Travel: Easter in Provence. So far, so good: Chris Gill and family drove south for a self-catering break in Orange blossom time

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The idea for our Easter break in France seemed a bit radical at first. Instead of staying conveniently close to home in Normandy or Brittany, or venturing just a bit farther, to the Loire or Burgundy, we would go a full day's drive from the Channel - effectively sacrificing two of the seven Continental days that were available to us.

Never mind the duration, feel the quality. In a day, we could just about get to Provence, even with small children on board. Our reward would be the closest thing to time-travel. Go to the Midi in summer and you simply get a different kind of summer; go in spring and you are transported a good month forward, to a time when cherry trees and wisteria are in full bloom, with outdoor adventures such as picnics very much on the cards.

There would also be a lot more at hand to entertain Alex (approaching six) and Laura (two) - Roman ruins, medieval fortresses . . .

The Plan first started to seem less appealing as we sat motionless on the docks at Portsmouth, waiting for the ferry to battle through the Easter gales from Le Havre. To be confident of arriving at our destination near Orange by eight the following evening, we needed to be on the road by eight in the morning. What time were we going to get to bed in Le Havre?

At about 1am, as it turned out, after an afternoon crossing spent mainly in a horizontal position, trying to fight off nausea in a comfortable P & O cabin. But next morning, slightly to my surprise, we were bang on schedule leaving the hotel Mercure - our favoured residence in Le Havre, because of its excellent four- person rooms (FF600) and very helpful staff.

As we cruised towards Paris with the gale at our back, the Plan began once more to appear sound. What could be more depressing than the prospect of confinement to a damp Norman farm building with a sou'wester blowing outside? How could we even have considered the wilds of Brittany? It was so conventional to think that a short holiday ruled out the pursuit of sunshine.

The Plan began to look less of a sure-fire hit, however, after our late breakfast just south of Paris, as we headed down the A6 towards Burgundy. The temperature, flashed up on the overhead displays along the autoroute, dropped from 7C to 2C, and, as we climbed towards the high ground of Yonne at around 350m, the heavy rain turned to hail and snow. Suddenly, the temperate Atlantic had its attractions. But we needn't have worried; our late lunch at Macon was accompanied by a two-hour break in

the weather, while a newspaper weather chart that we happened upon suggested that we would soon be in the sun.

And indeed we were. Spirits were high as we zipped along the Rhone valley in the early evening sunshine, surrounded by greenery and blossom - despite the accompaniment of Alex, wearily counting down the last 3,000 seconds to our arrival. They sagged somewhat as we followed the directions to the house, provided by our 'tour operator', VFB.

It wasn't only that the dominant feature of the landscape, as we homed in on property PER 26, was a nuclear power station; it was also that the detailed directions turned out

to be flawed. Almost fatally flawed, you might say, since they brought me into uncomfortably close contact with several of the mechants and doubtless rabid dogs that are an integral part of the average French rural retreat. Never rely on directions that hinge on the number of dustbins by the roadside, that's my advice.

Eventually, we tracked down PER 26, which was even more anonymous than it appeared in VFB's brochure. Spacious, cosily furnished house; nuclear power station now safely screened by trees; effusive welcome from Madame the owner, pastis in vast quantities from Monsieur; complimentary cooked poulet in the fridge, complimentary Cotes du Rhone on the table. Things were looking up again.

We were surprised to find that the promised 'split-level oven' was actually a plug-in worktop device the size of a shoebox. With our culinary ambitions, that wasn't a problem. But surely there was a washing machine? No. Didn't the brochure promise one? No, actually - we'd imagined it.

Alex, meanwhile, was already proving the first law of holidays with children: that the only things they enjoy are the things you don't plan. He had found a plastic golf set in the garage, and was soon teaching Laura the finer points of bunker shots. Provided they managed to avoid hooking into the empty pool, all would be well.

This same law was demonstrated daily - first on the bright but fiercely breezy Sunday morning, when our expedition to the epicerie and boulangerie in nearby St Paul- Trois-Chateaux was brought to an emergency stop by the familiar excited cry, 'There's a playground]' So there was, and a very successful one it turned out to be - necessitating a daily visit thereafter.

Then, an aimless ramble from a belvedere at the top of the local hill (perfectly placed for study of the power station), brought us to another kind of playground - a vast stone quarry with great clambering, echo-producing and clothes- ruining potential.

Easter Monday dawned gloomy and wet. A good day for Avignon and the Palace of the Popes? Yes and no. It got us out of the rain for an hour, but didn't impress Alex much, depending, as it did, on an adult appreciation of scale (are there bigger medieval chambers anywhere, I wonder?), and lacking weaponry and instruments of torture. Lacking loos, too, unless you have the wit to notice them half-way around the long tour.

But what was that parked outside? A 'train'.

