Hire a campervan or RV in Avignon and load up the kids for a road trip to see the towns, fields, vineyards and history of the real Provence.
By Rachel Ifans
Having owned a motorhome (an RV) for seven years and spent each summer trekking around Europe in it, I can say with some assurance that Europe is the perfect place for a road trip. Towns, cities, and, hey, even countries, are close together enough to make journeying fun and there’s no better way to see a place than by meandering through its towns and villages.
One year – it was 2016, actually and fresh on the back of the shocking Brexit result in the UK referendum on EU membership – we managed to tick off seven countries in our six-week stint in the van – UK, Belgium, France, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, and Italy. (Yeah, I know, it doesn’t take a psychiatrist to see a link between our Brexit heartache and a morbid desire to metaphorically apologize to our European brethren by trying to visit them all in one summer!)
It sounds a bit bonkers – and it was quite extreme – but the fact is that you can do that kind of trip quite easily in Europe because it’s all so compact and bijou. If you’re planning your own Grand Tour of Europe, I’m hoping that reading this article will make you consider another way to do it – or at least to do part of it. I’m going to tell you about a mini road trip I’ve just taken with my kids and a friend and her kids (no husbands) in the south of France. Enjoy the ride!
Hiring a Campervan in Europe
We chose to go out of season and flew south for Autumn warmth. We flew from London Gatwick to Marseille with Easyjet and picked up our hire vans there, using our four days and three nights in the van to explore the Vaucluse area instead of staying on the coast. We wanted to see the real Provence and although we only scratched the surface in the time we had, we packed a lot in.
We hired from a great company called Indie Campers, which has over 30 European locations you can hire from. You can take from and return to the same place or you can hire a van from one location and drop it off in another at the end of your road trip. We hired Nomad vans which accommodate four people (with two bunks at the back). All Indie vans come with bedding kits and kitchen utensils so you really can just fly and drive. (Top tip: take a torch for those dark evenings outside – we found ourselves dining in the dusk!)
A Girls-plus-Kids Trip
Two twin vans, two Mums (Rachel and Lucy), and four kids, aged 15, 14, 12 and 12.
Day 1 – We Got Ourselves a Convoy
After a mid-morning rendezvous with Indie Campers’ José to pick up our vans, and a one-hour drive to Avignon, we visited the famous St Bénézet Bridge. You may not be familiar with the name but it’s the one from the global hit sensation “Sur le Pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’ on y danse.”
Built in the 12th century by a shepherd, the original 22 arches of bridge are now reduced to four, stopping midway across the river, and just one of its original four chapels. It’s a beauty though and we happened to be there at what my daughter calls Golden Hour – the best time for snapping Insta pics apparently, everything bathed in a glowy end-of-the-day sunlight.
The Pope’s Palace
Day 2 – Bring on the E-bikes!
We were up at dawn, well when I say dawn, I mean teen-dawn. It was 8am, and we drove 30 minutes to the jaw-dropping amphitheater – the Theatre Antique – in Orange.
We started off with the visite virtuelle, a 10-minute VR view of what the theatre was like in Roman times. Then we each grabbed an audioguide and wandered off into our own worlds. The guide – in English – 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.
What makes it super special is that the mur-de-scene (the backdrop of the stage) is still complete. Before we mooched back through town to the van, we stuck our heads in the museum opposite, because we’d heard a new find had been discovered only this year at the Arc de Trimphe on the edge of town. It was a huge and impressive stone face whose eyes followed the kids around the room wherever they went. I wish I had that effect on my kids!
An e-bike ride through the vineyards
We were off to a wine tasting session at Cellier Des Princes, Coustellet, where we’d also booked six e-bikes. Panniers stuffed with picnic and helmets donned, we turned the keys and set off. Yes, keys!
We were all delighted by e-bikes. The terrain was nobbly, bobbly paths through the vineyards of the iconic Chateauneuf du Pape vineyards so the extra power was a boon. I was like the proverbial pig in sh&t as the sun shone and we turbo-boosted ourselves up hill after hill, past vine after vine. Apparently, the boys reached speeds of 50km at some points; I think Lucy and I must have been laying out the picnic blanket when that was going on.
Nutty about nougat
After our ride, we stopped off at a beautiful nougat shop and salon de thé we’d read about called Silvain (in the nearby village of Carpentras). Now, this was a tasting session the kids were much more interested in!
