Provence, in the South of France, is perfect in so many ways. Its perched hilltop villages, fields of lavender, stone farmhouses, great local markets and vineyards make it one of the most picturesque parts of France. The food and wine are delicious, there are Roman ruins and castles to explore and life is that little bit more laid-back so everyone is more relaxed.
We spent a week exploring the Vaucluse area in the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains in the north west of Provence. Here are some of the things that made us fall in love with the area.
In an area this gorgeous you’d be mad not to want to explore as much as you can on foot. We found some lovely walks through pretty hilltop villages, like tiny Séguret, with its picturesque old houses, narrow streets and 12th-century church. If you follow the path further up the hill, through the cypress and pine trees, you get to the ruined castle at the top. Our two boys are used to walking but it’s always easier to entice them with the promise of a castle at the end – or an ice-cream.
In these hillside villages we spent most of our time clambering up paths to get to the top of the hill, past olive groves and vineyards. The view from the top was always breathtaking – terracotta-coloured houses, other towns clinging to the hillsides and Mont Ventoux in the distance. We usually set off in the morning when it was cooler and worked up an appetite for lunch.
It has been said that if the French love to eat, the people of Provence live to eat and Provence certainly has some of the best food in France. Families here don’t rush their meals. They linger over the food, chatting and enjoying the meal and the wine.
Eating out in France is an event for the whole family. When the French have lunch they have a proper lunch. On our first couple of days we kept looking for cafés where we could get a quick sandwich but the only places we could find served un menu du jour, a main course and pudding.
It worked out more expensive than we’d planned – the four of us couldn’t eat for less than €50 – but it was a delicious treat. We had steak one day, fresh cod or a big Chicken Caesar Salad the next, followed by Crème Caramel, Raspberry Cream or Tiramisù.
The boys ate brilliantly: they polished off fish cooked delicately with a bit of oil and lemon and that classic on French menus for children: steak hâché, which is basically minced steak in a burger patty, usually served with chips. They finished everything that was put in front of them, licked their lips and wondered what was for pudding.
The 11-year-old was determined to try steak in all its variations, from rare to well-done. He was particularly keen to try it bleu, even after I’d explained that rare steak in France means that the cook has just placed the meat on the frying pan for an instant before putting it on the plate. He enjoyed it and we were delighted that he wanted to try everything.
Our long lunches worked well for all of us. The weather was sunny so we ate outside and enjoyed the experience of sitting together as a family, chatting about what we’d seen and tasting each other’s food. If the boys got restless they were able to wander around the courtyard – or wherever we happened to be – in-between courses.
THE ROMAN RUINS
Our most memorable day in Provence was visiting the Roman ruins at Vaison-la-Romaine. The ruins here are amazing. There was an important Roman city here and it’s the biggest Gallo-Roman site in France. Archaeologists have uncovered entire villas, shops and an amphitheatre and visitors can walk around the whole site.
There is a good museum with statues, mosaics and domestic objects found in and around Vaison, with a helpful audio guide and an excellent film which shows you what the site would have looked like in Roman times so that when you walk around afterwards, you can tell whether you’re in the kitchen, dining room or study.
The ruins are divided into two separate sites, the Quartier de Puymin, containing the museum and amphitheatre and, across the road, the Quartier de la Villasse, with its colonnaded main street, shops and large villas. Tickets for the site are valid for 24 hours so it’s a good idea to do as we did and explore the site in two visits, one in the afternoon and one the following morning.
We were particularly impressed with the Quartier de la Villasse. When we visited in the morning there was hardly anyone there so it felt like we had the whole site to ourselves. The boys clambered over the ruins, found a secret tunnel, sat on the Roman loos and pretended to be Romans in their own house.
It was one of those brilliant trips as a family where every single one of us was completely engaged and interested. We weren’t doing it for the sake of the children and they weren’t trailing after their parents. We all loved it.
Most of the restaurants throw in a quarter litre of wine as part of their menu. Here in Provence, it’s not just a treat to have a glass of wine with your meal, it’s expected. Our waiters asked us not what we wanted to drink but whether we wanted white or red wine. One lunchtime, when I said I didn’t want wine, I was asked what I’d like as my apéritif instead.
Here, in the heart of the Côtes du Rhône, the wine is fantastic. In the evenings us adults shared a half litre of the local red for €7, knowing that it would be delicious. It’s a good job the wine was so reasonably priced, given that we were struggling to pay less than €12 for a main course anywhere.
We went wine tasting in Gigondas, a charming village near where we were staying. Gigondas, a full-bodied, Grenache-based red wine is every bit as delicious as the more famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape but it’s not as much on the tourist circuit so it tends to be less expensive and the village is certainly not as busy to visit as the touristy Châteauneuf.
We visited the wineries of Gabriel Meffre and tasted at least seven different bottles. They were more than happy to open lots of different vintages for us despite the fact that we’d told them we could only buy two or three bottles (rather than the crates that other customers were going away with).
The boys found an adjacent room with comfy chairs where they curled up with their books. We were there for just over half an hour so I was mortified to hear my youngest telling a friend of mine that he’d just been on “a wine holiday”!
Our boys are at that age, 9 and 11, where they’re both desperate for some independence. It’s something I really struggle with as a parent because much as I want to give it to them, I find it difficult because of worrying about strangers accosting children and busy roads etc. It’s all too easy to want to keep them safe all the time, to keep them inside the house or in a fenced-off garden.
But in Provence it felt as if we all took a big step. We allowed them to go alone to the pâtisserie every morning to buy our pastries for breakfast. We went together the first few mornings and tried to impress on the boys the importance of looking left and right when they crossed the road. But it felt safe enough. We were staying in a quiet village called Sablet – they only had to walk down the road and cross from one side to the other. The trouble is our two, like a lot of children, don’t believe in walking when they can run and they seem remarkably incapable of looking before they cross a road.
Nevertheless we sent them off with a pile of Euros in their pocket and stayed in bed, sipping tea. It felt like a real treat. The boys relished their new-found freedom and took great delight in presenting us with their horde of pastries: almond croissants, pain au chocolat, apple turnovers, pastry twists with almonds, apple and chocolate.
I don’t know what the reaction was at the pâtisserie every morning when our two turned up and tried out their basic French. Harry admitted later that one morning, a queue formed out of the door and onto the pavement while Edward insisted on asking the baker eight times (Harry counted!) if she was sure she didn’t have any pain au raisins. Apparently he didn’t believe her as she’d produced some just out of the oven only the day before! I bet there were a fair few comments about the little English boys that morning.
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