Les Baux-de-Provence is situated 15 km from Arles and 25 km from Avignon. The small village and its ruined medieval castle are the stars of the Alpilles. Set atop a rocky spur, it displays panoramic views over the Crau plain, the Camargue and the city of Arles.
Listed as one of the most beautiful villages of France, Les Baux-de-Provence attracts 1.5 million tourists a year, while it has a permanent population of only 400! Many of the houses still make for fascinating ruins which evoke the conditions of medieval times when the village’s population was as many as 4,000.
Historic Overview of Les Baux-de-Provence
It is believed that human settlement on the site of Les Baux dates back to 6000 BC, when it used to serve as a Celtic oppidum. The site itself has a huge strategic advantage. Thanks to its height, it offers an excellent view of the surrounding countryside and, as a result, offers excellent protection against raids or attacks.
But the most interesting part of its history took place during the Middle-Ages when Les Baux was the seat of the powerful – but rebellious and warring – lords of Baux. Over successive generations, the feudal lordship gained control of 79 towns and fortresses in Provence, Dauphiné and Italy, known as “Terres Baussenques” (Baux lands).
Claiming to be the descendants of Magus King Balthazar, the ambitious dynasty placed the Star of Bethlehem on their coat of arms and attempted to enforce their authority over Provence.
The rule of the strong-minded dynasty ended with the death of Alix in 1426, the last Princess of Les Baux, at which point the “Terres Baussenques” were seized by the Count of Provence, King Louis III of Sicily.
Consequently, when the County of Provence was annexed by the Kingdom of France in 1482, Les Baux changed its ruler once again. The King of France, who feared that his new authority in Provence might not be respected, did not want to risk losing the stronghold of Les Baux to the enemy. Distrusting Les Baux, which had built a bad reputation for rebellions over the years, the King of France, Louis XI, ordered its dismantlement in 1483.
However, the Renaissance era brought some prosperity back to Les Baux, when the castle and some of the surrounding houses were renovated. In 1631, during the period of the Wars of Religion, the castle was seized by insurgents who sought refuge after rebelling against the King of France.
Cardinal Richelieu besieged the town and, once his troops had succeeded in subduing the rebels, he ordered the dismantlement of the fortress. Since then, a long period of decline followed, which brought the population of the town down to 400 in the 1900’s.
That said, the village still gave its name to the aluminium ore Bauxite when it was first discovered in the region by geologist Pierre Berthier in 1821. “Baux”, derived from the Provençal dialect word “Baou”, means “rocky spur”.
The renewal of Les Baux came in the 1950’s when Chef Raymond Thuillier opened the famous restaurant Oustau de Baumanière in Les Baux-de-Provence. In 1966, André Malraux signed a decree which placed the entire town under the protection of the Ministry of Culture.
Visit of Les-Baux-de-Provence
Les Baux can only be visited on foot, which is the best option anyway in order to truly discover the many architectural features of the village, some of which are listed as historic monuments by the French government and have been carefully restored. These include St Vincent church, the town-hall, various Renaissance town-houses (hôtels particuliers) and chapels. The St Vincent church is one of the oldest buildings in Les Baux, with its 10th century Romanesque nave and ribbed barrel vaulting. In 1609, the nave was extended in the Renaissance style and modern stained-glass windows by Max Ingrand were added in 1960, as a gift from Prince Rainier III of Monaco. To the south of the church stands a circular turret, topped with a dome decorated with gargoyles. Traditionally, a fire would be lit in the turret each time a local died.
This entirely ‘real-life’ museum is home to art galleries and other smaller museums, as well as the inevitable souvenir and craft shops selling Provençal products!
Be sure not to miss the History Museum at the entrance to the village, whose exhibition documents in great detail the life and history of Les Baux over the years.
The Castle of Les-Baux-de-Provence
Set above Les Baux-de-Provence sits the “Citadelle des Baux”, the ruined castle of the village. The fortress is hardly distinguishable from the edge of the plateau on which it was built. Nevertheless, it still features remnants of its turbulent past: the dominating keep, the Sarracen tower (taking its name from the Saracen raiders who came from the South), and the Paravelle tower (used as a lookout tower).