Day 3 – Eat, Sleep, Culture: Repeat
Our third morning saw us leave Camping Bagatelle for good and travel the short distance to Isle Sur La Sorgue. If you want to experience France in a microcosm this is the perfect place: it has a river that encircles an island; ornate iron bridges hundreds of antiques shops grouped into seven different ‘villages’; a wonderful locals’ food market, décor, sweets, thé and tisane shops du jour; typically French buildings; and a few art-nouveau treats too. Need I say more?
Learning about lavender
Time was short as we pitstopped at the Musée de la Lavande in Coustellet but the child-friendly guided tour really grabbed the attention of the kids and they even – wait for it – got involved in some lavender-based crafts! They also learned a lot about real and hybrid lavenders, where they grow and how they differ. (No, don’t whine, I’m going to tell you now: real lavender has medicinal properties and grows high up in the mountains; the hybrid doesn’t do much in the way of healing but smells just as nice, and grows lower down.)
A breath of fresh aire
We stayed in an aire in Fontaine de Vaucluse on our last night; aires are like campgrounds for vans. Some cost nothing, but more often they are very cheap, some have washblocks and some are literally a secure carpark with bins and the kit you need for emptying and refilling your van with water etc.
We strolled into the tiny town, famous for its massive karst spring, and bribed the kids to order their dinners in French – the payback was the awesome food they got in return and it really was very tasty. The lovely thing about France is the quality of food you get just in the most normal restaurants. This place was unremarkable to look at but served up really tasty French food and we all loved it.
Day 4 – Time for some theme park fun
On our last morning, the kids were really getting used to speaking French and wandered into the town to find a boulangerie and to get our breakfast. We were so proud of them for having a go and they got a lot of kudos from the French people we met for doing so.
Parc Spirou – company and bijou
We then travelled to a nearby and relatively new theme park called Parc Spirou. It’s small but enjoyable, with just about enough to keep older kids happy. It was quite busy on the day we went and queues were fairly long but it gave them a chance to blow off steam and purge their souls of all the history and learning we’d put them through.
Late afternoon, we returned to Marseille to drop off our vans at the airport before flying home. What a wonderful trip – I’m not sure you could call it a holiday but it was great fun and all we needed now was a long lie down with a cold flannel over our faces.
Tips for Campervanning / RVing in France
- Drive on the right. The Nomad van was only a year old and had parking beepers so although it’s long and you don’t have a central mirror, you can reverse easily enough.
- You will encounter péages (tolls) on the motorways. The first one will give you a ticket and then when you leave the motorway you’ll be asked to pay. Take your time – it’s not a race.
- If you go out of season it’s wise to plan and book ahead for campsites as most are only open from Easter to mid September. In the summer, you can usually just roam and find a space. Out of season there are plenty that are still open but you need to plan your route ahead
- The French are very used to and positive about vans and motorhomers so you won’t encounter any issues on the road. They are patient and the roads are good.
- Aires and aires. There are a few types of aire in France. An aire de service is a place where you can fill up and empty the vital facilities in your van. Found in motorway service stations and in towns, they are useful for facilities but are not places you’d want to stop overnight. The other type of aire is a secure place for campervans to pull up overnight. They are often run by the local council and have a bar/shop nearby for provisions.
From the mouths of babes…
We had a packed itinerary but the kids were very up for the fun. Here are their highlights:
“Parc Spirou wasn’t as big as some of the theme parks we’ve been to at home, but that was better in a lot of ways. We quickly ran around everything and then spent the whole time on the Eviv Bulgroz massive spinning star and the Zombillénium tower.”
“I knew Mum would nag me the whole time to speak French so I gave in and managed to order all my drinks and meals. Word of the Week was dégustation which means tasting. There seemed to be a lot of those.”
“I’ve never been on an e-bike before. It doesn’t exactly do all the work for you, but it makes it very easy and we did 14 km around the vineyards before I even looked at the gauge. Nice picnic too.”
“WE’ve been to the area before but there was lots of new stuff to see and I loved being back in a van in France again. It was nice to open the back doors in the morning and wake up under the trees. And it was fun going away with friends.”
Rachel Ifans – November 2019
Rachel Ifans is a British journalist and editor, covering a wide range of lifestyle and travel subjects. Having sold their RV this summer, Rachel and family are enjoying spreading their wings and travelling outside Europe, but she’ll always return to her first love, France. Born unfortunately to non-French parents (!), Rachel has spent her life trying to make up for it by spending as much time as she can in France or writing about it, studying the language, tirelessly dragging her children round all six sides of l’Hexagone, and endlessly chuntering to her husband about moving there.
© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved
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