravel yet.” At that moment, I gave it gas and sent a couple of pebbles flying. They cheered.

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Florence…so many statues of naked people…

It was so difficult to park in Rome that we generally went to a garage then hoofed it. The littlest kids were in strollers, but our parents weren’t as lucky. Instead, I put them in a taxi, with our aunt, at the Trevi Fountain and told the driver “Piazza Navona.” I will never forget the image of three shocked faces looking at me through the back window as the taxi peeled off. They thought I would come with them. But I had figured that, with traffic, we would arrive on foot before the taxi (and it was true). 

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Trevi Fountain in Rome…despite the throng, we didn’t lose anybody.

Our other challenge revolved around Italian dining customs vs. toddler attention spans. The kids were angels, but too much time sitting nicely at a table is no fun. So we would try to be fairly organized, to have our meals before meltdowns. Good Midwesterners, the guys would order coffee with their meals. They were new to wine, and certainly not at lunch. The waiter would nod, si, si, signori. Of course, the coffee wouldn’t arrive. They would remind the waiter, who would nod and say, what we figured was “don’t worry, I didn’t forget.” Dad would thank them with a heartfelt “Garcia!”

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Roofs of Sienna. The black spots are birds.

The kids would grow restless. No coffee yet. Then the kids would get VERY restless. No coffee…because of course, coffee is served after dessert, which we hadn’t yet eaten. Eventually we would need to leave—unhappiness in toddlers increases exponentially as you have more toddlers, so if one meltdown is X, then two meltdowns are X10 and three meltdowns are X100. (It isn’t their fault; it’s a fact of nature, like gravity.) Another famous Italian espresso so close, yet so far away. Eventually, the coffee lovers ventured to a café in Magliano. “The cup was about the size of a thimble,” one described afterward. “The foam barely covered the bottom of it. But I tell you, it was enough!”

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Another view of Pisa.

We operated with a bucket list (the only thing we didn’t get to was Venice, too far at three hours’ drive each way), but didn’t schedule anything. One day at a time. The trips to Rome and Pisa took full days but the rest of the outings were for a few hours max, leaving lots of time for relaxing, chicken fights with the older kids in the pool and cooking lessons from the villa’s owners (who didn’t speak English or French, but we did fine. I still make their tiramisu.) At dinner, we would loosely plan the next day. Or not. Sometimes we did it on the fly. Our aunt was such a wonderful traveler, always game for anything, answering “why not!” to every suggestion. She seemed perfectly content to sit overlooking the breathtaking view and read a novel, yet was always ready to hop in the van at a moment’s notice. (Another time, looking at a guide’s suggestions for what to buy in Florence, she said, “But I don’t want any of this stuff.” I love her.)

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A dip in the Mediterranean.

It was great to have a kitchen, so we could have breakfast and sometimes other meals without the excesses of eating out for everything. It was great to have a TV, so tired kids could watch the only video we had (“Mulan”) over and over and over. It was great to have a single “home” that we could keep coming back to.

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Cousins.

Our dad would regularly leaf through the photo albums (it was also before digital photos) for years afterward. Our mom had the villa’s brochure and some photos put into a big frame, and it moved with them to assisted living, where our parents were always more than happy to recount the adventure to all the aides who came by. The trip brought us closer together, though the littlest ones don’t remember it aside from the photos, and now there are two more kids, and even grandchildren, in the family and our parents are gone. I started writing this as a way to explain how to juggle the wildly different ages and a large group on a vacation, but in the end, it’s more an excuse to relive and immortalize the happy memories.IMG_6052IMG_6053And if you wonder whether a big family trip is possible, remember: Why not!

PS: I will write soon about a similar hub-and-spoke itinerary for the south of France. We have two AirBnB apartments on the same floor, in the center of Carcassonne—they are both good for couples, but one has a small single bedroom and a sofabed, making it possible to sleep five people there plus two in the adjacent apartment. And the huge kitchen is ideal for a family.IMG_6070

Tips for Travel With Kids in France

kid menu 4As a parent, I’ve been there and done that as far as sight-seeing and eating out with kids in France. Here are some tips, mainly for eating out with kids. Restaurants seem to be the most-fraught moment in many travelers’ trips to France, what with the different customs and language barriers (especially when menus use terms that are clever but not very clear about what will be on your plate). This is a repost, because today is C.R.A.Z.Y.

It’s fairly rare to see children at fine restaurants in France. It isn’t that the French don’t love kids–they have a higher fertility rate than other developed countries (1.98 kids per woman in France, compared with 1.91 in the U.K. and 1.86 in the U.S.). and government policies around maternity leave, job protection and pay are strong (I don’t want to say “generous,” because that sounds as if it isn’t deserved, when in fact it’s earned).

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Choice of slice of ham with fries or mussels with fries. Yes, the kid’s menu has mussels.

All the same, kids and adults occupy distinct realms in France. And to have the best experience possible while traveling with kids, it’s good to know the cultural expectations (you can always flout these–it’s a free country–but you will be subject to Gallic scowls).

Dinner is late in France. Most people I know eat between 7 and 8 p.m. at home (BTW, the French use the 24-hour clock, so it would be 19h (h for heure) and 20h). But it’s rare to find a restaurant open at 7. Most start service at 8. When toddlers need 12-14 hours a night and even preteens need 9-11 hours, it’s logical that they are in bed around 8 p.m. The French deal with this by leaving the kids at home with a babysitter.

