I offer my thoughts about taking the kids to the Luberon area of Provence, where we have many years of vacation-with-kids experience, but I do so with the caveat that what worked for us—a family of three with many child guests--may not match the temperament and spirit of your family. Chart your own course—and let us know about your adventures.
It’s nearing that time of year again: the annual family vacation. For us, summers have long been associated with packing up the family and heading to Provence. This summer, however, will herald a change in this long tradition of annual family vacations. Years of cramming weeks’ worth of stuff into our bags and taking planes, trains, and automobiles to Provence will come to a close. Our daughter is graduating and will soon dive into her first full-time job and begin to look forward to her own family vacations.
So while this time of year will no longer elicit the retrieval of three sets of suitcases from the attic, signs of summer will always remind me of our many family vacations and stir nostalgia for those of my own childhood. All the planning, all the hassles, and all the expenses—wherever you go, the family vacation is worth it.
Every family has its own interpretation of the sacrosanct family vacation. It might take the form of spending long weekends in the second home at the edge of some body of water; pitching a tent at a campsite in the mountains; dropping the children at camp and going off on your own; or, in the case of my childhood family, packing the ungrateful kids into the back of the station wagon—and, I do mean the back as these early childhood trips definitely pre-date any seatbelt laws--and driving endless hours to destinations days away.
The sacrosanctity of my family vacation traditions were not to be questioned by mere mortals, especially children. They were carved in stone by my father and that was that. Vacations were three weeks long and we went to Mexico: first to Puebla where my aunt and uncle lived, then to Mexico City where they later moved, and still later to Mazatlan, a sleepy fishing village that my parents fell in love with. Departure was always pre-dawn and we drove (and drove and drove).
On the day of departure, my brother and I were roused from sleep at four o’clock in the morning to “get a good start” on our 2000-mile drive from the Central Valley of California to the center of Mexico. The average family did not drive to Puebla, Mexico in the early 1960s because there were very few roads normal folks would want to drive on. (Ah, but we were anything but normal.)
Road conditions were a huge consideration or, even more basically, would there still be a road when the Newman family came tooling along? Despite our best-laid plans—always with advice from our faithful partner, Triple A—occasionally there wasn’t a road for one reason or another. The availability of “services” was another issue; that is, would there be amenities like gas stations, restaurants, and motels? Although this factor couldn’t have been weighed too heavily by my parents since my father’s foot seemed to be permanently glued to the gas pedal once we boarded the car; with so painfully few bathroom stops, my brother and I might have been training for Kennedy’s Race to the Moon (but my father was a died-in-the-wool Republican, so that was not his goal). Personal safety was another consideration—there were no drug cartel sorts toting machine guns back then but thieves were certainly rumored to prey on gringos like us. I hasten to add that nothing of the sort ever happened in all the years we drove below the Rio Grande.
So, for reasons like the aforementioned, we always found ourselves on the rather circuitous route through Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas before we even went south of the border. It was an interminably long drive for my brother and me (and probably my mother, too). But when we were not arguing or pleading for a merciful bathroom stop (or at least a big bush), the long drives were interesting—my mother would say “Their eyeballs were as big as saucers” when telling others about our experiences—and, even then, if asked by a stranger, I would confess that they were fun.
Highlights include the time hundreds and hundreds of tarantulas were on the move, all crawling across the road in the same direction, seemingly choreographed. These very large, hairy arachnids were looking for mates, my parents explained, trying to turn the horror show into an educational experience. Apparently, our motel rooms were in their path, too, and, at bedtime, no amount of science education could render us somnolent. But, even years later, that tarantula story can sure command an audience.
There was the time we were laid over in a small town outside Guadalajara for car repairs. While my mother looked for lunch for her pathetically picky eaters—at the time, I subsisted on slices of white chicken meat packed between two slices of Sunbeam white bread and, when adventurous, I agreed to tortas rather than the anemic white bread—my father stayed with the car that was packed full of our belongings and stateside supplies for my cousins and their parents. Hours later he emerged with a large screwdriver that he announced would serve as the key to start our car. Rather cumbersome to tuck in one’s pocket, the screwdriver was one more thing for my mother to carry in her bulging purse.
In Guaymas, along the Pacific coast, we saw a brilliant electrical storm that lit up the night sky for minutes and scared the bejesus out of my brother and me. All along the way, we saw poverty that scared us in a different way, images that remain vivid in my mind to this day. Once we arrived, there were my beloved cousins as well as real pyramids to climb, volcanos in view from my aunt and uncle’s windows, and markets to visit where vendors hung their slabs of meat seemingly for the benefit of the flies.
We made this trip every summer for years. As I look back on those vacations, I am now so grateful that our family was fortunate to have such long vacations and that my parents chose to include the whole fam damily. In the early 60s in California, it could have been so easy to relegate the family vacation to Disneyland—a destination I certainly held in high esteem at that time and, if truth be told, probably would have said I preferred—but, I am very glad we took that long road to another culture and lots of adventures.
|Photo: David Scott Allen|
My husband came from a family that took similar trips and we both agreed that family vacations were really important. We have taken our daughter many places--near like the coast of Maine and far like Argentina—but Provence, as many readers know, captured our hearts and has been a main destination for our family for many years.
