Thursday, September 1, 2011

Les Baux

I take Les Baux de Provence for granted. It is so close to Arles that I forget that it is the second most visited attraction in France. Or maybe that is exactly the reason why I choose to forget it. The run of shops selling ceramic chanting cigales embarrass me, as do the bonbon bins piled high with fluorescent treats. There is little in this "grab for the gold" that corroborates with the sites phenomenal past. So best to go in winter, when at least the howl of the Mistral winds covers the Muzak and keeps the largest of the tourist buses in the valley below.

For you do have to go up, up to reach the heart of Les Baux. It was exactly its position on high that called to its first inhabitants as long ago as 6000 BC. An oppidum, or hill fort was built in 2 BC and the rocky outcrop (which is the source of its name in Provençal) has been inhabited ever since. But not without its ups and downs. 

Certainly its most glorious period came in the Middle Ages. The Lords of Baux, whose lineage is believed to have descended from Balthazar, one of the Magi at Bethlehem, ruled 79 towns and villages over a region that stretched beyond Provence into Italy. They had a fearsome reputation and were willing to go to war at the drop of a gauntlet but they were equally voracious in love. The songs of their troubadours are still strung and woefully warbled.

But even the greatest of fortunes can fade. Battles can be lost. By the 15th century, the Lords were at rest. Fortunately, Anne of Montmorency took over their castle in the 16th, transforming it into a Renaissance masterpiece. Again, the power swirled upon the hill, until Cardinal Richelieu, in fear of its strength, had the castle destroyed once and for all in 1632. From there it was left to ruin, rediscovered and acclaimed by the Provençal poets Frederic Mistral and Alphonse Daudet but uninhabited save for a band of beggars. That is until after the Second World War, when Raymond Thuillier brought the likes of Picasso and Churchill to this sleepy corner to eat at his restaurant, L'Oustau de Baumaniere. And the world followed suit. Only in France could such a site be saved by the heft of a golden spoon. Les Baux de Provence has been a marquisate of the Grimaldi family since the 17th century. Prince Albert of Monaco is the current marquis and sightings of the Royal Family in the tiny chapel for Christmas Eve service have also added to the village's timeless allure.

A bit of advice on visiting. If you must go during the summer months, I strongly urge you to go either very early or very late in the day. If you wish to see the castle, I would suggest the latter as the ticket price is greatly reduced one hour before the official closing time and once inside, you are welcome to stay as long as you like. And that, my dear friends, means that if you plan wisely and tuck a bottle of rosé in your sack, you may have one of the finest apéros imaginable with thousands of years of history all to yourself.


  1. Hello Heather:
    Well, from these wonderful photographs we can well see why Les Baux is such a magnet for tourists. And, we too have now had our interest piqued. However, the summer months of searing heat and seething visitors would hold far less of an attraction for us than this most marvellous of lookouts on a clear autumn day with a view to eternity.

    Your opening paragraph held us spellbound. Such rich, evocative language yet delivered with a lightness of touch that made it irresistible for the reader to go on.

  2. We only travel in off-season since we hate all the stuff they try to sell to tourists and really a shame in such an amazing place. I love thinking of all the history and people who have passed though sort of like my textiles and the centuries it has visited. Thanks for sharing such an amazing place!

  3. Thank you for the link (via Peak of Chic)for the Comblanchien quarry site. It is certainly a beautiful stone.

    I'm so glad you commented, because now I have discovered your blog as well. Those Baux pictures are magical--fascinating and mysterious. It is too bad that the site is being commercialized and Disney-fied, but alas that is the fate of other historical sites all over. Here in Taiwan, for example, why does a historic fort need a laser-and-music show?

  4. Jane and Lance, thank you for such a fine compliment. I will say without hesitation that if I arrive at lightness of touch it is only because I have been inspired to try to do so thanks to writing such as your own. It really is a big challenge after writing for the French press (for me, who writes in English and then translates, the French of course, are experts at this in their own language).

    Yes Debra and imagine all of the tapestries on the walls while the Lords of the Baux were there! It's exceptional, isn't it?

