Carole and I live in the Alpes-Maritimes department of France. Nestled in the bottom right corner of the country, it’s the most south-eastern department, bordering Italy on both the east and north and the Mediterranean ocean on the south. To the west lie two other departments, the Alpes de Haute Provence and the Var. Both of these departments are quite remarkable and distinct in their own way with plenty of areas and landmarks to visit and explore. Like the Alpes-Maritimes the Var sits on the Mediterranean and composes part of what’s known as the Côte d’Azur or French Riviera. It is probably most famous for the long string of gorgeous costal towns and villages that run from one end to the other. Saint-Raphaël, Frejus, Saint-Tropez, Bormes-les-Mimosas, Sanary-sur-Mer and Le Lavandou just to name a few. However, if you venture farther north you’ll also find plenty of charming villages that don’t get quite the same amount of attention. At 3,599 feet, very close to the northern boundary of the Var, the tiny village of Bargème (one of the official “Most Beautiful Villages of France“) has the distinction of being the highest village in the Var. Dominated by the ruins of a large castle built in the 13th century, the Château Sabran-de-Pontevès, Bargème offers breathtaking views of the valley below and stands today as a marvelous example of a medieval French feudal village.
[more info after the photo gallery]
A Little History
Situated at the foothills of the Alpes near an arid limestone plateau of Provence known as Plan de Canjuers, very close to the Var mountains, Bargème begins to show aspects of an alpine terrain that becomes much more pronounced as you head farther north into the Alpes.
Not much is known about Bargème before the 12th century but surely the area was occupied for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before that. Our first accounts of the village are found in 1225 with mentions of the feudal castle, the Château Sabran-de-Pontevès. Built by the Pontevès family, the castle would remain in their hands for almost four hundred years.
Throughout the middle ages the incessant unrest in the region led the inhabitants of Bargème to build ramparts around the village for protection. Today only a very small portion of the ramparts remains, The Levant Gate and the Guard Gate in particular, both of which date from the 14th century and are registered as historic monuments.
During the Wars of Religion (1562-98) unrest, conflict, violence, famine, bloodshed and disease spread across France and the small village of Bargème did not escape the devastating strife. During these years the castle was occupied by Jean-Baptiste de Pontevès, a corrupt and unscrupulous “lord” known for “appropriating” the goods and property of his subjects. In 1578 he was put on trial in neighboring Callas but he called upon his cousin, Hubert de Garde de Vins, to rescue him. Hubert led an attack on the village that resulted in many deaths. Jean-Baptiste de Pontevès and his son threatened to exterminate the entire population of the village if he was not released and before long an “agreement” was reached that resulted in his freedom.
The peace did not last long and a year later the inhabitants of Callas stormed the castle, killed Jean-Baptiste de Pontevès and took his wife and son prisoner. A few months later two more of his sons were also slaughtered during an ambush.
Even with Jean-Baptiste gone it seems that the masses were not quite through with the Pontevès. In 1595 a group of locals slit the throat of Antoine de Pontevès, Jean-Baptiste’s grandson, the current lord of Bargème, in the middle of Mass. The parliament of Aix-en-Provence issued a judgment that resulted in the leaders of the rebellion being hung.
A Visit to Bargème
I visited Bargème on a beautiful Thursday afternoon in early June. Because of its somewhat remote location, Bargème doesn’t receive anywhere near the number of tourists that many of the other “official most beautiful” villages do, even in the high summer season. Spread out on the steep slopes of Montagne de Brouis, during the “off season” the place can be practically empty. This is probably one of the reasons that the village has retained so much of its charm. The day I was there I pretty much had the place to myself.
To reach Bargème you’ll travel down a long, almost desolate, small departmental road, passing through a small pine forest before arriving in large open fields. High on a nearby hilltop stands the village and the ruins of the castle. In a region known for its high, “perched” villages, Bargème stands as one of the most unique and alluring. With its myriad structures of old stone, low rock walls, narrow, winding streets, vaulted passageways and small gardens the town makes for an enchanting trip back in time.
You won’t find much in the way of shops and boutiques in Bargème the way you will in lots of other popular French villages. With a population of less than 200 it’s very quiet and peaceful. There aren’t a lot of restaurants, cafés or bars either. Today sheep and goat farming is the main agricultural activity in the village and the nearby hamlets. I spent my time roaming around the village taking photographs and enjoying the beautiful serene landscapes.
Today the castle is in ruins, though much of the outer structure still stands. The high, imposing towers still remain to dominate the skyline from far away. The walls are cracked and the underground vaults are partially collapsed. You can walk around the outside, but the inside is closed to the public (at least on the day I was there.) It’s easy to imagine how glorious the structure must have been at its prime. Originally four large round towers anchored the corners of the building and two of these are still pretty much intact. The other two show visible damage but are nonetheless quite visible. A long winding path with stairs leads up to the western end of the castle and from there you can explore it in depth. Some destruction of the castle occurred at the time of the War of Religions but it remained mostly intact until 1801. The owner at the time, César de Pontevès, left during the French Revolution and found the castle devastated on his return years later, possibly by fire. In 2008 the village of Bargème acquired ownership of the castle.
More to See
The Saint-Nicolas church, a beautiful 12th century white stone Romanesque building, stands on the northern edge of the village. With an apse that ends in a semi-domed vault and two bells in the tower that date from 1504 and 1702 respectively, it’s a well preserved structure that has been listed as an historic monument since 1988. Inside you’ll find several paintings and altarpieces, the most important of which is a three-panel half-relief painting carved in wood and dedicated to Saint Sebastian in 1525. The frame, formed of golden columns, surrounded by a vine laden with bunches of grapes, was probably made at least two centuries after the sculptures on the panels. The church was repaired and restored from 1990 to 2000.
Like many old French villages Bargème has a communal oven that dates back to at least the 17th century. Unlike many others its oven has remained intact and in a functioning condition to this day.
After the massacre of the Pontevès during the Wars of Religion the residents of the village were required to build the the Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs chapel as atonement. It’s a beautiful little chapel with a nice covered entrance.
Northwest of the village, overlooking the hamlet of Saint-Laurent and close to the old Bargème mill, is another chapel, the Saint-Laurent chapel.