Independent Families: What day trips can we do in Provence?

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The Independent Travel

Q. We have booked a lovely looking villa close to the river Gard north of Nîmes, where quite frankly my wife and I would be happy to laze or stroll between indulgent meals. But we have twin nine-year-old girls who will demand rather more entertainment. What day-trips would you suggest?

A. It would be easy to while away the long Provençal summer days simply lolling alongside the river, feasting on the area's gastronomic delights, accompanied by a soothing symphony of cicadas. But you're parents, and such idle luxuries are no longer possible. Fortunately, Nîmes and the surrounding countryside offer enough exciting day-trip possibilities to make you more than willing to sacrifice the slothfulness in favour of entertaining the twins.

With a bit of planning, you may be able to get away without a car; most of these suggestions are accessible by public transport. Nearby Nîmes (00 33 4 66 58 38 00; www.ot-nimes.fr) doubles up as an easy first-day sightseeing and food-gathering trip. The town is perfect for a laid-back stroll although you might choose to avoid it during the férias (bullfighting festivals); the dates for these this summer are 25 May, 1-5 June and 15-17 September. Nîmes has some of France's most spectacular Roman architecture, the most dramatic of which is Les Arènes. This first-century venue is considered the best preserved of all Roman amphitheatres and reverberates with stories of chariot racing and gladiatorial battles.

Head to Les Halles, a covered food market dating from 1885, to stock up on local gourmet delights such as the freshest of vegetables, succulent olives, and the quintessential Provençal ingredient, garlic. If you're feeling flush, root out some truffles.

Next, set your sights on the Pont du Gard, an Unesco World Heritage Site just north of Nîmes. This ancient three-tiered Roman aqueduct (0820 903 330 from within France only; www.pontdugard.fr) is more child-friendly than its heritage status suggests. The highest tier is 275m long, with 35 arches that march 50m above the River Gard. You get the best view from just upstream, where you can also swim and picnic on hot days.

Around one million people visit the Pont du Gard every year. Helping to accommodate them all is Le Portal, a large complex on the left bank containing a museum, cinema and the Ludo - a children's entertainment centre designed to educate kids about the Romans and their relationship with water. Admission to the site is free but entry to the individual amusements within Le Portal costs €3-6 (£2.10-4.30). Alternatively, family tickets are €20 (£14.30). Parking is an extra €5 (£3.50). Note that the site is closed on Monday mornings.

If that's too commercial, an excellent alternative is the nearby Memoires de Garrigue - a 1.4km trail through typical Mediterranean olive groves and scrubland. It's worth investing €4 (£2.90) in a guidebook to help you get the most out of this place.

To get up-close and personal with the Pont du Gard itself, head to Collias (4km upstream), and then float downstream. Here you'll find a few companies providing canoe trips along the gorge of the River Gard, passing right underneath the aqueduct's arches. Kayak Vert (00 33 4 66 22 80 76) and Canoe Le Tourbillon (00 33 6 18 12 31 501) both offer half-day 6km group paddles.

The Camargue volunteers even more in the way of outdoor pursuits. The Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue (00 33 4 90 97 10 40) covers 863 sq km of wetlands. It boasts an astonishing array of wildlife including one in 10 of of the world's greater flamingo population. In addition, there are another 400-plus species of land and water birds found in the area. The best way to spot them is by wandering through the Parc Ornithologique du Pont de Gau (00 33 4 90 97 82 62; www.parcornithologique.com).

Another sight bound to enrapture young girls is wild white horses, which roam the area along with bulls and boars. There are plenty of farms offering horse-riding along the D570 on the way into Les-Saintes-Maries de la Mer. You can ride for one or two exhilarating hours for €14 or €26 (£10/£18).

If the girls are more water-babies than equine-inclined, Kayak Vert (00 33 4 66 73 57 17; www.kayak.camargue.fr) rents unsinkable canoes from Mas de Sylvéréal, 14km north of Les-Saintes-Maries. And if all that's a bit too much fresh air for you, a number of companies based in Arles run 4x4 safaris. Try a half-day trip with Camargue Découverte (00 33 4 90 96 69 20); the price is €40 (£28) for adults and €20 (£14) for under-12s.

It's wise to have a few indoor activities planned just in case the weather is less than idyllic. There's a reason for Provence's piercingly clear blue skies and stunning views and it's called the Mistral. This notorious wind can blow gusts of force 10-plus. The Mistral is common in the spring but can happen at other times of the year.

Another annoyance specific to the Camargue is the mosquitoes and midges that flourish in the summer because of all the still water. Pack plenty of insect repellent.

The Musée du Bonbon (00 33 4 66 22 74 39) on the D981 between the Pont du Gard and Uzes is guaranteed to cheer up bitten and wind-battered girls - and adults. This museum is sponsored by the confectioner Haribo, and overflows with sweet-based facts and fun. Learn about the history and process of sweet making, and hunt for treasure.

Trains are an ideal way to do some weatherproof sightseeing. Le Train des Alpilles (00 33 4 90 18 81 31; www.rdt13.fr) takes 40 minutes to dawdle the seven kilometres of stunning meadows and paddy fields between Arles and the town of Fontvielle. There's also an electric tourist train from Salin de Giraud (00 33 4 42 86 71 80; www.salins.fr), which carries you through pink-hued evaporation saltpans.

By rail or road it is easy to access other towns and cities; Arles, of course, with its Van Gogh connections (see page XV) and amphitheatre may appeal. Avignon itself is naturally worth a visit. And for something grittier, you could venture into Marseille, France's premier port and oldest major city (00 33 4 91 13 89 00; www.marseille-tourisme.com).

As for eating out with the kids, restaurants in the region are usually good at providing children's menus - while you indulge in some good Provençal cuisine.

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