Going to Camargue as a family, the sound advice of a mum
13 January 2020
Do you have a sudden yearning for wilderness and big boluses of air in the heart of unique and stunning landscapes? How about a little getaway in the country of birds, manades and the gentle way of life? The Camargue remains a sunny and protected destination ideal for family holidays.
If the region can boast of many features all year round, spring and autumn seem to be the best seasons for a holiday with children. Mosquitoes are less prevalent during this period and the crowds of summer months are avoided. But if you want a piece of advice, strange as it may seem, my favourite season is December when the Provencal Christmas is slowly being prepared around beautiful ancestral traditions.
The Camargue boasts an exceptional cultural and gastronomic heritage, all of which is complemented by some wild and well-maintained beaches. There are many activities to enjoy with your family and you can wander through the towns full of history that have made its reputation.
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Arles or Aigues-Mortes offer a real change of scenery. One quickly immerses oneself in the local culture for an experience of total disconnection, in harmony with nature.
I have a very special affection for the city of Arles, a historic city of Roman antiquity which has developed with finesse while preserving and restoring its remarkable heritage over the years. Thus, it is in Arles that I recommend that you lay camp with your whole little tribe. And to do so, there is only one address, the one we prefer for its artistic side and its very particular soul, the hotel L’Arlatan.
Sleeping at l’Arlatan
This beautiful private mansion leaning against one of the ancient walls of the Thermal Baths of Constantine carries the promise of a serene and high-flying stay. The House boasts of a contemporary design space quite unique in the region while remaining in the festive spirit of the Camargue. The decoration generally pleases the youngest ones because shapes and colours confer a joyful soul to the place, echoing the gipsy festivals so dear to the heart of the Camargue.
Cuban-American designer Jorge Prado has infused his unique spirit into the 35 rooms and suites as well as the common areas. In the restaurant, a veritable open-air museum, each piece of furniture or decoration is a work of art carefully catalogued in a notebook that can be consulted.
But don’t be mistaken, we are in an authentic home to live in where everything has been designed to welcome families with dignity. Connected rooms, private residence with 5 rooms for the large groups, baby equipment, babysitting service, gifts for the little ones and children’s menus, it definitely feels like home but with that little something extra exotic…
As for the table, I love the concept of L’Arlatan restaurant where the whole family enjoyed themselves. A simple and efficient menu, excellent local products and some divine tricks at the service of tasty Mediterranean dishes, all under the guidance of the excellent chef Armand Arnal. We fell in love with the convivial plates to share and the famous Paris Sambuc with rosemary praline cream, a successful reinterpretation of Paris Brest.
Focus on Arles
Let’s take advantage of your accommodation in this singular hotel which gives pride of place to the day-trippers to stroll a little in the pretty streets of the city where many treasures are revealed to be discovered with the family. Here, there is no lack of proposals to keep the youngest ones busy. Of course, these are cultural visits, but they can become fun if you present them tactfully to your dear blond heads, who will love to imagine themselves as a Roman gladiator or a merchant going down the Rhône on board a barge loaded with victuals around 50 AD.
The blue museum
This is the name given to the Museum of Ancient Arles, which I strongly recommend you visit. This imposing contemporary liner located a short distance from the city centre is the ideal “playground” for the youngest visitors. The architecture of this museum alone is worth the detour. In this place bathed in light, marvellously combining modern construction and preservation of the vestiges of Mediterranean civilization, young and old alike will marvel at the major (and sometimes monumental!) works of local heritage such as the torso of Aiôn or the statue of Medea the Magician. It is a real “museum city” with a triangular plan in which you can stroll as if you were in a city. This vast space is perfectly adapted to a family visit and allows you to easily discover the Roman civilization through different themes. Children will be able to move freely around the statues and, above all, take full advantage of the highlight of the show: the Roman Gallo Barge, marvellously reconstructed by archaeologists. It is accompanied by some 450 objects that allow them to understand the context and a very didactic video. An interactive tablet equipped with the ARKEOFIL application is also available for children to familiarize them in an entertaining way with this world that seems so far away. Although Justine was impressed by this ancient ship, she really learned to appreciate sculpture when she discovered the colossal statue of Emperor Augustus.
