Provence in the South of France is a popular region to explore for travellers and live in. This article introduces you to one of the villages full of the regions charm. An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983 with small group educational tours for senior couples and mature solo travellers.
11 Jan 23 · 9 mins read
Located at the heart of the of the Alpilles Regional Nature Park in Southern France, Les Baux-de-Provence has a certain charm that makes it stand out from every other village in the region. It sits high on a rocky outcrop, overlooked by the imposing ruins of a stone medieval fortress, reigning over a stunning landscape of vineyards and olive groves. Occupation of the site stretches back some 8,000 years, although most of what we know about its history is from the Middle Ages, when it was the scene of various troubles. Today, with its magnificent 16th – 17th century mansions and other grand historical monuments, picturesque medieval lanes, delightful squares, shaded terraces, fountains, and craft shops, it’s no surprise that it’s officially recognised as one of the most beautiful villages in the whole of France.
This article is part of our series on French villages, each with its own unique history and culture. Odyssey Traveller visits these villages on our various tours of France, each taking you on a journey through different periods in history and exploring the rich tapestry of these places and the people who have lived there. On each tour, we examine the various cultures and economies that have shaped these villages, including their agriculture, trade, and merchant activity. In doing so, we delve into the wealth and philanthropy that has come out of these places, represented today in the art of their museums and galleries, as well as the palaces and homes built in these periods. Each village we visit will offer a unique snapshot of the past, showcasing the lives of the who people who lived there and how they created vibrant and thriving communities. Join us on a journey through time to discover the beauty and history of these enchanting French villages.
Odyssey Traveller conducts a guided tour of Les Baux-de-Provence as part of 24-da7 Rural France Small Group Tour for mature and senior travellers. During this tour, we explore the pastoral and provincial splendour of Rural France through towns which have resisted the dual siege of the automobile and the property developer. Our small group will visit many of France’s beautiful towns where, within their walls, the villagers conduct their daily lives much as they have done since Napoleonic times. This article explores the history and sights of Les Baux-de-Provence as background information for your tour. Much of the information is extracted from Stéphane Bern’s The Best Loved Villages of France.
Background image: Les Baux-de-Provence from north-west, partial view / BlueBreezeWiki / CC BY-SA 3.0
History of Les Baux-de-Provence
Human habitation at the site of Les Baux dates back to around 6000 BCE. Evidence of this has been found in the Costapéra cave, housing a collective burial ground from the early Bronze Age. The Celts then used the site as a fort around the 2nd century BCE, utilising its height strategically to view the surrounding countryside and protect against raids or attacks.
In the Middle Ages Les Baux became the seat of the powerful and warring princes of Baux, who over successive generations came to control a feudal domain covering 79 towns and villages in Provence, Dauphiné, and Italy, known as “Terres Baussenques” (Baux lands). The house of Les Baux claimed to be descended from the Biblical Magi Balthazar and never recognised the authority of French kings and emperors.
A ring of fortifications was built at Les Baux from the 11th to the 13th century to demonstrate the might of the princes’ lineage. The fortress would have a turbulent history, the subject of many assaults from the bordering medieval strongholds of Languedoc, Comtat Venaissin, and Provence. The princes of Baux also waged war outwardly, extending their forces as far as Albania.
The stronghold remained impregnable until the end of the Baussenque Wars in the 12th century, when the princes of Baux were finally defeated. With this, the house of Baux was forced to relinquish the castle of Castilion and other fortified possessions. Nevertheless, they were able to retain Les Baux itself and other outer defences.
In 1426, however, upon the death of Alix, the last princess of Les Baux, the dynasty came to an end and the fortress was seized by Louis III, king of Sicily and count of Provence. Not long after, in 1482, the County of Provence was annexed by the Kingdom of France and Les Baux changed its ruler once again. King Louis XI, fearing the rebellious locals and not wanting to risk losing the stronghold of Les Baux to the enemy, then ordered the dismantlement of the fortification in 1483. The magnanimous monarch, however, permitted Les Baux to keep its customs, franchises, and prerogatives.
Prosperity retuned to Les Baux during the Renaissance era, allowing for the renovation of the castle and the surrounding houses. Insurgents then seized the castle in 1631 during the Wars of Religion after rebelling against the King of France. In response, Cardinal Richelieu besieged the town, subdued the rebels, and the fortress was once again dismantled.
In 1642 Louis XIII bestowed the overlordship of Les Baux on Hercule Grimaldi, who handed down the title of ‘marquis des Baux’ to his descendants – the heirs to the throne of Monaco. Although the town is entirely French administratively, the title is still held today by Jacques, the son of the current Prince of Monaco Albert II.
After the fortress was definitively dismantled, Les Baux’s importance dwindled, as did its population. If it numbered about 3,000 inhabitants at its peak in the 13th century, by the 19th century this had plummeted to a mere 400. Today there are no more than 19 residents in the historic quarter.
Even so, the village was important enough to give its name to the aluminium ore Bauxite when it was first discovered in the area by geologist Pierre Berthier in 1822. The ore was mined intensively until it ran out at the end of the 20th century.