It's easy to be sniffy about the rubber-wheeled, petrol-engined, seafront-style 'trains' that now trundle around French historic cities (well, around Avignon and Orange, anyway). But even without the child-captivation factor, they do help you to get your bearings; and they get you (or at least those of you sitting well away from the windows) out of the rain for half an hour.

Back at PER 26, we were greeted by an agitated neighbour, Madame's son Pascal. There was a partial power cut because of yesterday's winds. We had gas for cooking, and Pascal could provide candles, wood for a fire, wine to keep us mellow . . . It sounded fun. He could also provide water. Water? The water is pumped from a well - no electricity, no water. This sounded less fun.

It crossed my mind that he could surely pop down to the power station and borrow a couple of kilowatt-hours from them, but I wasn't sure if the joke would translate. We could have moved 20 miles to another property; but we decided to stay put, and our faith in Electricite de France was soon rewarded by a resumption of normal service.

Tuesday brought the opportunity to hit a hypermarket, and of course we took it. First law again: Alex and Laura were tickled to have their own mini-trolleys, with tall flagpoles to help us to keep track of their whereabouts. Fortunately, when Laura overturned hers through cornering too hard, the tall flagpole encountered no stack of tinned tuna.

In the afternoon, another highly successful expedition up the hill behind our house - to the deserted cave-dwelling village of Barry. And in the evening, pizza and ice cream in a simple restaurant in St Paul. The Italian wine was a mistake, but left me indulgent. 'What would you rather see tomorrow, mes enfants: Roman ruins or a huge canyon?' 'Roman ruins, please. What's a canyon?' So tomorrow would be Orange, not the Ardeche gorges.

The Roman theatre at Orange has three distinguishing features: it is huge, its stage wall is intact (giving it amazing acoustics), and it has a good launderette only about 200 yards away (ask at the tourist office). It is also the starting point of the Orange 'train', which has the special attraction of taking you up the hill behind the theatre for a bird's eye view.

But none of this compared with the compelling attractions of the neat little park near the market place, which has not only a modest playground, but also a pond with (if you're lucky) dead fish in it. A perfectly timed shower on this mainly sunny day forced us to consume our picnic under one of the slides, adding to the fun.

Having delivered an exaggerated description of a canyon, I was permitted to plan a short tour of the Ardeche gorges for our last day. It dawned wet and stormy, but we went ahead in the knowledge that there were some other things to see besides scenery - which is very dramatic, but only to adult eyes.

Prehistorama near Bidon was quite a success - a small but fairly serious and well- done museum of man's evolution (this area has yielded some important finds). The couple of caves we called at had inconveniently timed visits. The 'dinosaur zoo' at Marzal caves might have tempted us out into the rain had it looked less tacky - and had there not been the alternative of hastening back to base to go swimming at the excellent local leisure centre.

It was a glorious day as we headed up the A6 towards a day at Euro Disney. Now, that was what Alex called a holiday]

Final verdict on the Plan: a success. We'd do it again, though perhaps earlier or later in the year. Driving the length of France in a day was no problem - at least, until the car coasted to a halt south of Lyon with a burnt-out ignition system. But that's another story.

WHEN self-catering in France started to become fashionable about 15 years ago, I had a neighbour who referred to 'the French gits' he went to on holiday. I subsequently discovered that he was talking about holiday accommodation, not people.

Now everybody knows what gites are (and how to pronounce them). The majority of people who will self-cater in France this summer will probably find themselves in a gite of one sort or another. There are more than 30,000 gites in France: privately owned, self-contained rural properties, supervised by the non-profit Gites de France organisation.

The attraction of renting a cottage from a specialist operator is that there is greater quality control, the places are often better furnished and are more likely to offer such conveniences as dishwashers and washing machines. But, of course, the price is higher.

An alternative is the conventional self- catering property (villas and apartments) at the seaside and in cities. Many of the operators listed below can offer such places.

France also has a growing number of chains specialising in what amount to suite hotels. Orion, for example, offers attractive apartments in 32 locations throughout France (including Paris) which accommodate from one to five people. Information and reservations from Orion in London: 071-566 8000. Other companies offering residences include Residentiale (010 331 42 25 01 49) and Citadines (010 331 47 25 54 54).

Main self-catering specialists

AA Motoring Holidays (0256 493878); Air France Holidays (081-742 3377); Allez France Holidays (0903 742345); Beach Villas (0223 311113); Bonnes Vacances (081-948 3467); Bowhills (0489 878567); Bridgewater Travel (061 707 8547); Brittany Ferries (0752 221321); Cresta Holidays (061 926 9999); Destination France (081-689 9935); French Life Holidays (0532 390077); French Villas (081-651 1231); Gites de France (071-408 1343); Hoseasons Holidays (0502 500555); Interhome (081-891 1294); La France des Villages (0449 737664); Martin Sturge (0225 310822); Meon Villa Holidays (0730 268411); VFB Holidays (0242 526338); Vacances en Campagne (07987 433).

(Photographs omitted)

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