To recover from these artistic emotions, indulge in a serene and gourmet break by taking a moment around the few tables of the Pâtisserie Masaki Yamamoto. This former Arlesian institution now welcomes the talent of a Japanese baker-pastry maker who gracefully reinterprets local specialities. Millefeuille competition for the youngest and baba à la chartreuse for mum and dad, a delicious moment in prospect. Enjoy the tasting!
And, if the season allows it, why not let yourself be tempted by one of Soleileïs? Everything here is natural and tasty. Special mention for the cocoa sorbet and the famous orange-lemon-basil recipe.
Some old stones
Are you cheered up? Perfect! Then off to the Roman arenas, without forgetting a little detour to the ancient theatre. And to motivate the troops, I’d reckon you should find a nice illustrated book accessible to the youngest ones to familiarize them with the Roman history of the city and let them imagine themselves as proud gladiators when they find themselves in the heart of this magnificent site steeped in history.
This monumental Roman amphitheatre, commonly known as the Arena, remains a world-famous landmark of the city. It could accommodate up to 20,000 people for gladiatorial shows, animal fights or games. The oval stage allowed everyone to see the show perfectly.
The neighbouring theatre, on the other hand, was used for quieter mime or dance performances; children love to sit on the stage as if they were actors.
If you have not overdosed with old stones, let your steps guide you through the city to discover the old mansions, the beautiful mansions, the statuettes placed in the stone niches at the corners of the houses, the Archbishop’s Palace, the numerous convents and chapels, the Saint-Trophime Cloister or the Marine Baths. Don’t forget that in Arles, strolling is the third passion after bullfighting and pétanque!
On the museum side, I can only recommend the very interesting Van Gogh Foundation, housed in the former Banque de France and directed by the patron Maya Hoffmann. Vincent Van Gogh, an essential painter of 20th-century art, has found in Arles a magnificent setting for his unpublished works. The artist lived here for a few months from 1888 to 1889, the time to paint some of his most beautiful masterpieces which are regularly shown here in perspective with the works of contemporary artists. The museum offers many activities designed to help you and your family discover the best of art. By the way, do you know the history of Van Gogh’s ear? It is said that it was in Arles that he cut off his ear to give it as a present to a young girl he had fallen in love with!
A secret museum
Another place, another atmosphere, much more confidential this time, the Réattu Museum, a real little gem where you must make a short stop if only to discover this former Grand Priory of the Order of Malta wonderfully located on the banks of the tumultuous Grand Rhône. And if you had to choose just one artist, it could be Antoine Raspal, whose works I learned to appreciate during our last escapade in Arles. This 18th-century painter has indeed captured the local life and especially the Arlesian interiors decorated with fabrics and colourful traditional costumes. A delight!
Food and drinks
If after all this, you find yourself famished, that’s normal! In addition to the delicious restaurant of L’Arlatan hotel, I recommend the contemporary market garden gastronomy of Chef Armand Arnal. In his restaurant La Chassagnette, the intuitive cuisine is built to the rhythm of the seasons and offers the best of nature. A peace haven nestled in the heart of Camargue Park, away from the city.
Another great name in Arles cuisine, which also marvellously combines the treasures of nature, is Jean-Luc Rabanel, whose two restaurants adjoin each other in old Arles. For a little nibble with the family, the Bistro À côté, which reinterprets traditional dishes from childhood and memories, will prove to be ideal. While the gastronomic restaurant l’Atelier will make you experience a more singular and exclusive gustatory emotion.
For a more “classic” experience of Provençal gastronomy, I encourage you to explore Le Galoubet, around the fireplace or on the lovely terrace decorated with Virginia creeper, where you can enjoy a generous and tasty southern cuisine.