Les Baux’s renewal came in 1947 when chef Raymond Thullier opened the famous restaurant Oustau de Baumanièr, which has attracted various prominent people over the years, including Queen Elizabeth II, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and Johnny Depp. Since then, the town has served as a major tourist attraction and cultural centre – placed under the protection of the Ministry of Culture and the Environment in 1966.
Les Baux-de-Provence Attractions
The beautiful village of Les Baux-de-Provence is one of the region’s most popular tourist attractions. Its buildings, largely dating back to the 15-16th centuries, have been painstakingly restored to reveal an extraordinary historical and architectural heritage. In all, there are 22 listed historic monuments and other architectural treasures providing a richly rewarding experience for visitors. As the narrow streets of the village can only be explored on foot, at least a day is needed to properly wander the medieval lanes and explore all it has to offer.
Among Les Baux’s attractions is the church of Saint-Vincent. This is one of the oldest buildings in the village, with a 12th century Romanesque nave and ribbed barrel vaulting, along with a renaissance extension added in the 17th century. It also has modern stained-glass windows installed in 1960, which were a gift from Prince Rainier III of Monaco. Next to the church is the Chapelles des Pénitents Blancs, a 17th century chapel which contains frescoes added in 1874 representing a traditional Christmas for the Provençal shepherds.
The village’s 16th and 17th century mansions, meanwhile, have been converted into art galleries and museums. The History Museum at the entrance of the village thoroughly documents the life and history of Les Baux through the centuries. The Musée des Santons also contains a vast number of exhibits, including numerous figurines made in Naples in the 17th and 18th centuries representing traditional Provencal costumes and a Christmas crib. The building in which the museum is housed as served various purposes over the centuries, including being the village’s Town Hall for many years. The current town hall is within the Hotel de Manville – perhaps the town’s finest Renaissance mansion. The Hôtel de Porcelet is also impressive, containing a room decorated with 17th century frescoes, as well as the Yves Brayer Museum displaying a hundred or so of the artist’s canvas paintings, watercolours, and drawings.
The picturesque village also contains many cafes, craft shops selling Provencal products and souvenirs, and high-quality restaurants of international renown.
Above the village on the edge of the rocky plateau sits the Chateau des Baux – the ruined fortified castle – occupying about seven hectares. The fortress’s ruined walls, dominating keep, and Saracen tower and Paravelle tower, and a small 12th century chapel are all accessible to be explored by visitors. There are also a series of reconstructed siege machines and medieval weapons on display. From here you can enjoy a breath-taking panorama of views over the entire valley and beyond, stretching as far as the Mediterranean.
Located nearby the village is the vast Carrieres de Lumeieres (quarry of lights), some 46 ft (14 m) high. The ancient limestone quarry is these days used for regular exhibitions, with vast images projected on the quarry walls and music creating a spectacle of light and sound. There is a new art theme every year, with past subjects including the works of Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gaugin, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci.
An exploration of the quarry can be followed by a walk through the Val d’Enfer. Situated below the village, this “Vale of Hell” presents a succession of bizarre and fantastical rock formations. Tradition has it that this scenery provided Dante with the inspiration for his Inferno. Cocteau also shot his film The Testament of Orpheus here. And Mirelle, the heroine of Frédéric Mistral’s poem written in Occitan, bears her wounded lover, Vincent, to this very spot. One of the caverns here, which opens into a narrow gully, is supposedly inhabited by a witch who concocts much hyped healing potions
With so much to offer, it’s no surprise that Les Baux-de-Provence caters for more than one-and-a-half million visitors every year.
Tour of Les Baux-de-Provence
Odyssey Traveller conducts a tour of Les Baux-de-Provence as part of Rural France Tour for mature and senior travellers. On this small group Rural France programme, we spend 24 days exploring France beyond its bustling cities. During this tour you will explore the pastoral and provincial splendour of Rural France through French rural towns. France’s rural villages and towns have resisted the dual siege of the automobile and the property developer. This decision has long protected the rural landscape, thus avoiding the incursions that laid waste to provincial centres in so many other European nations.
As you will see, many of France’s beautiful towns remain untouched by the depredations of the last century. Within their walls the villagers conduct their daily lives much as they have done since Napoleonic times. These villages, or communes, maintain lives based on villagers’ needs, rather than for those who seek to profit from them.
We start and finish this vacation program in Paris and explore small towns in France. This small group tour of rural France is limited to a maximum of 18 people. Travellers are escorted by a Program Leader, who works with a number of local professional guides who will give information about the towns of France and take you to the best restaurants and shops to rest your feet.
On these guided tours, they share with you the culture and the history of rural France. Topics include the local taxation system, the European Union and its impact on rural village life and the regional centres, as well as commentary about the history of the pays, an area whose inhabitants, sharing common interests, enter into a planning contract to build a community.
Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations designed for mature and senior travellers. We specialise in offering small group tours partnering with a local tour guide at each destination to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.
Articles about France published by Odyssey Traveller.
The following list of articles, represents some of the articles published by Odyssey Traveller for mature aged and senior travellers to maximise their knowledge and enjoyment of France when visiting;
- Exploring France by rail some tips.
- Ten of the best travel books on France
- Ten things to do in France when you visit
- Designing Paris
- The elegant arcades of Paris.
- Questions about France
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