So, what do kids like to do in Provence? Based on our experiences with our daughter as well as with many young folks who have visited us in Provence, we offer the following recommendations for memorable vacations:
1. Stay in one place for at least a week. Familiarity breeds comfort and confidence, especially important feelings for children and feelings that will encourage them to become acquainted with the new culture and maybe even try out a few French words. We prefer vacation homes so that we can prepare meals and really relax after a busy day.
|Village of Lourmarin|
2. Stay in a small village where, depending on their ages, the children can roam around relatively freely. Lourmarin has long been our first choice. We rented a village house and later owned our own home in the heart of the village. There, our daughter could walk to the Tabac or Patisserie where she could practice her French and develop a self-assuredness and poise even in a foreign culture.
Lourmarin has a 16th-century château that can be toured but, more importantly in the eyes of most children, the village has an inviting playground, a huge soccer field, a pool, and tennis courts. Nearby is a small lake, l’étang de la Bonde.
3. Hiking or long walks are a great way to see the area and expend some energy. Near Lourmarin, there are many trails. One of our favorites is a short walk through a lovely wooded area that ends at restaurant and hotel, Auberge de l’Aiguebrun. Drive north from Lourmarin on the D943 (Route d’Apt). About 5 kilometers up this road, look for a sign advertising the Auberge and then watch for a pull-out along the right side. Park there—don’t leave any valuables—and walk north on the highway to a dirt road on the right. The dirt road will narrow to a path and take you to the Aiguebrun river and to a lovely 17th century bridge. Continue several more kilometers to the Auberge.
|17th century bridge over the Aiguebrun river|
Fort Buoux, a few kilometers further is another rewarding hike. Drive a couple kilometers up the D943 and turn right toward Buoux. Follow the signs for Les Seguins and Fort Buoux until you come to a parking lot. Walk along the dirt road, past a large overhanging rock, which turns into a path that takes you to the caretaker’s door where you will pay a nominal fee allowing you to continue on to the remains of this medieval fort. Consider taking a picnic lunch to enjoy while you take in the panoramic views of the Luberon. (Note: this is an activity for agile and sure-footed children who will follow the guidance of adults as the paths are rocky and somewhat steep in places and there are not protective guardrails at the edge of sheer drop-offs.)
Another pretty hike (for older children) is Gorges de Regalon. It is especially inviting on a hot summer day.
Bicycles and horses can be rented nearby. Lots of good small roads and paths for running, too.
4. Roman ruins are a huge hit with children of all ages. We recommend day trips to Pont du Gard, Arles, or Glanum for interesting and beautiful Roman sights. On one of our visits to the Pont du Gard, our daughter and a good friend who was visiting from home were in 6th grade and taking Latin. When they returned, a class assignment was to construct an aqueduct—you can imagine which one they chose! For the adventurous family, there are canoes to rent to paddle along the Gard river and under the Pont du Gard.
|Pont du Gard|
Glanum, a recently excavated Greco-Roman sight near Saint Remy, offers the opportunity to walk around this recently excavated community that dates back over 2000 years.
5. To experience what Provence was like in the Middle Ages, we recommend Les Baux de Provence, Tarascon’s castle, and Lourmarin’s castle.
|Les Baux de Provence|
Les Baux, both a restored medieval village and fortress, is a must-see destination. Too much to write here and it is described in every tour book, so suffice to say that, despite its transparent appeal to tourism, this ancient village is charming and the notorious fortress is amazing. From the top of the rocky cliff upon which the village and fortress are perched, there are spectacular views of the surrounding valley and the Alpilles mountains. Arrive early and definitely rent the audio guides. (Note that Fort Buoux is the same period.)
A thoroughly modern experience (next to Les Baux) that is a huge hit with kids is Carrières de Lumières-- definitely consider a visit there.
Tarascon’s 15th-century château sits on the edge of the Rhone River. Austere and foreboding on the outside, it is inviting and fascinating on the inside. Lourmarin’s château lacks the grandeur of Tarascon’s castle (from roughly the same period) but is still definitely worth a visit, especially if staying nearby.
6. The Village des Bories is an open-air museum of restored stone huts (bories) that date back 200 to 500 years and were inhabited until the early 19th century. Stone huts probably pre-date the Romans and can still be spotted in fields in the Luberon. This collection of 20 or so structures consists of dwellings, animal pens, and storage huts. No mortar in the whole village. Lots of walking, lots of opportunity for discovery and imagination.
|Village of the Bories (above), Gordes (middle) and Abbaye de Senanque (below)|
This Village is near the quintessential hill-top town of Gordes and the 12th-century Cistercian Abbaye de Senánque.