    Parnassus, I am always so thrilled when someone new stops by. But as you may well see by other comments, we are few but an interesting bunch here. Yes, that stone is something. After I posted, I realized that I have seen it in recent projects in Arles but, or town being as poor as it is, they only tested it on a tiny patch and it is gorgeous! And as for the laser and music show outside of the fort, well, it makes me think of a similar project proposed at Angkor (!) with an escalator to take you to the event! I shake my head in wonder at things some times...

  5. What an ancient, ancient place. Mesmirising history - so violent and dramatic - and yet such beauty nonetheless. Those stones!

    I hate going to places in the tourist season - I always go in the off season so as to get to know the locals a little, and try to see things as they see them, so I agree wholeheartedly with you.

    What extraordinary places you have around you Heather. And with eyes so open, so much to discover about the history which abounds.
    Virginia x

  6. The place seems intriguing... the pictures are really nice, interesting history behind them.

  7. Yes Virginia, especially in winter with the winds howling, the ambiance here can be downright creepy! So many ghosts...

    Glad that you enjoyed the photo Karen!

  8. Dear Heather,

    Reading your post just now, my first thought was "Is there some sort of competition in France regarding who/where gets to be denominated the 'Second Most-Visited' village in the country?".

    Mont St. Michel (which, I have to admit, simply seems like an overcrowded ant-hill that happens to serve Mme. Poulard's omelettes) is, obviously, #ONE (!).

    Insofar as I can gather (mostly from guide-books, etc), Les Baux de Provence, Rocamadour, and several other villages all claim to be the second-most-visited-spot-in-France. Who knows? That said, there's a very good reason we've never stopped in any of those joints. one of my favorite passages from the ever-wry Cadogan Guides declares that Rocamadour has become more accessible since the construction of a new "satellite" parking lot. According to the writer, it's an enormous parking lot (complete with shuttle-service for all those aching to get a glimpse of the black virgin) where "...enormous tour-busses park side by side, belching forth crowds of refrigerated tourists".

    I love that last phrase. It reminds me of where-I'm-from (the mountains in East Tennessee). The Cherokee reservation is there, of course, and the Cherokees have made a very concrete point of "centering" everything in one small town (not-particularly-surprisingly named "Cherokee"). The casino and about 1000 awful gift shops (mostly, when I was growing up, selling plastic arrows and bows made in Japan), are there...along with tribe-members who dress up in utterly inauthentic costumes (think "Indians in John Wayne movies") and keep the tourists all corralled into a couple of acres. Presumably, all the other Cherokees just go about their usual, daily business....sans costumes and un-bothered by gaping tourists.

    For ten years, I taught (every Summer) at a ritzy boarding school in middle-Pennsylvania.....where I quickly learned that the Amish, like the Cherokees, are completely happy to take tourists' money....but they make a concerted effort to herd all those giddy visitors into one or two small villages, where a few of them will dress up in costumes and provide the suckers with a gratifying caricature of their supposed selves/culture.

    who am I to talk, though? We leave Tours on Wednesday and, after that, will be using Carcassonne for ten or so days while we explore Le Pays Cathare. I gather Carcassonne is lovely when viewed from afar, but the inside is a completely "Disney-fied", appallingly tacky jumble of "Medieval" plastic-knick-knack shops and opportunities to be commercially-photographed with your head on a styrofoam "chopping block". I gather you can also rent "Medieval" costumes and parade around the streets in them. Herve's description was "Just imagine a drag queen with a Dungeons & Dragons fixation...."

    As you might guess, Herve and I plan to be no-fun party-poopers and simply stay in the hotel when we come back each day and need to sleep.

    Say hey to Remi for me, please, and thank him for the most-recent email. We'll be deciding on pictures sometime in the Fall (things are just too rushed right now, and there's far too much we like in his portfolio for us to make a quick decision.....good things are worth waiting-for). We can pick the package up in Tours come Christmas, when we'll be back again.


