You say France and I immediately think ‘chateau’. The biggest concentration of these architectural treasures is traditionally attributed to the Loire Valley. True as it is, there are other surprising chateau locations all over the splendid France and one of them may seem more unexpected than others – Provence. This magical region has many things and attractions to offer to its grateful visitors. And even if a castle is not exactly its symbol, Provence has one that belongs to the most beautiful in the whole of the country – Chateau des Baux-de-Provence.
This magnificent castle and its satellite village Les Baux exercise their charm in many different ways. Enclosed into the marvellous frame of the Aplilles regional country park, the castle and the village are a very special bite of Provence characterized by its typical Mediterranean flavor and smell of pine trees and lavender. With the Alpilles mountains to protect the settlement from behind, it dominates the surrounding valley decorated by the arrow-topped cypresses, olive trees and numerous vineyards.
The powerful imposingness of the castle’s military stronghold contrasts the picturesque calm of the village. The strategical position of Les Baux on top of the hill granted it a certain level of security and defensive possibilities. This factor is a valid explanation for the site having been occupied since the prehistoric times till modern days.
The earliest written record of Les Baux, called ‘Balcium Castrum’ at the time, dates back to the 10th century. The local lord’s surname was Les Baux. In the 13th century his descendants replaced the early fortress to take advantage of the natural configuration of the underlying rock that later gave birth to other castle buildings.
In the course of the Middle Ages the Les Baux family was among the most powerful and influential in the whole of Provence becoming masters of a large territory and marking the history of the region due to the exceptional personality of its rebellious and warring lords.
When Provence got annexed to France King Louis 11th, fearing the distant position of the famous and powerful fortress, ordered to demolish it at the end of the 15th century to prevent it from falling into the hands of the crown’s enemies.
The Renaissance turned out to be a golden age both for the town and the castle of Les Baux, especially because the latter was particularly rebuilt at the time. But after the fortresses provided shelter to some of the rebels from Aix-en-Provence, it was besieged by Cardinal Richelieu’s troops and after the battle was over – demolished again.
After the French revolution the village got gradually abandoned and waited for another appointment with the History till 1821 when a geologist discovered a red rock in the area and gave it the village’s name – ‘bauxite’.
A new epoch in the life of Les Baux started after the end of the Second World War. The years that passed brought the rebirth to the site permitting it to get onto the list of the ‘Most Beautiful Villages of France’.
To add the last piece to the splendid mosaic of this magical place, visit the monumental Carrières de Lumières, the quarries once used to extract limestone to build various buildings in the region and currently hosting some extraordinary and unique multimedia shows.
And here we go with some of my usual practical tips:
- If you reach Les Baux by car, it is possible to leave it in one of the parking lots surrounding the village and also placed in the proximity of the Carrières. It is necessary to pay for the parking calculating in advance how much time the visit of the site could take you. If you come early enough (let’s say before 10 a.m.), it is more probable to spend less time looking for a free parking lot.
- The visit of the village is free of charge. It will be necessary to climb the hill to reach it and to stroll upwards along its charming streets full of tiny shops, cafés, restaurants and numerous tourists.
- To visit the castle it is necessary to purchase a ticket. It is possible to opt for a combined ticket allowing to visit both the castle and attend the current show at the Carrierès. The combined ticket is obviously more economic that two separate entrance tickets to both locations.
- It you visit the Les Baux castle in summer, be prepared for some hot sun and eventually strong Mistral wind especially perceptible when you climb the castle high defensive walls. So put on a pair of comfortable hiking shoes, sun tan and a cap. Nevertheless, the temperature in the queries descends drastically. So it will be a good idea to wear long trousers and bring a coat with you on the visit.
- Visiting the castle, as any other historical and cultural location in France, is a perfectly informative experience thanks to numerous information tables and explanations. So even if you are totally unprepared for the visit, be sure to make the best of the experience.
I would certainly define Les Baux as one of Provence’s most special must-sees visitable in half a day if you drive there from Arles early in the morning. It is a certain change of the scenery and a perfect chance to spend a day enjoying art, history and architecture against the picturesque open air background.
Photos credit: Machs Gut (c)