Provence with kids: Painting, kayaks and home cooking, too

|    Shivani Vora    |

WASHINGTON (The Washington Post) – Even a bribe of double ice cream scoops couldn’t persuade my daughters to wrap up their afternoon of outdoor painting at Saint-Paul de Mausole, a mental institution in the Provençal town of St Remy, in France. Vincent van Gogh had spent a year at the hospital from 1889 to 1890, and during that time, he created some of his most famous masterpieces, including The Starry Night.

With the help of Patricia Grandin, a local children’s art teacher, Meenakshi and Amrita, then 10 and five, had attempted to paint Mont Gaussier, the mountain before them, which van Gogh also painted. They sat on one end of the sprawling lawn, surrounded by olive trees, and relished the sunny day, along with the views.

“This scene and the perfect light we have right now helps you understand why van Gogh was so inspired here,” Grandin told me. “Today, your children followed in his footsteps.”

I first travelled to Provence with my husband, Mahir, more than 11 years ago, just before I became pregnant with Meenakshi. We spent our days exploring the region’s many historical towns and learning about all the artists – van Gogh, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall among them – who lived and worked in the region. Come evening, we savoured long dinners. Since then, I’ve thought of this part of southern France as a romantic destination that’s ideal for art-loving adults.

But here I was back again on a week-long vacation with my two girls. Our getaway was partly motivated by a new five-night Provence family trip from the active travel company Butterfield & Robinson. I’ve enjoyed several Butterfield trips in the past and was curious to return to a place I loved and see it from Meenakshi and Amrita’s perspective.

Butterfield’s Director of European trips Kathy Stewart came up with the itinerary after visiting the region several times with her three boys, now teenagers. “I had seen personally that it was a perfect destination for children,” she said. “The Provençal culture is very warm, and there is plenty for kids to keep busy with.”

Indeed, Butterfield proposed a long list of appealing activities. Choosing was the hard part.

On our first day, our guide, Marcela Caldas, took us zip lining and kayaking.

Meenakshi and Amrita zip lined in Vaucluse Passerelles des Cimes, an adventure park near Fontaine de Vaucluse that has circuits divided by age. Too afraid to try the activity myself, I cheered them on from the sideline.

A two-hour guided kayak trip down the Sorgue River on a boat filled with other young kids was up next. At the end, Meenakshi was ecstatic. “Mum, mum,” she exclaimed. “Can we please do this again tomorrow? Please?”

But van Gogh and the village of St Remy were waiting. Before the painting class, Caldas took us to Chateaux des Baux – a fortress, built in the 10th Century, that’s just outside St Remy. We had fun poking around the ruins (including the windmill) and saw the reconstructions of three siege engines based on medieval designs. The visit was a step back in time, and Meenakshi and Amrita were taken with Caldas’s stories of war and feudal lords.

Afterward, we went to Carrieres de Lumieres, a limestone quarry situated at the base of Les Baux-de-Provence that was abandoned after World War I. The space is now used as a cultural venue for digital art set to music. We saw the show Picasso and the Spanish Masters, (Van Gogh, Starry Night, running through January 2020, is the latest show) and, as we stood in the middle of the airy room watching the images of Picasso’s works project onto the walls, Meenakshi remarked that it felt as though we were in the middle of a 3D movie, and a “very cool” one at that.

We continued to pack it in. The girls went horseback riding one morning at a stable in Caseneuve, near our rented home. Later that afternoon, we headed to the village of Roussillon and met ceramist Alan Griffa at his atelier, where he led us through a ceramics class. “You must agree on an object that you all sculpt together,” he said. “That’s how you’ll connect as a family and form a bond.”

It was June, the heart of apricot, cherry and strawberry season. We had been gorging on all three ever since we arrived in Provence and decided to create a bowl of the sweet fruits. Amrita, assisted by Griffa, sculpted the bowl while Meenakshi and I made the fruits. Molding the potter’s mud was like meditation, even for the girls, and, as we silently worked, the minutes melted into hours.

The culmination of the day was a short walk along Roussillon’s Ochre Trail. The ochres are deep red pigments that formed in the cliffs around the town about 110 million years ago, and they were an impressive geological site.

I left time for spontaneous diversions: One afternoon, we went to the village of Cereste to check out Scaramouche, the ice cream store that many locals had recommended ever since we arrived. Started by Gwendal Auffret, who is from Brittany, and his American wife, Elizabeth Bard, the brand prides itself on making ice cream in small batches using Provençal ingredients.

After sampling a half-dozen flavours including honey-thyme and lavender, Meenakshi and Amrita settled on dark chocolate while I went for the melon. They entertained themselves by running up and down the sidewalk with the other children at the store while I sat outside, surrounded by other parents, and relished my scoop.

On another day, we went to Aix-en-Provence and saw the one-room studio where Paul Cézanne painted. Then we hit the daily farmers market, where I bought a container of irresistibly sugary cherries that left Amrita with juice dripping down her chin.

There’s lots more we could have done: child-friendly walks and bike rides in Luberon Regional Nature Park, a cooking class for kids in one of the villages, tours of the Roman ruins including the amphitheatre in Arles and a visit to Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau to see the hundreds of pink flamingoes living among salt marshes and ponds.

Instead, we relaxed at our temporary home near the medieval village of Viens with swims in the pool, tag games on the lawn and alfresco meals.

Renting a house is definitely the way to go for family travel in Provence. It’s more economical, and both kids and adults have enough space to spread out. Also, driving distances to restaurants can be vast – up to an hour – and nothing beats the convenience of cooking at home, especially because the produce in the region is incredibly flavourful and affordable. I found our home through Oliver’s Travels, a Britain-based villa rental company that has a wide range of properties in Provence at a variety of price points. My family and I stayed at Le Hameau de l’Horizon, a six-bedroom hilltop home with a pool that’s situated within a 98-acre family-owned estate called Les Davids. Avignon, the closest large town, was about an hour away. The home has a spacious kitchen and accommodates 12 people. Weekly rentals start at USD4,500.

Our vacation wasn’t the dreamy lovefest of a trip to Provence that I had the first time around, but I relished it all the same. Looking at their broad smiles on our last afternoon, I knew Meenakshi and Amrita did, too.