One of the great excursions you can take out from Avignon is to head south through the Department called Bouches du Rhone, the landscape that the Rhone River flows through on the way to its mouth (Bouches), south of Arles, where it flows into the Mediterranean. There are two fascinating places to visit on this stretch. The first one is just 25 kms from Avignon called Les Baux de Provence, the village’s name also being given to the mineral ‘Bauxite’ which was mined in the area for the last two centuries. The village and its associated castle are to be found in a small mountain range called Les Alpilles. The second half of the day would be taken up with a visit to Arles, 15kms further on from Les Baux.
The trip to Les Baux is taking the visitor into dramatic country that overlooks the plains to the south. It is located on top of a rocky spur where both a castle and its associated village are built into the mountain side. Cars cannot enter the village and visitors must park outside the main entrance; the car-parks can be seen in the second photo below. It is on the list of France’s most beautiful villages and while it receives many visitors, it only has about 22 residents.
Humanity has been living in this region for a long time. A cave has been found in the area with evidence of human habitation dated to around 6000 BCE. The region’s population expanded and by the arrival of the Middle Ages, the nature of Feudal society meant that the advantages of the high spur for fortress building was clear. The castle was built here over the 11th to 13th centuries and the owners of the fortress, Les Seigneurs des Baux, ruled until the 12th century before their feudal enemies overthrew the ruling family. It remained a prized estate for another three centuries but due to its owners’ failure to recognise the authority of the French kingdom, its inevitable destiny was to be destroyed by the no nonsense representative of Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu, in 1632.
Les Baux lay mostly empty for the next few centuries before it became a popular tourist attraction in the second half of the 20th century. The image above left is a 1930s photo of the village with few signs of repair or development. Today the title of Marquis of Baux is traditionally given to the heir to the throne of Monaco.
A tour today of Les Baux starts at the village level of the site. As mentioned earlier, it is on the list of the Most Beautiful Villages of France and so there is plenty to see. The above diagram of the site highlights the main places to visit such as the 12th century Eglise Saint-Vincent and the nearby Chapelle des Penitents Blancs which must have one of the great views of Southern France from its doorstep.
The entry to the castle section of Les Baux is at the other end of the village where you immediately get great views out over Les Alpilles. Before beginning the climb up to the castle battlements, the visitor can inspect on this area of the plateau where examples of medieval war machines such as the Trebucet are placed, illustrating what the castle defenders could use to lob rocks, fire or dead animals down on troops approaching the castle from either side of the mountain. Scattered around the village and the castle are interpretative diagrams of what life in the castle was like in the Middle Ages. The image on the left from the site gives a graphic indication of what the use of the Trebucets might have looked like.
Because of the nature of the rising landscape on which the Baux castle was built, it is clear that the original builders couldn’t construct a standard castle. This fortress had to be merged with the rock of the towering mountain. Each section of the castle had to be built into the rock face at different levels where a platform could be carved out of the bed-rock. When the castle was destroyed in the 17th century, it looks like Cardinal Richelieu’s forces merely knocked down the castle walls on one side of the fortress, leaving the other walls standing, helpless to exclude any future invaders. Another helpful, illustrative diagram from the Baux castle site (on right below) shows what the original buildings might have looked like before losing key walls.
The best example of the destruction of the defensive ability of this castle was the removal of one wall of the Donjon, the defensive tower or ‘keep’ of the castle that was the major building on top of the Baux plateau. In the photo below, the Donjon can be seen with its main wall missing, useless to defend the castle from oncoming forces with their own war machines to lob projectiles at the defenders.
We had a great morning at Les Baux de Provence, climbing up through each stage of the castle, wondering at the inventiveness of the castle builders and the panoramic views over the surrounding countryside. However we needed to get another great city visited in our day’s itinerary so we strolled back to our car and headed down the mountain to the lovely town of Arles.
APPENDIX 1: Map of Les Baux de Provence