7. For a trip to a city, we recommend Aix-en-Provence. There is something for all ages in this sophisticated city, known as the “Paris of the South.” Two museums to consider are the Musée Granet, referred to as a museum of “Archeaology and Fine Arts,” it houses a small but impressive collection of paintings by well-known French, Italian, and Dutch artists, including Aix’s Cezanne, and interesting artifacts from the nearby Celto-Ligurian archaeological site, Entremont (that can also be visited). The Natural History Museum has dinosaur eggs—need I say more?-- and other fossilized remnants left from the days that dinosaurs roamed the South of France. There is also lots of shopping, an English book store, and a cinema that features movies catering to English speakers. For people watching, you can’t beat Les Deux Garcons.
|Les Deux Garcons|
|La Petite Provence de Paradou|
9. Provence, of course, is known for its weekly markets. If you are visiting in the peak tourist season, make sure to arrive early at these markets. The popular markets will get very crowded as the morning progresses and may be overwhelming to children and very difficult to navigate while juggling a basket and holding a little hand. Depending on the ages of your children, give them each their own basket, a purse of Euros, and an assigned purchase. (Stay away from the cute kitties and puppies as the adults that run that operation will reel you in with sympathy and then beseech you to make donations to help the animals.)
10. For a beach, we recommend Cassis, a little over an hour from Lourmarin. The beaches are small and get crowded, but are nice. There will be topless women of all ages so, if that is a new experience for your children, be prepared. (It’s really not a big deal.) Consider taking a boat tour of les calanques, the stunning limestone fjords filled with crystal-clear blue water, that lie between Cassis and Marseille.
|Cassis Port (above) and the beach near the Port (below)|
11. Fêtes are everywhere in Provence during the summer months (and all year long for that matter). There are festivals devoted to particular subjects (like lavender, cantaloupe, and even windmills) and there are fête votives that roll into each village every year at a designated time of the month, bringing with them carnival rides, village dinners, music, and even fireworks. Lourmarin’s festival begins the last weekend in August.
|Fete Votive of Lourmarin (above and below)|
|Lunch at Auberge des Seguins|
|Photos: David Scott Allen|
Finally, there are glorious spots for picnics all over the Luberon. One of our favorites is in La Forêt des Cèdres (the Cedar Forest near Bonnieux).
When children are young, we suggest eating lunch out and dinner in and we always carried a sketch book for drawing and a note book for writing.
13. Striking a nice balance between keeping busy and relaxing was a goal from which we never strayed too far. Both require planning on the part of the parent. Bring a sketch book, a note book, a diary, and an age-appropriate French translation book. Create games like an I-Spy list for the area in which you are traveling or even for a specific place such as a market. See who can be first to find a baguette, endive, scarves, Provençal fabric, honey, olives, a basket made in Africa. Consider giving your children cameras to capture “A Day In Provence.” One young girl we know took Beanie Babies with her and photographed them in places she liked. We often gave slide presentations to our daughter’s elementary school classrooms—such a project gave us all a fun way to focus as we toured around Provence. Encourage your child to pick out post cards and write notes to friends and family at home or even send them to him or herself at home so that there will be a record of the trip to talk about when you return.
Give your child fun tasks to do such as picking out the cheeses from the cheese vendor at the market. Depending on their ages, give them their own money so that they can learn about foreign exchange (and the finiteness of money). When there are long stretches of time that require sitting still—on the airplane or in the car or train—make sure that you have a bag of tricks to pass the time.
14. Pre-trip preparation is important. Begin by locating your destination on a map so that your child can see where you are going. How far away is it? What countries does it neighbor? Find photos in books or online of your destination. Depending on their ages, allow them to choose (from a few of your options) what would be fun to do or see. Practice some French. Read French books—the comic book Asterix can be fun for kids and adults alike—and watch French movies—A Year In Provence, filmed in the Luberon, is a good choice for older children and adults.
15. Connecting via social media: "To allow or not allow" is a question all families now face on vacation. We dodged this issue—our daughter’s age and the lack of Internet availability in small Provence villages were the main reasons—but, except for trips into the depths of the Amazon, families with children of a certain age can no longer escape the question. I urge you to set time limits on social media. One of the main reasons to take a family vacation is to be with the family. A good compromise might be to allow the child to have a blog where photos can be posted and stories of vacation adventures can be shared. It may be appropriate to encourage your children to exchange Facebook information with any new friends they make so they can continue to communicate. It is worth noting that many kids secretly relish the thought of being "unplugged."
I would like to think that our daughter will remember her family vacations with as much fondness as I recall my childhood vacations. Although, as I think about what stories I have shared with readers in this post about my vacations growing up—tales of tarantulas, big screwdrivers, and blinding electrical storms—I shudder to think what tales our daughter will relate to others as she grows older. She may think of scorpions in the house, battles with Miles over the middle seat, and all those church visits she felt were a test of endurance.
If the stories that emerge from our family vacations are so pedestrian, does the annual family vacation really matter? Yes, it does. A good family vacation is a powerful antidote to the pressures of everyday life. Experiences from childhood may defy words and yet they can touch a child's soul, linger in his or her mind's eye for a lifetime, and add sustenance to a young personality. Children carve out a place for themselves in the family and begin to envision their place in the world. And that matters.
|Photo: David Scott Allen|