Finally, a place that has become an essential part of the life of Arles that I highly recommend, Le Buste et l’Oreille, a wine cellar where you can nibble your way through the world around a wide selection of wines. There is always something going on there.
And to finish with Arles, I’ve reserved my favourite spot for you, the wonderful Librairie Acte Sud bookstore. Where we come from, education always comes through books. We have tried to pass on to our children a taste for sentences that dance on paper, pages that we turn with delight and the magic within words. So family holidays are always an excuse to find the most beautiful bookshops in the world. In Arles, we were overjoyed to discover the shelves of this iconic bookstore which houses some 40,000 titles as well as a large vinyl section. All this is complemented by a restaurant, a cinema and even a hammam. Total bliss!
One last piece of advice, try to be in Arles on a Saturday morning to visit the beautiful Provencal market where market gardeners, poultry farmers, cheesemakers and local craftsmen compete to delight visitors. You will take the opportunity to taste the delicious Provençal shuttles with orange blossom and let yourself be tempted by a few broken olives from Les Baux de Provence.
And now, how about we take to the open sea? Let’s head for the sea!
The Camargue Regional Natural Park
The city is nice, but when you’re with your family, a walk in the countryside is even better! Therefore, I suggest you take the direction of the Camargue Regional Natural Park. The ornithological park of the Pont de Gau is one of the most beautiful ornithological reserves in Europe. Situated north of Saintes Maries de la Mer, it reveals its immense preserved marshes which are home to many species of birds on their way to their long migrations. In May, the elegant ballet of flamingos can be observed, which always delights children. The paths are very easy to follow with a stroller and are therefore perfect for a family walk. Don’t forget to bring a good camera and binoculars and set off for a day in the wilderness. To spice up the day, you can also take a new means of transport, the paddlewheel boat which will take you on a cruise on the Petit Rhône. The ride lasts 1h30 and includes a break in a horse or bull ride to discover the profession of guardian. The manades are very popular with children who discover the herds of animals living without constraint in the middle of nature.
Another good plan to share with your family, if your children are not too small, a safari in 4×4 or Quad to enjoy this beautiful nature even more. Of course, you can also enjoy beautiful horseback riding.
As for culture, don’t forget to make your way to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a pretty gipsy village where you can feel the heart of the Camargue beating. Here you can soak up the local culture as you wander through the streets with their typical regional architecture. At the centre of all the attention is the church which dominates the town where the famous Black Virgin, so dear to the hearts of travellers, has taken up residence. Many festivities take place here throughout the year. Such as the Travellers’ pilgrimage in May, the horse feria around 14 July, the Camargue races on 15 August or the Abrivado festival on 11 November, during which more than 1,000 horses’ race on the beach.
Aigues-Mortes is interesting for its citadel, a vestige of the medieval period, which offers magnificent panoramas all along the walk. From the top of the Tower of Constance, you can enjoy a superb view of the Rhone Canal as far as Sète, where, a few centuries ago, merchant ships used to dock. From the top of the ramparts, you can also see some beautiful houses with exotic gardens. A very well-made short film allows children to discover the crusades and the story of the Good King Saint Louis. Afterwards, one will not fail to get lost in the cobbled streets which are animated all year round.
A spa getaway
If you still have a little time left for a wellness break between two visits, here is a cosy parenthesis only 20km from Arles. Welcome to Domaine de Manville, a prime address and member of The Little Guest Hotels Collection. Here you will find a magnificent spa open to nature that offers comforting signature treatments and even opens its doors to children and teenagers in the morning from 10 am to 1 pm. And why not combine this moment with a good snack at the hotel bar or lunch?
I hope that you will enjoy your stay in the Camargue as much as we did and that the magic of the place will seduce you.
Enjoy your walk!
Catherine, married, Mom of Justine, from Paris