Overlooking the spectacular Alpilles plateau, the ruined stone village of Les Baux, perched on a craggy hill, is nearly indistinguishable from the cream-coloured rocks of the landscape. It is one of France's most visited villages and was voted the most beautiful village of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur by the French in 2012.
Abandoned since the 17th century, the historical hilltop citadel of Les Baux is a dead town, which confers it a surreal atmosphere. All the hotels, restaurants and shops are in the much smaller living village (pop. 400) below.
Bauxite, the main source of aluminium, was discovered near Les Baux by the French geologist Pierre Berthier in 1821 and named after the place.
Les Baux was first settled in the Neolithic period, 8,000 years ago, and stayed occupied during in the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Around the 2nd century BCE it became a Celtic oppidum (hill fort) of the Salyes tribe.
The medieval castle was built in the 10th century, and expanded into a fortified town in the 11th century. Les Baux became the seat of a powerful feudal lordship that controlled 79 towns and villages in the region. The lineage of the local rulers died out in 1427 and the lordship passed to the Counts of Provence. In 1482, Provence is annexed to the Kingdom of France and Louis XI orders the dismantlement of the citadel.
In 1515, Louis XII appoints a governor with the title of Baron des Baux and the town experiences a new golden age. Renaissance houses are built, and the castle is partially repaired. Hotbed of the Protestant Reformation in Provence, Les Baux revolts against the king's authority in 1632, which prompts Cardinal Richelieu too raze the citadel and expel the residents. For the next 200 years, the ruined town would be inhabited only by bats and crows.
In 1642, Louis XIII cedes the Duchy of Valentinois and Marquisate of Les Baux to Honoré II Grimaldi, first Prince of Monaco. Up to this day, Marquis of Baux is one of the Prince of Monaco's many hereditary titles, and one which is usually given to the reigning Prince's eldest son (the equivalent of Prince of Wales in the UK).
The old town is dominated by the Château des Baux, a large medieval citadel spreading on 7 ha (17 acres), and now housing a museum. Visitors can see replicas of wooden siege engines, including a trebuchet (the largest in France), a couillard, a battering ram, a balista, and catapults. The weapons are fired every day at 11:00 am, 1:00, 3:00 and 5:00 pm during the high season (from April to September). Visitors can also try to shoot with a medieval bow or with a crossbow. The best preserved towers are the Tour Paravelle and Tour Sarrasine (which owes its name to its original function to spot Saracen invaders). Admission to the castle is 8.5 € for adults and 6.5 € for children during the high season. It is 1 € cheaper during the low season.
The old town hall houses the Musée des Santons, a museum dedicated to 17th- and 18th-century hand-painted nativity scene figurines. They are either made of wood or terracotta and are typically Provençal.
The St Vincent's Church, built between the 12th and the 16th centuries, has the particularity of being partially dug in the rock. Its contemporary stained glass windows by Max Ingrand (1960) were presented by Prince Rainier III of Monaco.
Noteworthy Renaissance-style buildings include the Pavillon d’Amour de la Reine Jeanne ("Queen Jane's love pavilion"), the Hôtel de Manville, the Hôtel des Porcelets (home to the Yves-Brayer Museum), and the Post Tenebras Lux Window.
A few hundreds metres north of the castle is the ominously named Val d'Enfer (Valley of Hell), said to have inspired Dante for its description of the nine circles of the Inferno in the Divine Comedy. The bizarrely shaped rocks are actually the result of erosion and over 2000 years of sandstone quarrying, then bauxite exploitation from 1821 to 1935. The site is now used for a large-scale sound-and-light spectacle, known as the Cathédrale d'Images. The show, which changes every year, is very colourful and truly impressive. It is open daily from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm (to 6:00 pm in the low season). Admission is 8.5 € for adults and 6.5 € for concessions. It is free for children under 7 years old.
How to get there
Les Baux-de-Provence is located between Avignon and Arles, 11 km south of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. There is no public transportation so you will need your own wheels to get there, or take a tour from Avignon, Arles or Marseille.
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