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Kathy, Charley and Kelly's Best of Provence

Kathy, Charley and Kelly Wood recently spent six-and-a-half months living in Provence, in a farmhouse in the famous Luberon area, between the villages of Bonnieux and Lacoste.  Kelly (then age 11) attended the village school in Bonnieux. In this series of travel notes, the Wood family shares their favorite places and experiences in Provence.

Activities for Children and Families

Kathy Wood (Kaydee)

We made our first trip to Provence in June 2003 when our daughter Kelly was nine years old. Something about that experience captured our hearts, and we eventually figured out a way to return for an extended period of time about a year and a half later. Although she's traveled in ten European countries, Kelly proudly says that Provence is her favorite place in Europe. Provence is definitely a romantic place for couples, but we think it's also a great place for a family vacation, especially taking advantage of the many rental houses and apartments that are available in this area.

Here our some of our suggestions for places and activities families can enjoy together in Provence.

Photos of activities for kids and families in Provence

Villages

The old villages in Provence are very different than the communities kids know in the USA. Some people rush around Provence trying to see lots of different villages, driving through on the narrow main street or parking and walking around to the church and maybe a few shops. We don't think this is the optimal approach for anyone, especially not for families. We recommend that families focus on getting to know one or two villages very well and spend some unhurried time just enjoying village life.

We especially like the village of Saignon, perched on a big rock up above Apt. This is where we stayed for a week when we first visited in 2003. Park up by the old church and watch a game of boules. Wander down through the village and look at fountains and the old lavoir. Have a drink outside the hotel on the main square or enjoy ice cream at Christine's little shop/cafe. Even the cemetery is interesting, and has a fantastic view! A variety of dogs and cats wander the street, something our daughter just loves. Saignon isn't a highly-commercial village; there are just a few small shops, but lots of history and charm. For a real treat, walk up to the belvedere at the very top of the old rock. Kids of all ages will find this trek a real adventure. You can see bits of the remains of several old castles and the views are phenomenal. It's very steep and guardrails are minimal, so be sure to be careful.

Markets

The markets have a busy, almost carnival atmosphere with lots to see, sample and buy. Girls will especially like the bright fabric items (like hair scrunchies and little purses) and inexpensive jewelry. Your kids might find some inexpensive toys or colorful TinTin books in French. There's wonderful fresh fruit, great cheese, and special cookies. Sellers will often give polite children a taste of something yummy, like a ripe strawberry or a bit of cheese. Some markets have street performers and musicians.

The Friday morning markets in Lourmarin and Bonnieux are nice sized markets and good places to pick up things for a picnic lunch. (You'll find small picnic areas in pretty spots around Provence or can take your picnic back to your rental property or B&B.)

The Saturday morning market in Apt and the Sunday morning market in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue are much more extensive and a total assault on the senses. The bigger markets can be extremely crowded, so hold tight to little hands and be sure to designate a family meeting place. If you're at a market in a bigger town, look for the beautiful candy stores (confiseries) and cake shops (patisseries)-kids will LOVE to shop in these stores!

Carnivals, Circuses, Festivals, and Fairs

The villages and towns host a variety of carnivals, small circuses and fairs. Right before we left in mid-April, Apt had a big reptile show. Our village of Bonnieux had a big pottery festival, including a special activity area for kids. In the summer there are many special festivals.

At Christmas most villages had special fairs and nativity exhibits in the churches. The month-long Christmas market in Aix-en-Provence had several carnival rides.

There is a lot more going on in the summer months. Keep your eye out for signs and posters advertising these special events.

Community Centers

Many of the villages have nice playgrounds and community centers; some even have public swimming pools. Our village of Bonnieux has a great little playground near the camping ground and St. Saturnin has a great-looking pool. These may be places where your child can meet and play with other children, even if they don't share a common language. It's amazing how quickly and easily children can connect with one another.

There's a recreational lake outside of Apt where you can rent boats. Families may also enjoy watching a group of locals playing a game of boules (petanque) at one of the village bouledromes. The game is probably not something your kids can join in, though, since the players take the game pretty seriously.

Ancient Structures

At the massive Pont du Gard

You don't need to go to Italy to see Roman ruins; you can find perfectly preserved Roman ruins in Provence. Your kids can learn a bit about history and will be intrigued by more structures that they could never see at home.

There are a couple of Roman monuments outside of St. Remy (just on the side of the road, no admission charge), and the archaeological excavations at nearby Glanum are also very interesting.

The Pont du Gard is an amazing structure located west of Avignon, a three-tiered aquaduct built by the Romans in about the year 50, almost 2000 years ago.

This is an educational and fun excursion for kids and adults.

Bories

Kids will be intrigued by Bories that dot the countryside - little stone buildings originally built in prehistoric times and continually rebuilt since. The Village of the Bories outside of Gordes is a good family destination. This is a restored community of old stone houses, animal pens and other stone buildings from the 18th century. The Clapardes Plateau between Bonnieux and Saignon is a big lavender-growing area that includes several bories, dotted here and there among the fields. We always played a "borie spotting" game when we drove through this area. We discovered other bories on our many hikes through the countryside.

Castles and Windmills

You can tour restored castles in Lourmarin and the nearby village of Ansouis. Several other villages have very interesting chateau ruins. We visited Lacoste, Oppede-le-Vieux and St. Saturnin. These all require walking in some rough, steep areas and you can't go inside the castles, but all three of these ancient villages are very interesting and there's no charge to look at the ruins. A couple of villages also have big windmills; check these out in Goult and St. Saturnin.

