Frommer’s author Louise Simpson on cheap eats, cool campsites and free days out for families in the south of France
You don’t have to raise your head from your beach towel to enjoy two of the best free natural attractions in Southern France: the sunshine and the bright-blue Mediterranean Sea. But if it’s attractions and events you want, here are the best budget-minded options:
Summertime festivals provide excellent free entertainment for kids of all ages. Enjoy the extravagant International Fireworks Festival in Cannes and Monaco; lavender-scented floats at Digne-les-Bains’ Corso de la Lavande (+33-4-92-36-62-62) or costumed troubadours at Mornas’ Marché Médievale (+33-4-90-37-01-26).
PARKS AND RESERVES
If you’re staying inland, you can enjoy the undisturbed beauty of Provence’s nature reserves at no cost. The 70,000-hectare Mercantour National Park is home to Europe’s largest collection of pre-historic rock engravings, while the cedar-cloaked Luberon Regional Park is perfect for hiking. Only created in 1997, the Verdon Regional Natural Park boasts the jaw-dropping Verdon Gorges and the shimmering Lac de Sainte-Croix.
Parks and gardens all over Provence are perfect for cheap family picnics. Grab a pan bagnat (tuna nicoise salad in a bap) in Nice before whiling away the afternoon beside the chateau ruins at Parc du Chateau or buy a whole spit-roast chicken from a stallholder at Uzes’ Saturday market to eat in the shade on the Promenade des Maronniers.
For dessert, indulge in scoffing traditional sweets from Léonard Parli (+33-4-42-26-05-71) in Aix-en-Provence or Confiserie Florian (+33-4-93-59-32-91) in Tourrettes-sur-Loup where you’ll see workers hand-dipping fruit into orange-coloured chocolate.
When you’re looking for family-friendly culture without an entrance fee, head to Marseille’s Musée Cantini (+33-4-91-54-77-75) with celebrated masterpieces by Rothko, Kandinsky and Picasso or Musée du Vieux Nîmes (+33-4-66-76-73-70) displaying serge de Nîmes (denim) that Mr Levi Strauss used to create jeans.
DA VINCI CODE
Da Vinci Code addicts can explore the mystery of Mary Magdalene’s remains at La Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine (+33-4-94-59-84-59) in Ste-Maximin-La-Sainte-Baume, while no museum in Provence is more child-friendly than Marseille’s Préau des Accoules (+33-4-91-91-52-06), a children’s museum where tots to teens can learn about artists and create their own masterpieces in workshops.
Finally, fit in a free visit to a working glass-blowing factory where the sight of guys in shorts and sandals blowing on molten glass down the end of long metal pipes is entertainment for all ages. Cristallerie des Papes (+33-4-90-20-32-52) in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse and Verrerie de Biot (+33-4-93-65-03-00) turn red-hot molten blobs into glassware of surprising beauty and complexity. You may even find a souvenir worth taking home.
Campsites are an obvious choice for families on a budget. Many come equipped with everything from baby pools to chalets for those that don’t fancy sleeping in a tent. My favourites include the oleander-strewn Parc des Monges (+33-4-93-60-91-71) in Auribeau-sur-Siagne; Camping La Presqu’île de Giens (+33-4-94-58-22-86) on the striking Giens peninsula and Camping L’International (+33-4-92-83-66-67) near adventure-sports mecca, the Verdon Canyon.
If you want a French Riviera hotel beside the sea without the extortionate price tag that usually comes with it, head to Hôtel Le Florian (+33-4-93-39-24-82) minutes from Cannes’ golden beaches or Hôtel de la Darse (+33-4-93-01-72-54) overlooking Villefranche-sur-Mer’s famous Port de la Darse.
Meanwhile, families looking to combine cost-effectiveness with pine-forested charm will love Les Résidences du Colombier (+33-4-77-56-66-09) near Fréjus; 1000-acred Domaine de Roquerousse(+33-4-90-59-50-11) near Salon-de-Provence and eco-friendly Orion Bed & Breakfast (+33-4-93-24-87-51) in Saint-Paul-de-Vence.