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Family ProvenceA Family’s Provence
So here’s the thing about Provence – it’s effortlessly cool. Don’t be fooled by its proximity to the Riviera – Provence is actually perfectly happy to sit quietly in the shadow of the Cote D’Azur, its glamorous neighbor to the East. The images you have of lavender fields and olive groves, though, are all true – few regions in the world are known for their distinctive scent alone.
Never has a place been better suited for family travel. You’ll find caves for adventure-seekers, sketch-worthy landscapes for budding artists, and colorful outdoor markets. Unlike Peter Mayle, you don’t have a year in Provence. But no matter – a few days is enough to experience this sun-drenched region that inspired everyone from Picasso and Cezanne to Van Gogh. From ancient bridges and Roman ruins to gastronomical experiences that will knock Rachael Ray’s socks off – rest assured, you will end up somewhere on a picnic blanket, wiping the dribble of fresh strawberry juice off your little one’s sun-kissed cheek. The beauty of vacationing in Provence is that you don’t have to stress about restaurants and high chairs. Visit a farmers’ market, choose a picnic-worthy spot, and discover that eating fresh finds in the French countryside might be just as good as dining at any Michelin-starred restaurant.
Start your whirlwind tour of Provence in Avignon. One of the cultural capitals of Provence, Avignon is centrally located for easy access to the region’s finest attractions. Families can take advantage of grand villas in the area, or set up camp at Le Prieuré in Villeneuve-les-Avignon, a beautifully restored 14th-century convent. This relaxed Relais & Chateaux property is a stone’s throw across the Rhone River from Avignon. The wisteria-draped grounds include a pool, tennis courts, and outdoor tables for the impromptu family picnic.
Avignon, dubbed the “city of popes,” is what you’d expect of an old European town – a maze of narrow, pedestrian-only streets lined with shops and bustling with tourists and locals. The little ones will merrily board the regal double-decker carousel at the Place de l’Horloge, Avignon’s main square. Towering over the carousel is the famous (and notorious) Palais des Papes. During the 14th century, popes took up residency in Avignon, and did so in style at this Gothic palace. Although most of the palace’s rooms have been stripped of their luxuries, the grandeur and historical importance of Avignon’s star attraction is captivating. An annual highlight at the Palais des Papes is the Festival d’Avignon. Held every July, this theater festival draws fans from all over the globe.
With the history lesson out of the way, engage the young ones in some play. Tucked behind the palace, high above the town of Avignon is the Parc Rocher des Doms, where you can enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the Pont St-Bénezet and the Rhone River. This bridge, popular with the preschool crowd, is the setting for the nursery rhyme “Sur le Pont d’Avignon.” Don’t forget to pack the lyrics for this cute French nursery rhyme to share with your children as they conquer the playground. This well-hidden spot is also ideal for a family picnic. Visit Les Halles, Avignon’s covered market at Place Pie, for fresh fruit, cheese, baked goods and local wine for your papal picnic.
If a Michelin-starred restaurant is what you seek, La Mirande is the perfect stop for foodie families. A charming boutique hotel near the palace, La Mirande is more ideal for a romantic stay – but you can scope out what you’re missing at an early dinner in the restaurant’s lovely lantern-lit garden. It’s a feast fit for a pope, but equally as satisfying for hungry little bellies. Dessert will wow the little ones: Lollipops of delicious dense chocolate and melt-in-your-mouth macaroons reward junior for making it through the meal – and are a perfect finale to this exceptional outdoor meal presided over by the elegant spires of the cathedral.
The neighboring towns in Provence aren’t too shabby, either. On the second day, treat the family to the colorful façades of Arles. The highlight is the Roman Amphitheater, offering families a great on-the-go history lesson filled with tales of gladiators and animal battles. Next, engage the family in some art therapy by taking the Van Gogh walking tour of town. Vincent Van Gogh painted some of his most recognized works in Arles, including Café Terrace on the Place du Forum and Bedroom in Arles. Be sure to bring along some paper and crayons, as the tour includes famous sites where Van Gogh mounted his easel. For food, head to the Boulevard des Lices on Saturdays before noon – part flea market, part farmers’ market, it’s one of the best in Provence. Scoop up locally grown strawberries, fine prepared foods, Herbes de Provence, soaps, and paintings.
For the rest of the day, wander the medieval village of Les Baux de Provence in the Alpilles, or small Alps. After explaining to your children the geological importance of bauxite (first identified in the cliffs of Les Baux), visit the castle at the top of the fortified village, where you can soak up panoramic views of the olive groves and vineyards far below. Don’t leave Les Baux without swinging by the Castelas Mill to discover how olive oil is made, before sampling some of the sweetest oil in the world.
If you’re looking to ramp up your accommodation, head to L‘Oustau de Baumanière, at the foot of the Baux village – the crème de la crème of hotels in Provence. At the very least, consider dropping by for lunch in their Michelin-starred restaurant – if the children can handle the multiple-course feast, that is. Another worthy stop for a formal lunch is La Cabro D’Or, where families can enjoy outdoor eating among the ducks and goats at this Baumanière sister property just below the rugged cliffs of Les Baux.
Plenty other activities in Provence are sure to keep the children fully entertained. For an adventurous history lesson, go on a kayaking expedition along the Gard River. You’ll kayak under the arches of the historic Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct bridge just 13 miles from Avignon. On scorching summer days, duck from the sun’s rays and head underground to explore the Thouzon Cave in the walled city of Le Thor, 11 miles from Avignon. Fairy Cave, as it’s often called, is perfectly suitable for children, who can learn about stalactites and stalagmites while experimenting with the range of their echoes.
Families with little kids can opt for a relaxing afternoon at the Zoo de la Barben, the largest animal park in the region. Set in an evergreen forest, the zoo is home to 600 animal species, including giraffes, lions, and fan-favorite elephants.
Because a day in Provence is not complete without an outdoor feast, cap off your wildlife encounter with a picnic among the animals in one of the zoo’s many shaded areas. As you stretch out under the sun, with the Mediterranean shimmering in the distance, you’ll appreciate just how easy living la vie Provençale really is.