Colorado Rustrel

This is a very unique area of ocre cliffs located northeast of Apt. The colors of the dirt and rocks are breathtaking, and there are some very unusual formations. Our daughter just loved this area. You can take a variety of walks, short or long, around the cliffs. Just remember not to wear good clothes or shoes here, as you'll come away a bit dusty.

The amazing colors and formations of the Colorado Rustrel

The amazing colors and formations of the Colorado Rustrel

Avignon

A day-trip to Avignon includes something for everyone in the family. The Palais de Papes is a big, impressive castle. Consider skipping through the audio-guide; it's way too detailed and slow for most kids. The big main square in Avignon has a carousel, and we saw street performers both times we were there. You can teach your kids the old song about the bridge at Avignon, and then visit the bridge. There are also boat rides on the Rhone River.

We enjoyed a fondue restaurant called Restaurant La Salicorne (on rue du Vieux Sextier near the covered marketplace at Les Halles); we think fondue is a fun meal for kids. There are also lots of outdoor restaurants on the main square (Place de l'Horloge); we ate at a kid-friendly place with good pizza as well as Provencal specialities. Other restaurants have crepes, and you can definitely get wonderful ice cream.

For a full day, you might consider a visit to the Pont du Gard in the morning, then lunch and the afternoon in Avignon.

Fort de Buoux

Fun in the ancient ruins of Fort Buoux

Fort de Buoux is hidden in a crag in the Grand Luberon, about five miles from Bonnieux. It's a place of tremendous history that includes evidence of prehistoric settlements in the largest cave in the Luberon. Some kids will be intrigued by the ancient burial ground that dates back at least 1200 years. The actual "fort" has been a stronghold since pre-Roman times.

There's a small admission charge to climb up through the rocky remains of an old village, a church, and finally the fort. The views are fabulous and the whole family can enjoy watching rock climbers on the sheer cliff walls on the other side of the valley.

The climb up to the top of the fort is steep, strenuous and potentially dangerous. Older kids will love it! We climbed down by way of a very steep hidden staircase. You need to allow at least two hours for this trip and wear good walking shoes.

Horse/Pony Riding

Although we never ended up riding, there are lots of horse stables in Provence, some of which offer guided treks in the countryside. Kids might also just enjoy riding in the stable yard. North of the Luberon, but there is a stable near Bonnieux at Roquefure and also one on the back road between Lacoste and Oppede. Both of these stables had small ponies. There's also a good-sized stable on the road between Apt and St. Saturnin.

Hiking

Our family really enjoyed hiking in the mountains and the countryside of the Luberon. There is an extensive system of interconnected trails and paths, and the trails are normally very well marked. Most town or village tourist offices can give you information (in English) on a few short walks in the general area.

Even if you are just in Provence for a week or two, a couple hour hike could be one of the most memorable parts of your trip. Our family especially enjoyed a couple of very unique hikes in the gorges of the Vaucluse Plateau (between Gordes and Murs) that had challenging ascents and descents. See our upcoming notes on "Great Hikes in the Luberon" for hikes we recommend for all levels of hikers.

Speaking French

Kids can learn to speak a foreign language much more easily than adults do. They're not self-conscious and it's fun. Even if your child isn't studying French in school, he or she should enjoy learning to recognize and speak a few French words and phrases. Waiters and shopkeepers will respond enthusiastically when your child speaks to them in French.

Consider buying an age-appropriate and kid-friendly French dictionary like "The Usborne Book of Everyday Words in French" (order from Amazon). Actually this book would even help parents improve their French!

Collecting Something

Our long trip was our daughter's eighth trip to Europe. We have always helped her "collect" something on every trip, something inexpensive for her to look for while shopping and a keepsake for after the trip. On our first trip to England she started a hedgehog collection that we're still building today; little stuffed animals, china figurines, books, etc. We keep finding more hedgehog items.

On an early trip to Germany, we bought an Alpine hat and collected little pins. Another trip we did a charm bracelet. On our 14-month trip she collected key chains. A child's collection could something as simple as one postcard from each place or a few children's picture books in the native language.

Other Activities

Kelly suggests that parents be sure to bring some books and small games that kids can enjoy in the evenings at your rental place or maybe even a portable DVD player with a few movies. While the children are occupied, the adults can sit outside and sip some great Provencal wine.

Kids will also get bored on even thirty-minute car rides, so it's also important for them to have activities for the car. When Kelly was younger, we packed a small lap tray inside our largest suitcase and took paper, crayons and colored pencils. She created an amazing journal during our drives.

Kids also enjoy having their own camera.

Photos

www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3421: Photos of activities for kids and families in Provence

Resources

Woods Family Grand Tour of Europe: List of articles and photo albums by Kathy Wood

Recommended Book

The Usborne Book of Everyday Words in French (Everyday Words Series), Jo Litchfield (Editor), Rebecca Treays (Editor), Kate Needham (Editor), Lisa Miles (Editor), Howard Allman (Illustrator)

Age-appropriate and kid-friendly French dictionary.

Order from Amazon


The Wood family from Knoxville, Tennessee are veteran travelers who successfully pursued their dream of living and traveling in Europe. Kathy, Charley and daughter Kelly (then 10 years old) began their fourteen-month "Grand Tour of Europe" in June 2004 and returned home in August 2005. Their trip focused on four major areas: France (33 weeks including 6+ months living in Provence), Great Britain (11 weeks), Italy (11 weeks), and the German/Austrian/Swiss Alps (6 weeks). Kathy is a regular Slow Travel contributor and maintained an extensive blog during their travels - Our Grand Tour of Europe.

Kathy is a former Human Resources executive who now works as a consultant and part-time college professor. She and Charley also lead The Luberon Experience (www.luberonexperience.com), a week-long, small-group trip based in Provence.

© Kathy Wood, 2005

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