    David Terry

  9. Elizabeth KirkpatrickSeptember 2, 2011 at 5:03 PM

    Okay,I must go look at a map!It sounds like ARLES is close to this place which then is close to MONACO?For some reason I had you over by AVIGON!
    Heather, yesterday I was in a thrift shop and saw a childs book "ALL ABOUT REMI",is that something you would like?Remi, is your husbands name correct?The cover had a little boy and a dog on the cover.............I can go get it today!My gift to you.Just dont know you in person so I hesitated!Thought it might be a fun stocking stuffer...........xoxo

  10. Oh my gosh, I am verry excited about Elizabeth's message--I will send you an email!! And yes, we are closer to Avignon. Monaco is just over two and a half hours away but that just goes to show what the power of the Grimaldi family was.

    And my dear Mr. Terry, Carcassonne is so very beneath you. I am frankly, a little stunned. And yes it is lovely from a distance--as when you are driving away! It makes the Mont-St-Michel look like the Pompidou. I am just a hopin' and a prayin' that you are staying where I think that you are staying because at least you will eat very well and sleep on Frette. But. Don't. Eat. Anywhere. Else. No, you don't want details. I'll pass your kind words on to Remi. Have a fantastic, amazing time--Remi has always wanted to photograph the Pays Cathare, so we will look forward to details when you get back. And if, for any reason, you need a dose of non-staged tourism, you know where to find us--a mere four hour drive away! Travel safe, please.

  11. Some great advice about the Rose! I suggest always having a bottle in your packsack when touring Italy as well. You never know.

    Some great writing her so thank you, it was a pleasure to read and to look at!
    Love you blog!
    The Wanderfull Traveler

  12. Dear Heather,
    Seeing this post, it reminds me visiting les Beaux a few years ago. We stayed at Ousteau de Beaumanière! It was a unforgettable trip!!
    Thank you so much for these wonderful pictures here!You are so lucky to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth!!!
    Bon weekend ma chère!!

  13. Hello Heather, I just came onto your blog and wanted to say how much I enjoyed it. My friend Julie Mautner (Provence Post) suggested I take a look and I'm glad I did!
    I love Les Baux in the winter or in the evening after a vernissage or something, otherwise I take the dogs further along the road up the hill and view the village from also get a splendid 360 degree view of all the countryside around. Love the history of these places!

  14. I am so happy to be back with power so I can visit friends - I will try and come back to visit the posts I missed!! When we were visiting my son in Aix a couple of years ago, we almost went to L'Oustau de Baumaniere for dinner but we had so few days we never made it. And we had hoped to do Les Baux too - it was November - definitely off season

  15. To find so many fantastic comments this morning is waking me up quicker than my coffee!

    Murissa, it can be a good thing to have wine no matter where you are in the world. Remi is an all-time champion of making it materialize: in the Amazon on the edge of the Sahara...we both love BC and I think that you must have one swell life! Glad you found the blog!

    Greet! Oh how fantastic but yet not surprising--of course you must have loved L'Ousteau--it is so very elegant yet welcoming--just like you! But it makes me sad to think that you were so close. The next time you are here we will make you a wonderful dinner. Bon weekend, copine!

    Angela, I love that Julie sent you over and I can't wait to find out more about you. What an amazing life you have led. Yes, we take that walk often--Remi has photographed Les Baux so many times from the cliff opposite. I also love the path below the village that takes you to the chapel and the Tremoié (oh my, I am fairly certain that isn't spelled correctly hopefully you will know what I am talking about). We are lucky ducks and it seems we both know it.

    Q, oh my you have enough to do! Not to worry about the past, just keep moving forward in that fabulous way that you do. and as for L'Oustau, next time--but only if we can meet. :)

    Have a wonderful weekend everyone! Off to the market!

  16. Much good advice...a late Oct. day is perfect...
    Carcasonne is so magical from can hear the knights thundering across the plains...but the disappointment upon entering is hard to explain how awful...but still best to see for oneself! Les Baux off season still reasonates with it's history...thanks for the reminder.

  17. Isn't it true, Heather. Loved your last blog entry!


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