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FAMILY VACATIONS: Europe

Drive, Leave the Rest to the Kids

May 18, 1997|DENNIS R. CRAMER

SALAMANCA, Spain — My 4-year-old son's favorite hotel was in Cozes, France. It had a bunk bed and a nearby double. Not only did it take athletic prowess for Scott to climb to the top bunk, but he enjoyed doing cannonballs onto the double bed. The saggy old bed with a bright orange bedspread gave Scott a 3-foot bounce.

Later that evening, while he and my wife slept, firecrackers snapped. My daughter, 7, and I pushed open the huge balcony windows to watch. It was Bastille Day, and this small northern French town was paying homage. I described Bastille Day to Tracy and likened it to our Fourth of July. After 10 minutes of booms and dogs barking, a trio of rockets flashed into the sky signaling an end.

We were near the end of our monthlong trip to France and Spain, a trip that had begun in my mind months earlier. In those months, some friends recounted horror stories about traveling with young children and advised against it.

But I love to travel and consider it something of a right. I persuaded my wife, and we started planning. In preparation we had to do double duty. We not only read about places to go, but also about traveling with kids. There are many books about traveling with children. The better ones cover everything from legal documents and health issues to types of diapers.

What they can't tell you is where to go. That's largely up to you. Go where you want, so long as you are willing to compromise. If you've been to France without children, be prepared to see a different France with them.

Kids are guaranteed to make a trip more complicated, but with the right planning they will make it more memorable.

The best way to plan your trip is to take the trip you want but make it kid-friendly. Kids' interests will surprise you. They can endure most any of your interests if you keep them to child-size doses. Kids get tired, and if you can avoid getting them overtired, half the battle is won. Knowing your child is the best way to plan a day or a trip. So make a wish list, then cut it in half.

By the second day of our trip we were in a fantasy world for kids and adults--the Dordogne region of south-central France. It's a region laced with medieval castles and prehistoric caves. Here is where Cro-Magnon man left cave paintings 17,000 years ago. Where medieval man built castles clinging to hillside cliffs. And where the modern-day French bake, roast, stew and saute a cuisine worth a notch on your belt.

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It took reading and questioning of friends to find such a place, but what really mattered was the pace. The Dordogne could have been a shop of horrors if we had tried to see everything in a day and a half, as some tour books recommend. We took four. Short drives, a variety of sights, picnics and chambres d'ho^tes (bed and breakfasts) filled our days at a pace resembling the escargot.

Travel tip: Picnic. It not only saves the budget, but kids love them. Kids get a chance to run, wrestle and be wild. Parents get something of a breather too. A three-hour break in the middle of the day not only takes the push out of traveling but creates a more relaxing pace. Getting there can be as much fun as being there. Slow down and give your children a chance to play and you a chance to relax.

And picnics don't have to be spartan, especially in France. Charcuteries abound with regional meats, pates, cheeses, salads and specialty dishes. Great-tasting breads, pastries, wine and fruit are just as easy to find. Kids quickly discover new favorites, and you become something of a connoisseur.

Our main European destination was Salamanca, Spain. On the central Iberian Peninsula, about halfway between Madrid and Portugal, Salamanca once rivaled Madrid for glory. Much of its grandeur remains and it boasts of having Spain's most beautiful plaza. The golden sandstone of Plaza Mayor forms the hub of a bustling, compacted old city where dar un paseo (to stroll) and sidewalk cafes bring out citizens and tourists alike for evenings of pleasantries.

Salamanca also is a university town. It is Spain's oldest seat of higher learning, yet vibrant with youth. Ostensibly we came to Salamanca so my wife could take Spanish classes. We really came to Salamanca for its size, its history and daily customs.

I wanted us to fall in love with the patterns of a small Spanish city. We rented an apartment, bought our food at the mercado, and searched for the best tapas. Merchants came to know us. Life became easy. Our children became ambassadors.

Scott played soccer with some local boys, and Tracy made friends with a girl from South Africa. They bought gum at the baker and water balloons at the newsstand. Salamanca became more and more kid-friendly with each passing day. If you have kids, don't put off traveling. They offer you a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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