Rachel Ifans and schoolfriend Lucy Shrimpton decided to throw their kids in a pair of twin campervans and go in search of Autumn sun in the Vaucluse. Here’s Rachel’s report of their road trip…
We flew from London Gatwick to Marseille with Easyjet. On arrival we picked up our hire vans there, using a company called Indie Campers, which has over 30 European locations to choose from. There is a range of vans to hire. We went for the Nomads which accommodate four people and are at the premium end of the range. They all come equipped with bedding and kitchen kit so you really can just arrive with a cabin bag and get on the road.
Marseille to Avignon
A one-hour drive north from Marseille saw us parked up in Camping Bagatelle in Avignon. We made straight for the famous St Bénézet Bridge. You know the one – “Sur le Pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse”?
Built in the 12th century by a shepherd, a snaking 22 arches used to span both the Rhone on the Vaucluse side, as well as another wide stretch of the river on the Gard side. At the time, it was the only place you could cross the Rhone between Lyon and Marseille. And that’s why Avignon became such a large trading hub.
The bridge now only has four arches and just one of its original four chapels. We were there at sunset and everything was bathed in a glowy sunlight. It reminded us of summer holidays even though it was almost Halloween! As we were with four teenagers who had a severe case of parental embarrassment, we resisted the urge to dance on the bridge . Instead we sat outside the well-placed Le Moutardier du Pape bar in the Place du Palais to admire the view. Then we took a tour of the fabulous Palais des Papes, the largest gothic building in Europe and the seat of western Christianity in the 14th century.
Both adults and kids took the histopads as virtual guides. I really recommend it. You just sync the ‘pads’ at pods in each of the palace rooms to find out about the history and to get a VR tour of the place as it once looked. Our tour was quite rushed as it was right at the end of the day, but you could easily spend a couple of hours in the palace.
Roman legacy in Provence
The next morning was another sunny one (yay!) so we drove 30 minutes to the Theatre Antique in Orange. Again, we took advantage of the tech and advise anyone to do the same – with or without kids in tow.
We started off with the visite virtuelle, a 10-minute VR view of what the theatre was like in Roman times and then we each grabbed an audioguide. It was in English and really brought alive the theatre’s past, not just as a performance space but also as both a housing enclave and a prison for periods through the centuries. We also learnt about the mur-de-scene (the backdrop of the stage) which remains intact and still bears the holes where the scenery and drapes were nailed to it in Roman times! Orange is a small town which is lovely for a post-theatre mooch and a coffee, but we had to whizz off as we had an appointment with some pedal power.
Well, I say pedal power, but… Our next stop was Cellier Des Princes, a winemaker in the village of Courthezon where we’d booked six e-bikes, a Provencal picnic and a speedy dégustation before setting off.
We all fell in love with the e-bikes. They enabled us to cover a lot of ground with barely any effort and no moaning. The vineyards of the iconic Chateauneuf du Pape make for tough cycling. It’s hilly and the terrain can be bumpy, so a bit of electric help was much appreciated!
Sun-baked and happy after our 20km ride, we got back in our vans. Some of the party took a pitstop at a beautiful nougat-shop-cum-salon-de-thé called Silvain in the nearby village of Saint-Didier. It involved a look behind the scenes and another dégustation, this time one the kids could get more on board with.
The rest of the party took a less welcome pitstop at a local pharmacie having come off worse in an altercation with an e-bike and some gravel. Less said about that the better!
In and around Isle-sur-la-Sorgue
The next day we visited Isle-Sur-La -Sorgue. If you want to experience France in a perfect nutshell this is ideal: it has rivers; low ornate iron bridges which sometimes play host to boat races where the participants have to lie down on the boat – a negochin – to avoid being knocked right off!; hundreds of antiques shops; a wonderful locals’ food market, delectable and aesthetically perfect shops selling décor, sweets, thé and tisane; buildings adorned with faded crumbling ghost signs; and a few art-nouveau treats too.
We also visited Brun de Viran Tiran, a very high-quality woolmaker in Isle Sur La Sorgue. We’d read of ‘noble fibres’, an elegant phrase that sounded fascinating, and the mini museum above the shop didn’t disappoint. Like so many trades in France, this one has been passed through eight generations, so these guys are the real deal. They are specialists. So passionate about the heritage and the integrity of what they are creating, and to doing the original animal justice with the finished product.
Campervan travel adds to your Provence experience
Time was short at the Musée de la Lavande in Coustellet, but the interactive and informative guided tour taught us a lot about real and hybrid lavenders, where they grow and how they differ. Real lavender grows high up in the mountains and stays close to the ground but is the plant with the medicinal properties we all know about. The hybrid is a rangy plant which grows at lower altitudes and although fragrant, doesn’t do much in the way of healing.
On this, our final night, we stayed in an aire in Fontaine de Vaucluse. Aires are like campgrounds but only for vans. They vary all over Europe. Some are free, most are cheap, some have showers and loos. And, some are literally a secure carpark with bins and all the facilities you need for dealing with your van (emptying grey water, the loo, and filling up again with fresh water etc).
Look out for Aires
We had our own motorhome for seven years and we much preferred staying in aires to campsites. Not only are they cheap, they’re often in the very best locations. We’ve stayed in ones right by the sea, right in the centre of big cities, right at the bottom of ski slopes. Trust me, they’re worth checking out. (Details: campingcarpark.com/en/)
Fontaine de Vaucluse is famous for its karst spring. It’s the biggest spring in France and the fifth biggest in the world and the source of the River Sorgue. The water that rushes from it is turquoise and clear and only fluctuates between 11 and 14 degrees through the year.
Our last morning saw us up with the lark again and cleaning the vans for drop-off that afternoon. The kids wandered into the town to find a boulangerie and to buy us pastries and coffee.
We decided to reward them for their tenacity in visiting the many museums with us over the past couple of days by setting them loose in a new theme park called Parc Spirou. It’s compact and has lots of rides for younger kids. But, having said that, our teens and tweens really enjoyed the rides they could go on.
A one-hour drive back to Marseille saw us bid a sad farewell to our vans. It had been a fantastic adventure and we’d packed as much as we could into the four days. We really recommend the campervan hire option for an out-of-season break with a difference – especially when the weather is as kind as it was for us.
Find out more about Provence at: www.provenceguide.com
Rachel Ifans is a British journalist and editor, covering a wide range of lifestyle and travel subjects, but she always returns to her first love, France.