Travel Story A family friendly holiday in Provence

Southern France might be more synonymous with romantic breaks for couples, but a family of three finds there's plenty to keep the kids entertained. 

Provence in France is often regarded as a romantic getaway destination for fine-dining experiences and browsing through galleries in quaint little towns filled with enticing shops.

But for my recent trip to Provence, I left romance in my wake as I embarked on a fun-packed family adventure with my husband and our six-year-old daughter Lily (pictured above).

We picked the picturesque town of St Remy de Provence as our home base, just a few hours’ drive west of Nice, and an easy 30-40 minute drive from several day-trip destinations that kept us entertained for our week-long stay.

St Remy de Provence is where Vincent van Gogh was based, living on the town’s outskirts in a psychiatric home for a number of years.

The town and surrounding countryside inspired some of his best work including Starry Night.

There are various types of accommodation in the town, mostly villa rentals and B&B options. We chose a spacious villa that was a short walk from the town centre.

Owned by Linda and Robert Genot, Mas Alpilles Soleil takes up the entire ground floor of the villa, which comes with a large garden and a pool — an oasis in the heart of St Remy.

It was the ideal setting for lazy afternoons after our half-day explorations in nearby towns. Having accommodation that came with a pool was crucial for our littlest traveller. 

Just about any morning activity could be negotiated with the promise of pool time in the afternoon.

The villa’s extensively equipped kitchen and covered outdoor dining area also allowed us to enjoy warm summer evenings outside.

And although the villa was close to the town centre, our stone-walled retreat gave us complete privacy, with the only noise being the chorus of cicadas.

The “cigale” is so synonymous to this region that a local chocolatier has cicada-shaped treats and there is an assortment of tourist trinkets modelled on this insect.

There are a few markets held in St Remy through the week in summer, giving you lots of chances to pick up a yummy spread for lunch or dinner.

The town has dozens of restaurants and cafes, several of which are family friendly, including crepe restaurant La Celtie Creperie. 

While Lily was fine with a little cultural exploration, she did draw the line at some things including one of St Remy’s attractions, the ruins of the Roman city Glanum, which lie on the outskirts of town. Doing occasional solo adventures can help to keep the peace for family holidays. So I ended up exploring Glanum and other sites during morning jogs.

A Roman-era site that Lily was definitely keen to see was the UNESCO-listed aqueduct, Pont du Gard, because, yes, she could swim there.

The multiple layers of arches spanning the Gardon River makes an impressive backdrop for holiday photos.

Pont du Gard is a 40-minute drive from St Remy and has a few restaurants, and clean bathrooms and change rooms.

Another history-focused day trip we made was to Les Baux de Provence, a 20-minute drive from St Remy that takes you through a picturesque valley filled with olive groves and grape vines. With the mountain ranges cradling the valley, it’s little wonder that van Gogh was inspired by this area.

Les Baux boasts a medieval village and remnants of a castle, dating back to the 11th century, all perched on top of a rocky promontory.

The village buildings which wind up towards the top of the peak to the castle remnants, are predominantly gift shops and cafes.

Despite the “tourist trap” aspect, the medieval charm still dominates the look and feel of the village.

Surrounding the castle ruins, there are replicas of weaponry such as catapults, as well as demonstrations and re-enactments of the medieval way of life, tailored towards kids during school holidays.

At the bottom of the village is a massive sound-and-light show in an expansive man-made cavern. Known as the Quarries of Light, or the Carrieres de Lumieres, the high-tech multimedia show immerses visitors with visual works of art synchronised with music.

If you’re up for a market experience, then visiting the markets at Isle sur la Sorgue, 40 minutes from St Remy, is on a level all on its own — street markets on steroids.

Plan to go early and limit your browsing if your kids have low staying power. To give Lily some focus, we gave her “treasure-hunt” tasks of finding different produce for our picnic-style lunch. We then managed to find a spot along the canals that hug the town, feasting on our picnic and dipping our feet into the cooling waters of the Sorgue River.

Taking a break from any kind of sightseeing activity, we spent a day at SplashWorld Provence, near Avignon, with friends who visited us from Paris.

Touted as France’s first water-theme park, this new facility has about 15 different water-based attractions, ranging from a relaxing river you float along on a tube, to a thrill-seeker’s slide with speeds of up to 60km/h.

Hiring a cabana gave us special resort-type privileges including plush towels, bar and food service, and express lanes to limit line-up time. It was a day well spent as a kids’ activity, or for the “inner kid” (I went on just about every ride).

An activity a little outside the norm was seeing bullfighting in an ancient arena at Arles. While not condoning bullfights that end in the bull’s death, there is a variation of bullfighting at Arles which is bloodless for the bulls. The bulls are not injured and quite often become the victors in an intricate game of chase.

In this gentler form of bullfighting, called Course Camarguaises, participants named "razeteurs" pluck ribbons and cockades tied to the bulls’ horns, cutting them free with special barbed gloves. The razeteurs work in teams to get as many ribbons and cockades from the horns as they can within a set time.

The fights are held in an ancient Roman arena dating back to 90AD. The ancient setting gives spectators a rare glimpse back in time to how Romans were entertained.

Lily was enthralled by the spectacle but, of course, it’s not for the faint-hearted as there were many close calls for the razeteurs.

While some of these activities won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, the beauty of Provence is that there is a range of activities for families to enjoy.

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