1. The plateau and the entrance
The plateau which the castle extends across covers an area of 7 hectares. The visit of the whole domain takes at least 1.5 hours and should be avoided in summer when the hordes of tourists make the visit less enjoyable.
The entrance of the castle is located at the end of rue du Trencat in a building which displays two interesting models of what the castle looked like in the Middle-Ages. There is also a gift shop where you can find some interesting books about Les Baux. Audio guides in English are available if you wish to know a bit more about the history of the castle and its occupants.
Once inside the site, we recommend starting the visit by exploring the platform with its stunning view, which leads you to the orientation table at the south end. All along your visit you will find some information panels which explain the important landmarks of the site, some of them with helpful reconstituted images of how the castle used to look like in the Middle-Ages.
2. The Saint Blaise chapel and the cemetery
Located near the entrance of the castle, the Chapel of Saint Blaise was built in the 12th century by the guild of wool carders and cloth weavers. Beautifully preserved, the building is a good example of Romanesque architecture in Provence. Inside, a film “An aerial view of Provence” runs on a loop.
Opposite the Chapel, don’t miss the old cemetery which overlooks the Val d’Enfer (Hell Valley). Some illustrious local people are buried here: Provencal painter, Yves Bayer and poet André Suarès (1868-1948) who was also a friend of André Gide, Paul Claudel and Charles Péguy.
3. The Quiqueran Hospital
Next to the Saint Blaise Chapel, the Quiqueran Hospital was built between 1542 and 1583 by Jehanne de Quiqueran who was the wife of Honoré des Martins, Governor of Les Baux. Closed from 1787, it is now in ruins and allocated to be used for an array of shows such as:
– the weaponry demonstration (1pm, 3pm and 5pm) which presents medieval weapons and their history,
– the dressage show (11.30am, 2pm and 4pm on weekends and public holidays), with the participation of horseback falconry, real bears and trained dogs.
4. The siege machinery
One of the most popular attractions of the castle is the permanent exhibition of siege machines, some of them still in operation. These war machines were built from 13th century sketches, drawn to full-sized replicas. They include the biggest trebuchet in France, 16 metres high, weighing 7 tonnes, with a firing range of 200 metres. The trebuchet could fire a load of boulders up to 100 kg and required 60 soldiers to activate it.
Other war machines included in the exhibition are a couillard (a sort of trebuchet with split counterweights and a rotating beam) and a bricole (a rotating-beam stone-throwing catapult which also fires real projectiles), as well as a battering ram which was used to break down the heavy gates of besieged castles.
The catapults are fired every day between April and September at 11am, 1.30pm, 3.30pm and 5.30pm.
5. The Windmill
Only the tower of the windmill remains today. As a windmill was a feudal privilege, the lord of Les Baux used to receive a small tax from the local farmers who used it, who would came up to the castle with their donkeys loaded with wheat ready to be ground into flour. The windmill evokes the famous work of Provençal writer Alphonse Daudet: Les lettres de mon Moulin (Letters of my windmill).
Notice behind the windmill the “Plan dallé”. On this windy hillside, a flagstone area was designed as a water conduit to lead the overflow of rainwater towards a cistern.
6. Charles Rieu Monument and the orientation table
The statue located at the top of the promontory is dedicated to Charles Rieu, nicknamed in Provençal dialect “Charloun dou Paradou” (1846-1924) and was erected in 1930. Native from nearby Paradou, Charles Rieu was an influential Provençal poet and singer whose Chants du Terroir (Songs of the Land) were published in 1897.
Next to it, the orientation table faces a stunning panoramic view stretching from the Alpilles to the Crau Plain, Arles, the Camargue and the Etang de Berre.
On your way back to the citadel, you will walk along the ridge of the rocky outcrop of the plateau, with magnificent views over the Entreconque Valley, with its rows of olive trees and vineyards.