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Opens at 7 p.m.! And the owners have kids, so they’re understanding.

The other challenge is the French expectation that dinner should be enjoyed slowly. It is difficult to enjoy dinner when you have a ticking time bomb of a toddler sharing your table. We would target one of the few restaurants that opens at 7, La Grande Bouffe, which suited the Carnivore just fine, as it specializes in large slabs of red meat cooked (well, quickly passed near) a wood fire right there in the dining room. We would get there the minute it opened and order quickly, lest a big table arrive and overwhelm the one-man kitchen.

Our child would sit angelically for an hour, which seemed like quite a feat for a one- or two-year-old, but after that, all bets were off. First fussing, then increasingly emphatic demands to get DOWN. However, even in family restaurants, kids don’t wander the way they do in the U.S. Restaurants do not provide crayons and special paper placements for coloring. Bring your own. Also a sippy cup, because they also don’t have plastic glasses, and you can’t enjoy your meal if you are trying to keep your kid from dropping or knocking over a glass glass. A stroller is a good option (if there’s room–some restaurants are tiny), because they can go to sleep.

There are options, such as brasseries, with wider hours. Informal family restaurants–mostly chains like Hippopotamus or Buffalo Grill–open early and have reliably OK food but do you really want to spend your meals in France in the equivalent of Applebees? (I like Applebees well enough but I wouldn’t cross the ocean to eat at one.) One Parisian restaurant that’s quite loud–in a raucous, not discotheque way–is Nos Ancêtres Les Gaulois, a medieval-style place where the servers, dressed in period costumes, stab your knife into the table. It is not gastronomic, but pretty fun, a bit like our medieval meal last summer.

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Sirop is usually grenadine mixed with water; sometimes other flavors are available. Milk is almost never an option. Pom’pote is applesauce that you suck out of a little plastic bag.

Nice restaurants in France are quiet. In the U.S., the louder the better, but that doesn’t hold here. Everybody speaks in a whisper. That means you have no cover or plausible deniability when your kid shrieks. And nicer restaurants rarely have children’s menus or high chairs (and forget about changing tables!).

If you don’t want to go downmarket to family-focused restaurants, consider nice restaurants with outdoor seating, where the ambient noise level is higher. The catch is that all the smokers want to sit outdoors, but you might be able to score a spot upwind or with nonsmokers around.

Another option is to shift your schedule and eat your “nice” meal or main meal at lunch. The expectations for calm are somewhat less strict at lunch, plus the menu usually is cheaper–double win.

If a place doesn’t have a kid’s menu, they sometimes will offer the same menu as for adults, with half portions at half the price. One of our favorite restaurants in Carcassonne, Le Clos des Framboisiers, does the half-size, half-price option. Our favorite Chinese restaurant, La Jonque, suggested a stir-fry of chicken and vegetables with rice–not on the menu, but it was a big hit with our kid.

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“Pitchou” is a term of endearment for “child” in the South of France. The menu choices are hamburger (without bun), fish or chicken breast wrapped in hame and cheese and breaded. Sides are homemade fries, vegetables or penne pasta. Dessert: two scoops of ice cream.

Some years later, our kid asked to have a birthday sleepover with two friends, with dinner at La Jonque–ALONE. So I called and reserved two tables, specifying that they should be as far apart as possible in such a small place. The chef and his wife have kids, and understood. We arrived all together, then split into opposite corners of the dining room. Another family with kids about the same age were there, and those kids stared wide-eyed with naked jealousy as ours ordered on their own and seemed to have a great time at their very own table.

If you have decided your main “nice” meal is lunch, then you can have something simple or even get takeout for dinner. This is one of the best arguments for renting an apartment, where you can feed your kids, put them to bed, then relax with a glass of wine. I am not one of the people who will put a child to sleep in a hotel room and then go down to the lounge in the lobby. But it’s no fun (been there, done that) to sit IN the hotel room in the dark while your kid sleeps for 12 straight hours. A separate bedroom lets them get the sleep they need (a tired kid is a cranky kid), while letting you look over plans for the next day or just zone out in front of the TV.

The way to hold out from noon to 8 p.m. is to adopt the French snack, called un goûter (a taste), un quatre-heures (a 4 o’clock–this one doesn’t follow the 24-hour system) or even un petit quatre-heures (a little 4 o’clock). Don’t even get me started on how un quatre-heures is masculine when heure is feminine.

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An example of the lunch menu being the same as the dinner menu but cheaper.

I have found that an essential element to good behavior in children is to use up their energy. France has great parks and playgrounds. The lovely Place des Vosges in Paris has a big playground, full of beautifully dressed kids (wearing artfully tied scarves) being watched by their chicly dressed parents. Our kid’s eagle eye would detect playgrounds from a mile away. “Maison!” I would strain to pick it out, and sure enough, on the corner of a public square otherwise filled with café tables, there was a playground with a little house on stilts and a slide coming out. Just watch out for the “Pelouse interdit”–keep off the grass–signs and stick to the actual playground.

In Paris, in the basement of the Louvre, there’s a shopping gallery, and at one end, there’s a big empty space where you can see excavations of the ancient foundations. Almost nobody goes there (“What’s this?” “Old stones.” “Cool. OK, what’s next?”). This is the perfect place for some little ones to run and scream their heads off before dinner. Even if you’ve been hoofing around sight-seeing, your toddler has probably been strapped into a stroller and is dying to move.

Coming soon: great things to see and do with kids in France.