The place that shaped my childhood: why France will forever evoke happy memories

Is there a place that springs to mind when you think of your childhood? [...]

Is there a place that springs to mind when you think of your childhood? I’m guessing for many of you that it’s not necessarily the place you grew up in, but instead the place you spent sun-drenched days playing cards on the beach, or lazing in sprawling gardens, siblings squabbling over the BBQ. There’s something about those memories that evokes an all-consuming sense of nostalgia – especially at the moment. With the pause button firmly pressed, we’re looking both back to simpler times – and forward to when we may be able to make those memories again. 

When I started to research the holiday destinations that remind us of our childhoods, I intended to feature three very different places, in three very different countries. But for both my interviewees and myself, the answer to the question on nostalgic summer holidays was the same – a trip across the channel to France, always beginning with an epic car journey. There’s something about France’s rolling hills, medieval squares and charming seaside towns that make it the perfect choice for family adventures, all within driving distance. This is an ode to France and all the beauty that awaits across the channel – a place that all three of us hope to rediscover when the time is right. 

For me, holidays in France meant the long drive to Bordeaux to join family friends at a beautiful farmhouse.

If I had to attribute my love for both wine and wild swimming, as incongruous as they might sound, there’s a strong chance it originates from family holidays in the south of France. My parents would take me to sit in the medieval square in Saint-Émilion, while we people watched and they enjoyed a glass of their world-famous Bordeaux, before popping into a museum or gallery. At 16, I was allowed to sample my first glass – and have never looked back! Days were spent swimming in cold lakes, surrounded by forests that felt full of magic; at six years old, my mum’s friends would swear that fairies were real, and we’d set off to hunt them out.

Afternoons at the beach were my favourite though, snacking on pots of crème caramel while sat with a gaggle of my mum’s friends, who were always gossiping and sporting wide-brimmed hats. I rarely remember our holidays in France involving just us four – the invite was always extended to my parents’ friends who felt more like family. We’d picnic daily, enjoying fruit and cheese with a side of sand, then drive home in the sunshine, no traffic on the roads and green spaces unfolding in front of us. 

Bronia Burlinska remembers family trips to Brittany, with days spent seeking out wild beaches and adventure.

Our trips to Brittany weren’t like the normal holidays my peers were going on, no trips to Disneyland, nor villas in Spain. They were filled with real adventure and intrigue. We discovered hidden beaches, climbed cliffs, played in wild seas and stayed in mysterious houses, which, as children, we decided were most definitely haunted.

The journey was just as important as the destination. I have fond memories of my dad bundling us into the car at sunrise and heading out to Portsmouth to catch the ferry, Paul Simon on the stereo. During these long journeys I discovered my taste in music through the CDs my sister had ‘burnt’ for the car journey, labelled France 1, France 2, France 3. I’m happy to report these are still in my dad’s car to this day.

Mealtimes were a big event. As a family of six, we rarely frequented restaurants in the area – instead we barbecued every evening as the sun set. I was always amazed at how much fresh produce French supermarkets offered. We would spend the last hour or so on the beach foraging for fresh mussels to cook as our starter. And then there was breakfast; a two-hour ordeal of fresh croissants, warm bread, cold meats and, of course, all the cheese. 

Year after year, it never felt like the same experience. As we all began to get older, evenings entailed a cheeky drink in a bar somewhere with my siblings, chatting up boys in broken French. We always got on – aside from the annual ‘France argument’ which was usually due to someone violating the card rules. It gave us the chance to reset as a family. 

Nikki Osborne’s family trips to The Dordogne were an annual affair – and the chance to be together with no distractions.

For us, one of the best things about the trip was the journey. Our family holidays to France involved the five of us being packed into a car, then driving to The Dordogne via the ferry from Dorset, stopping in Paris along the way. The soundtrack to the holiday was Now 97, 98, or perhaps a Now 00s depending on the year we were travelling in. Those songs still take me back to long and happy car journeys. 

First stop was Paris, where my parents, two siblings and I would enjoy the sights together. Arriving in Paris is always exciting, whatever your age. There would also be a vineyard stop off where my dad could pick up supplies, and visits to brocantes, vintage markets where we’d hunt out treasures. As we drove out from the city of lights, the scenery would change, revealing poppy and sunflower fields, the landscape packed with wildflowers so vibrant and beautiful.

The villa was always something spectacular. Sometimes it would just be us, a family of five, together. Other times the guests would include aunties and uncles, friends and neighbours. From pool competitions to evening board games, it was great to be together as a family, with no distractions. Every year we’d return – and the plan is to revisit again later this year. If we can’t, we’ll go next year. We’ll always return to France. 

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Lauren Kate Hughes

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