An iconic natural landmark in Provence, similar to Mont Ventoux and Sainte-Baume, Montagne Sainte-Victoire, a white limestone mountain range, extends over 18 kilometres east of Aix-en-Provence. Reaching 1,011 metres at Pic des Mouches, this celebrated mountain was painted extensively by Paul Cézanne, who could see it from his home in Aix-en-Provence. The stunning view from the 19 metre high cross placed on the mountain, locally named “Croix de Provence” (945 m) takes in Sainte-Baume, the Luberon and the Étoile ranges, the valley of the Durance and the Provençal Alps.
The Sainte-Victoire mountain range extends over 18 kms between the départements of Bouches-du-Rhône and Var. On average the range is 5 km wide. It is located in the communes of Puyloubier, Saint-Antonin-sur-Bayon, Rousset, Châteauneuf-le-Rouge, Beaurecueil, Le Tholonet, Vauvenargues, Saint-Marc-Jaumegarde, Pourrières, Artigues and Rians.
The mountain range’s highest point is Pic des Mouches (1,011 metres) and ranks as one of the département of Bouches-du-Rhône’s highest points, behind Pic de Bertagne in the Sainte-Baume range (1,042 m). The summit crest, resembling a long ridge, is about 7 kilometres long.
Flora and Fauna
On its Southern side, the mountain is steep and dominates the Arc basin with vertical limestone crags and sharp ridges. The vegetation is typically mediterranean with bushes and contorted Aleppo pines.
On its Northern side, the mountain falls slowly into a series of calcareous plateaux towards the Durance Valley. The vegetation on this side receives less sun and is more alpine.
The site contains over 900 types of flowering plants which represents 20% of the plant species found in France.
The fauna of the region is rich and diverse comprising hares, boars, bats and hundreds of bird species.
To the North-West of the mountain are two dammed lakes: Lac de Bimont and Lac de Zola.
The artificial Lac de Bimont was created by Joseph Rigaud between 1946 and 1951 to ensure manageable water resources for the local region.
Situated downstream of Lac de Bimont, the dam of Lac de Zola is named after its architect: François Zola, the father of famous French writer Émile Zola. The dam operated between 1864 and 1877, supplying water to Aix-en-Provence. It still serves as a buffer in case the level of Lac de Bimont falls to emergency low levels.
A protected area
15,493 hectares of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire range have been listed as a special protection zone (Zone de Protection Spéciale), located at altitudes between 246 and 1,016 metres. In 2004, Montagne Sainte-Victoire received from the Ministry of Environment the prestigious “Grand site de France” label.
Historic facts about Montagne Sainte-Victoire
The unique silhouette of the mountain, rising high above the hills of Provence, has impressed mankind since time immemorial. The barren crests where the Mistral wind blows strongly and lightning often strikes has led the local inhabitants of Provence to revere the mountain as a god.
The Celto-Ligurians named Montagne Sainte-Victoire the “Vintour” in honour of the god of winds. They also named another emblematic mountain of Provence after the wind (le vent in French): Mont Ventoux.
When the Romans came into the region they originally named Aix-en-Provence ‘Aquae Sextiae’ (the waters of Sextius).
In the 13th century, a chapel dedicated to “Sainte Venture” was built near the summit.
The mountain was formally named “Sainte-Victoire” during the 17th century either to commemorate the victory of Marius or as a derivation of Sainte-Venture, a local martyr who died during the christianisation of the region.
In 1989 a huge fire devastated over 5,000 hectares of forests on the mountain range.
Croix de Provence
At the western peak of Montagne Sainte-Victoire at an altitude of 946 metres stands the monument of Croix de Provence.
The current cross is the fourth to be erected on the mountain. The first Croix de Provence was built in the 16th century by a sailor who had vowed to put up a cross on the first mountain he saw after escaping death from a shipwreck. His monument was made of wood and decorated with two anchors at its base.
In 1785 the first cross was replaced with a second by Jean Laurans. Rapidly deteriorating, it was again replaced in 1842 with the third cross on the initiative of a law student from Aix-en-Provence. The Croix de Provence became a popular pilgrimage site and pilgrims used to take away pieces of the monument out of superstition. This practice, along with the effects of the strong Mistral wind, led to its total disintegration by the 1870s!
Today’s monument dates from 1875 and was built by Abbot Meissonnier, a Catholic priest from the village of Rousset. He vowed to raise the cross in an attempt to ward off two scourges which were plaguing the people of France: smallpox and the consequences of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). On 18 May 1875, the new cross was solemnly blessed by the Archbishop of Aix-en-Provence, Théodore-Augustin Forcade, in the presence of 3,000 people.
