I find travelling around Europe with kids is a surreal experience for this kiwi girl from Christchurch, New Zealand.
I remember in 1998 having a friend from Italy visit and I was eager for him to see the Christchurch Cathedral which was erected between 1864-1904. Before the devastating earthquake in February 2011, the cathedral was one of the city’s most historic buildings so naturally I wanted to show it off. As I was explaining this ‘ancient’ building to my friend he turned to me and said;
‘Jaimee, I think my house is older than your cathedral’.
That certainly put history into perspective for me. NZ is a baby compared to what else is out there and I wanna see as much of it as I can with my husband and 3 kids.
So, for our summer holiday this year we packed up the car and drove 4.5 hours from our home in Grenoble, France to St Tropez on the French Riviera for two weeks, and here is what we discovered:
Day one after arriving, we stumbled upon the stunning medieval village of Ramatuelle.
Found in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in the south of France. It has been inhabited by people since prehistoric times and was originally built high on a clifftop to escape the pirates who terrorised the villages along the Mediterranean coast.
It’s cobblestone streets coil around it’s chateau and you can feel the history at every turn. My favourite features were the stone houses with pastel shutters and the Jasmine and honeysuckle that seemed to cover everything.
TIP: This is a small village and you only really need to spend maybe 2 hours here – but the markets on Thursday and Saturday are well worth visiting.
Next up we visited the famous ‘Place des Lices Market’ in St Tropez.
The square where the markets stand was a former medieval jousting area that hosted knight’s tournaments and has since been the home of the markets since 1622!!! Although, you do need to be cashed up for these markets if you want to buy anything – prices are on the high side for everything in St Tropez and the markets were no exception.
TIP: The market is not really an enjoyable adventure for the kids, especially if you’re a market moocher like me! So find them a Tarte Tropezienne early on to munch on and they may just hang in there with you! Afterwards you can take them to the marina and play; ‘which one would I own?’ with one the many docked super yachts.
Sainte-Maxime was also on my hit list and I’m so glad we made it there.
Founded by monks in 1000AD & named after a nun who died in 750, it’s a smaller, and I think, more charming version of St Tropez.
We took the little tourist train on a tour around the town and it was brilliant. The train chugs up the hill offering a magnificent view over the gulf back towards St Tropez. Its also a great opportunity for some house snooping! The grand bourgeois homes did not disappoint. It wasn’t too hot the day we we there so we could walk around the streets and enjoy the many shops and restaurants on offer as well as take in some more super yachts parked in the marina.
TIP: There are plenty of places to stop and eat with kids or you choose from the many ice cream shops – try and take cash with you as cash machines are hard to find. Evenings are lovely here and still very lively if you want to get out and enjoy a later meal. When we came through at night time there were still plenty of kids awake and dining with their parents at 10 or 11pm!
If it’s warm, definitely take your swimwear and find the beach on the other side of Sainte-Maxime called Plage de la Nartelle. It’s famous for water sports but with its sandy beach is great for kids.
Family Accommodation Options:
Even though the St Tropez region is known for being a pricey place, it doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg to stay there. We stayed in a camping village about a 10 min drive from St Tropez and 5 minutes from Ramatuelle. It was nestled amongst vineyards and provided everything we needed for the kids. The accommodation was roomy with 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, a large deck and a spa pool. The village itself offered plenty of activities for the kids including a kids club, a fantastic (and secure) play area and the pool area was a kids dream. It had 4 different swimming areas; a babies pool, deep pool, river pool and private adult only pool as well as slides with a small hydro-slide. There’s a restaurant, bar, bread shop and laundromat all on site and an added bonus of views over the Gulf of St Tropez on one side of the village and sweeping vineyards on the other.
We’ve used these villages in Portugal, Spain and France and can’t recommend them highly enough if you are travelling with kids. There is a range of accommodation options from premium to budget – depending on what you want to spend.
Our final visit was a last minute decision but turned out to be my favourite of the holiday!
Grimaud is a village dating back to the neolithic ages and was about 20 minutes from where we were staying. It sits at the foot of a château, now in ruins, built sometime before the 11th century as a fort to protect the village. Due to it’s breathtaking views and position on a hill top, it also guarded access to the Gulf of St Tropez from the Middle Ages until the French Revolution.
The town is simply spectacular with it’s vaulted arches, cobble streets, stunning church and houses decorated with bright shutters covered in Bougainvillea and Jasmine flowers.
The kids actually really enjoyed Grimaud and its hidden walkways, dark doors and castle history.
TIP: Parking was pretty easy to find and the signs to the château are quite obvious. Finding your way back can be a bit trickier if you didn’t pay attention on the way from the car! I suggest taking your own food here if you have kids. There was a little square in the middle of the village but as it was quite busy which limited the options.
TOP 10 ‘DAY-TRIP’ TIPS with kids:
- We usually pick spots that we can visit in a morning or afternoon. With 3 kids, full day trips every day can be exhausting for everyone.
- I always pack snacks incase food is hard to find and plenty of water for hot days.
- Take cash as cash machines can be hard to find.
- Even if you’re not planning on swimming, pack togs and towels…just in case you spot a sweet swimming area. There are coves and beaches everywhere and most are easily accessible and family friendly – although you will have to pay for sun lounges and umbrellas, so be prepared. You’ll also need cash for car parking at beaches.
- Sunblock! Before we leave the house we put it on the kids and take it incase we need to reapply. Some of these villages have minimal shelter on warm days.
- Suitable shoes for you and the kids. It might be hot, but it’s hard to climb ruins wearing flimsy sandals / jandals.
- Pack a mini first aid kit. A minor slip and fall is easier to deal with if you have some plasters on hand.
- Patience…..in abundance!
- If you have a child under 2, take a front / back-pack to carry them as well as the option of a pram. Its difficult to know until you arrive what will be easier. In Ramatuelle, we ended up carrying the pram up about 100 steps to reach the ruins!
- Read up on the history of the village before you head off and talk about it with your kids as you walk around. I was surprised how interested the kids were and also what information they recalled from their school history studies. For younger kids, we would ask ‘what is different about this village compared to where we live?‘. Get them to notice the colours of the buildings, stones vs bricks, different types of flowers / plants etc……alternatively take snacks to keep them occupied or offer them an ice-cream bribe!!
Sometimes it can be hard to travel with kids, but it is so worth it. We’ve been dragging our kids around Europe to castles and forts and walls since the boys were 17 months and 3 years old. With Lily, it just means more planning. But when we return to NZ to live and they are reading about history in high school, I hope they will remember the smells, sights and sounds of what these places actually felt like – in real life, and not have to merely imagine it from the photos in a book.
Have fun and be bold with your exploration!
Extra notes on driving in France:
- Driving in France should come with a ‘TAKE CAUTION’ warning. While driving on the highways is easy and time efficient, on the single lane roads that link the towns & villages life can become dicey! Oncoming cars often cut over the centre white line on corners and will perform passing manoeuvres on corners and/or with limited visibility. I can only recommend taking your time, especially if you are used to driving on the opposite side of the road.
- To drive the motorways in France you have to pay tolls which can be expensive. Grenoble to St Tropez cost us about €40 one way, but it is the most time efficient and safest way to travel.