Even a bribe of double ice cream scoops couldn't convince 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 5, 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 traveled 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 savored long dinners and wine.
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 weeklong 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 had seen personally that it was a perfect destination for children," said Kathy Stewart, Butterfield's director of European trips. "The Provençal culture is very warm, and there is plenty for kids to keep busy with."
On our first day, our guide took us zip-lining and kayaking. Meenakshi and Amrita zip-lined in an adventure park near Fontaine de Vaucluse that has circuits divided by age. A two-hour guided kayak trip down the Sorgue River on a boat filled with other young kids was up next. “Mom, mom,” Meenakshi exclaimed. “Can we please do this again tomorrow? Please?”
But van Gogh and the village of St. Remy were waiting. Before the painting class, we traveled to Chateaux des Baux — a fortress, built in the 10th century, 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.
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 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 “very cool” 3-D movie. (The current show is Van Gogh, Starry Night, until New Year’s.)
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 110 million years ago.
One afternoon, we went to the village of Cereste to check out Scaramouche, the ice cream store that locals continued to recommend. Started by Gwendal Auffret, who is from Brittany, and his wife, the American best-selling author Elizabeth Bard, Scaramouche makes ice cream in small batches using Provençal ingredients. (After sampling a half-dozen flavors including honey-thyme and lavender, Meenakshi and Amrita settled on dark chocolate, while I went for the melon.)
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.
We could have done a lot more: 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 amphitheater in Arles, and a visit to Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau to see the hundreds of pink flamingos 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.
Our vacation wasn’t the dreamy lovefest of a trip to Provence that I had the first time around, but I and my daughters relished it all the same.
Carrieres de Lumieres: carrieres-lumieres.com/en
Paul Cézanne studio: cezanne-en-provence.com/en
Roussillon and the Ochre Trail: roussillon-en-provence.fr/english