The monument is 18.25 metres tall and contains, encased inside its metallic base, the 22,000 names of its donors: people, parishes and the dioceses of Aix-en-Provence, Arles and Embrun.
On the base are engraved four inscriptions:
- On the side facing towards Rome: an inscription written in Latin meaning “Great and good God, O Cross, God’s strength is our strength, Salvation! Let your soft light shine far away for the hearts of those who love Jesus and be merciful to those who unfortunately do not love Him”.
- On the side facing towards Paris: an inscription in French: “Cross of Provence, blessed by His Grace Monseigneur Théodore-Augustin Forcade, Archbishop of Aix, Arles and Embrun on the 18 May 1875” (Croix de Provence, bénite par Monseigneur Théodore-Augustin Forcade, Archevêque d’Aix, Arles et Embrun le 18 mai 1875).
- On the side facing towards Marseille: an inscription in Greek: “Here is to sailors your lighthouse, to traders your profit, to workers your restful place and your wealth”.
- On the side facing towards Aix-en-Provence: an inscription in the Provençal dialect: “O salvation Cross! Source of eternal light, with the blood of a God. O written covenant, Provence was first to bow down at your feet. Protect Provence, o Cross of Jesus-Christ”.
Due to strong winds and being struck several times by lightning, the cross was restored for the first time in 1982 and again in 2004 when the whole base of the monument was replaced by a stone coloured reinforced concrete one.
The site of the Cross of Provence commands a breathtaking panoramic view.
On a clear day, the city of Aix-en-Provence and its suburbs can be clearly seen to the West, surrounded by the rolling plains of the Aix area. To the South, Cap Canaille (the vertical cliff just off Cassis on the Mediterranean coast), the Étoile range near Marseille, the Vitrolles range and the Crau plain. To the North, the Durance Valley, the Luberon and Mont Ventoux are easily recognisable. To the East are the Sainte-Baume ranges and the far Maritime Alps.
Gouffre du Garagaï
To the East of the Cross of Provence, near the ridge of Sainte-Victoire lies the “gouffre du Garagaï”, a cave system which is actually comprised of two natural tunnels open at each end. These caves are a good example of karst phenomena in the mountain. the tenebrous “Petit Garagaï” is the deepest at 150 metres long. According to legend, Marius the Roman threw the Teutons through it. The cave was first explored in 1928.
The “Grand Garagaï” runs through the mountain from its summit to the cliff. This very large tunnel, slippery and angled opens onto a 400 metre precipitous incline.
Numerous legends surround these mysterious caves, some of them might have scared children from Aix! Rumour has it that its pit is bottomless and leads straight to hell…
The Sainte-Victoire Priory
Perched at an altitude of 888m, near the top of the Sainte-Victoire, the priory is a site of local pilgrimage.
It is probable that a small religious retreat was built on the site of the current building as early as the 5th century by St Cassien.
Over the years, the priory has received visits from kings and crowned heads such as the four daughters of Ramon Berenguer IV, Count of Provence; Beatrix, Queen of Naples and Sicily in the 13th century and Margaret of Anjou, Queen of England in the 15th century.
In the 16th century, the mountain received fervent popular attention with the pilgrimage of the Pertuis brotherhood, which is still celebrated today on the last Sunday of April through the Roumavagi pilgrimage.
In 1654, the priory was built by Jean Aubert, Master of Liturgical Celebrations at Aix Cathedral. In order to host the growing number of pilgrims, a chapel devoted to Notre-Dame de la Victoire was erected in 1656 as well as a convent in 1664.
After his death in 1692, the religious life of the priory declined and only a few hermits agreed to remain living at the priory. However, pilgrims from the brotherhoods of Vauvenargues, Aix-en-Provence and Pertuis continued to visit the priory regularly.
Practically abandoned in the 18th and 19th centuries, the buildings of the priory deteriorated. In 1954, the “Friends of Sainte-Victoire” society, established by Henri Imoucha, endeavoured to restore the buildings of the priory in order to make them “worthy of their prestigious past and their natural destination”.
Sainte-Victoire by road
With a starting point at Aix-en-Provence, the mountain range is encircled by a 60 kilometre circuit (D17, DD57D, D24, D10 roads) which offers plenty of wonderful viewing points over Sainte-Victoire and many starting points for walks. The itinerary crosses some picturesque villages, such as Vauvenargues, dominated by the steep side of the mountain and natural sites like the wooded Infernet Gorge.