7. The Saracen Tower
The first ruined part of the castle of Les Baux you will come across coming from the desolate plateau is the Saracen Tower (Tour Sarrasine) with a battering ram at its foot. Its name derives from the threat which was faced by Les Baux with an invasion of the Saracens. The tower was then part of an ingenious system of defence which was conceived to mislead the invaders were they to enter the citadel.
A flight of stairs allows visitors to climb on top of the tower, rewarding them with spectacular views over the plateau of the castle, the Plain of Crau and Arles.
8. The Second Outer Courtyard
Called “Seconde Basse Cour” in French, it includes a ruined 16th century house with paved floor, the remnants of a chimney and, at the back on the right, two vaults dug into the rock.
9. The Rabbit Burrow
Called in French “Trou aux lièvres”, it consists of a sloping passageway with wide steps that used to close the access to the castle from the village.
10. The first outer courtyard
Known as “Première Basse Cour”, this is where the Lords of Les Baux entered their residences and where the guards lived.
11. The Castle chapel
The chapel of the castle (12th-16th centuries) is located near the keep. Also known as “Saint Catherine’s Chapel”, it features rib-vaulted bays.
12. The Bakehouse
The “Maison du Four” spread across three rooms on the ground floor provided a shelter for the oven and a sink with a drainage hole. Look out for the window and its mullions and transoms which open onto the main interior street of the castle.
13. The Pigeonholes
Built at the same time as the keep, the dovecotes have been singularly carved on the rock wall. More than 2,000 pigeonholes were carved out and the birds’ eggs were collected using a ladder.
14. The Keep
The best remnant of the military architecture of Les Baux Castle, the keep was built at the highest point of the plateau, overlooking the whole citadel.
The lower level houses one room while the second has three, all shaped out from the rock.
While exploring the castle, the visitor will be able to see traces of structures that used to make it an impregnable fortress: arches, doors and windows, holes (where beams were previously fixed), sculpted corbels…
The keep is accessible by a giddy and difficult stairway and the view from its top is one of the most impressive in all of Provence.
15. The Paravelle Tower
Opposite the keep, the Paravelle Tower has been built on top of a rock located at a corner of the outer walls. From its top, the view stretches to the Fontaine Valley and the Val d’Enfer.
16. End of visit
To end your visit, head towards the exit via the Lower Rooms (Salles Basses), accessible by covered stairs.
On your way back, look up to the left and behind you as there are spectacular views of the rocky outcrop on which the castle was set.
Website of the castle: http://www.chateau-baux-provence.com/en
Les Carrières de Lumières
At walking distance from the village is the Val d’Enfer (Valley of Hell): the site of old quarries. One of them houses the original permanent exhibition entitled ‘Carrières de Lumières’ (formerly ‘Cathédrale d’Images’). Opened originally in 1977, the show is located on the site of an abandoned limestone quarry. To the right of the entrance, a large gallery leads you under the mountain, towards a gigantic hall divided up by huge pillars. There, 4 000 square metres of walls and ceilings are used as natural screens to project astonishing, 12 metre-high images. Due to the uneven surface of the walls, these projected images can be viewed from various different angles and the visitors are encouraged to move around in order to observe them from another perspective.
The 2010 show was created around Sydney and Australia while in 2011, it focused on the life and the works of Leonardo da Vinci. In 2012, the show is called “Gauguin, Van Gogh, painters of colours” and will run from the 30th March 2012 to the 6th January 2013.
How to get to the Alpilles
The Alpilles are easily accessible by car from Provence’s main cities Marseille, Arles, and Avignon, as well as from the cities of Nîmes and Montpellier through an excellent network of motorways, the French “autoroutes”.
If you travel from Australia or America, you could take a flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle, and travel by TGV from the airport station straight to Avignon or Aix-en-Provence and rent a car from there.
The TGV from Paris-Gare de Lyon takes less than 3 hours to the TGV stations of Avignon and Aix-en-Provence.
Les Baux-de-Provence Tourist information Centre: http://www.lesbauxdeprovence.com