The Cézanne Route
Linking Aix-en-Provence to Puyloubier, the Cézanne Route (D17) runs along the whole length of Sainte-Victoire’s Southern side. The winding road is marked with the painter’s memory when he used to travel to Le Tholonet.
The D17 road offers great views of the towering cliff of Sainte-Victoire in the vicinity of Antonin-sur-Bayon, as well as a diversity of landscapes from the plain of Le Tholonet to the hilly land around Puyloubier.
The little village of Antonin-sur-Bayon houses the Maison de la Sainte-Victoire which displays a permanent exhibition of the mountain, in particular the dinosaur eggs which were discovered on the site. It provides information and hiking maps as well as a tourist shop.
At Puyloubier, the castle of the wine domain of Capitaine Danjou houses an Institution of the Légion Étrangère for the wounded legionnaires of the French Foreign Legion. Set in the middle of a magnificent vineyard landscape, the castle has its own museum (entrance free) with a collection of uniforms and ceramics, metalwork and bookbinding workshops.
One of the finest view of Sainte-Victoire is on the D58 between Meyrieul and Beaurecueil The view from here at sunset is unforgettable.
The peaceful Provençal village of Vauvenargues is located 14 km from Aix, at the foot of the Northern side of Sainte-Victoire. Just outside the village on a rocky hillock above the narrow gorge of River Cose stands the red-shuttered castle.
Vauvenargues Castle is actually a fortified bastide, a local name for a Provençal manor house. A bastide, of square or rectangular shape, was usually occupied by a wealthy farmer. With its tile roof, walls of fine ashlar-stone, it was larger and therefore more elegant than a Provençal mas.
The site of the Vauvenargues was occupied in the Roman era by a fort and became a residence for the Counts of Provence during the Middle Ages. In the 13th century, it came into the possession of the Archbishops of Aix-en-Provence before being acquired in the 17th century by the Marquis de Vauvenargues.
The castle was sold to the Isoard family after the French Revolution and was listed as a “Monument Historique” in 1929. The Isoard family sold the castle in 1943 to three industrialists from Marseille who removed all the furniture and a large part of the interior decoration.
In September 1958, the exiled Spanish artist Pablo Picasso acquired Vauvenargues Castle.
Picasso and his wife Jacqueline are buried in the garden of the castle under a 1933 monumental sculpture of “La Dame à l’offrande” (Woman with a Vase) which was originally placed at the entrance of the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris. The castle is still privately owned by Picasso’s stepdaughter.
Walking and other activities
Each year, nearly 1 million people visit the range, most of them hiking in the mountains. Several walking tracks lead to a priory founded in the 17th century and to the famous Croix de Provence, the easiest being those starting from the northern approach of the mountain range.
There are 250km of footpaths, from half-day to two-day walks, across and about the Sainte-Victoire range. The hiking trail GR 9 (Grande Randonnée) runs the full length of the 17km ridge along some breathtakingly vertiginous cliff faces and also involves a challenging 1-2 hour uphill walk from Vauvenargues.
As a result of the great 1989 fire when most of the hillside was deforested, access is heavily restricted and can be banned from July to September. It is advised to avoid walking under the hot summer sun between 11am and 3pm and to wear a hat and bring plenty of water and sunscreen. The shooting season runs between 13 September and 13 January. Hiking should be restricted to the main paths and hikers should wear bright clothing.
Read more about walking on Sainte-Victoire on Mostly Walking.
Apart from walking, the rocky range is appreciated for other sporting activities such as mountain biking, climbing, paragliding and speleology.
Paul Cézanne and Montagne Sainte Victoire
Montagne Sainte-Victoire has been immortalised in more than sixty paintings by Paul Cézanne, a famous post-impressionnist artist native to Aix-en-Provence.
Before Cézanne, Montagne Sainte-Victoire was not as well known as Sainte-Baume. It is the painter who has contributed to its worldwide recognition, hence is nicknamed “Cézanne’s Mountain”.
Cézanne’s oil paintings and watercolours are now preserved in private collections and in some of the world’s largest museums such as the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.,; the Musée d’Orsay, Paris; the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg; the National Gallery, London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the Tate Gallery, London; the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Cézanne would settle in front of the Sainte-Victoire with his easel, his canvas, his box of paints, his palette and his paintbrushes, protected from the wind, sun and indiscreet glances behind umbrellas.
Interestingly enough, the painter never featured the Cross of Provence in any of his reproductions of Sainte-Victoire.