From a distance it’s actually kind of hard to see the Château des Baux-de-Provence. Driving south to the village of Les Baux-de-Provence (one of the official “Most Beautiful Villages of France“) from nearby Saint-Rèmy-de-Provence you’ll pass over some wonderful winding roads through the rough hills and rocks that populate this part of the French countryside. As you get close to Les Baux-de-Provence there is a small turn-off where you can park your car. Cross the street and you’ll have a magnificent view of the village perched on another hill across a small valley. If you come in from the east you’ll have a different view, but again, you’ll have to look closely to make out the castle and if you don’t know what you’re looking for you might miss it completely. The entire village and the ruined castle that sits next to it were built from local stone and as such they effectively blend into the rocky outcrop in a way that makes them difficult to distinguish.
Considered by many to be one of the very finest historical sites in all of France this ruined castle sits high up on a ridge overlooking the Vallon d’Entreconque on one side and the Vallon de la Fontaine and Val d’Enfer (Valley of Hell) on the other. It spans five hectares and is today designated a Historic Monument. You can see from Aix-de-Provence to Arles and beyond on a clear day. A visit to the village is certainly recommended, but for me the highlight here is the castle. Yes, it’s a far cry from its glory days, but wandering through the underground passageways, climbing up the stone stairs to the castle keep and exploring the chapel and towers is a fascinating experience that you should not miss if you are in the area.
[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]
What Exactly is a Castle?
There are officially, according to the Centre de Monuments National (The French Center for National Monuments), 6,450 “castles” in France. Keep in mind that the English word “castle” is fairly vague, as is the French word “château.” What exactly constitutes a castle or château is often open for discussion. Some of these are huge, dazzling palaces such as Versailles, Chambord or Chenonceau. Some are much smaller, much simpler complexes such as the one in Chalmazel that now operates as a bed and breakfast (Carole and I stayed there in 2019). Still others are small “manor houses” in which families still reside. Many are now in ruins with only a fraction of the original walls and and stones still standing. Of these 6,450 official chateaux there are probably a thousand or so that would easily fit the description we American’s have of a French castle. Most of these were built sometime between the years 1,000 and 1,450.
When I think of a castle I imagine a large stone structure (big, but not too big) with towers, a moat and a drawbridge. Not just a residence for royalty or nobility, but a fortified edifice that could repel all attackers. I see knights walking along the tops of the walls keeping a protective lookout over the valleys below. Americans, at least those of my generation, grew up fantasizing about castles. From the legends of King Arthur to the Sleeping Beauty and Snow White fairy tales, we were indoctrinated with tales of kings, queens, princes, princesses, knights and castles from a very early age. The fact that there are no real castles in the United States certainly added to the mystique. The crowning achievement of the original Disneyland was the spellbinding Sleeping Beauty Castle, said to have been inspired by the famous French castle and fortifications at Carcassonne.
One of the things I find most fascinating about the Château des Baux-de-Provence is how different it is from how we normally think a castle is supposed to look. Because the original builders used the rough, rocky spur on which it was built for much of the foundation it is nothing like the large square or rectangular shapes we normally equate with castles. Instead it is a hodgepodge of buildings, houses, fortifications and ramparts spread out over this very uneven territory, integrated with and taking advantage of the natural fortifications that the rock provides. Though the castle is now in ruins and only a small part of the original structure remains it is still quite easy to visualize and imagine how it once stood. I’ve included two drawings in this article, both courtesy of Culturespaces. One shows the castle as we know it today, and one is a rendering of what it probably looked like in its prime.
A Little History
Located in the heart of Provence, the Château des Baux-de-Provence once towered above everything else in the area. The high rocky outcrop on which it once set has been inhabited by man for thousands and thousands of years. The outcrop itself provides a great deal of natural protection so it’s easy to see why building a castle on top of it only made sense. According to legend the House of Baux is descended from the Magi King, Balthazar. The family coat of arms features a comet with sixteen silver rays representing the the star that followed the Magi kings.
The first recorded mention of the castle comes from the year 952 along with the name of Pons le Jeune. In 1030 his grandson, Hugues, adopted the surname of des Baux. This family went on to become one of the most important and influential dynasties of early Provence. At the peak of their power they ruled over seventy-nine towns and strongholds. A dispute over territorial rule led to three short conflicts between 1144 and 1162 now known as “The Wars of Les Baux.” It was shortly after this that major work was done on the castle to improve its fortifications and reinforcements, the most important being the addition of a large “keep.”
Between 1386 and 1398 Raymond de Turenne, the then Lord of Baux, revolted against the Court of France, defying not just the King but the Pontifical authority as well. He attacked, pillaged and burned towns and villages all over Provence earning him the name of “The Scourge of Provence.” In 1426 when his last heir, Alix des Baux, died, the castle and the estate were bequeathed to a distant relative, the Duke of Andria and the reign of the Les Baux family came to an end.
Numerous small sieges and wars followed until the land came under the jurisdiction of René d’Anjou, known as “Good King René.” When he died in 1480 the land fell back under the rule of the Kingdom of France. The King, feeling threatened by the strong fortress located so far away from him, ordered the castle to be torn down, fearing that it would fall into the hands of his enemies. It was restored at the beginning of the 1500s and in 1631 it was the site of an historic siege that lasted 27 days. It is said that the villagers themselves then requested that the castle and ramparts be destroyed as they had grown weary of the endless battles and confrontations it provoked.
Weakened by the loss of the castle, the village of Les Baux became almost deserted. Once a shining center of influence and power, it was now reduced to something of a ghost town. In 1821 the discovery of a red rock that could produce aluminum was made in the area and named “bauxite” after the town. But it wasn’t until 1945 that the town (and the castle) began to once again attract a large number of visitors. In 1993 the city gave management of the castle ruins to Culturespaces, a private company that manages historical monuments and museums throughout France.
Exploring the Castle Ruins
The entrance to the castle grounds is at the very southern end of the village. As you walk down the narrow cobblestone street through Les Baux-de-Provence you’ll come to a shop on the right where you can buy tickets. It also serves as a gift shop and bookstore. Ahead on the left is the Chapelle Saint-Blaise which dates from the 12th century and which once belonged to the local guild of weavers and woolcombers. The ruins of an old hospital built in the 16th century and the walls of an old arena that dates from the 19th century are just ahead, also on your left. Continue to follow the road around the arena, keeping to the left, until you come to the official entrance of the castle where you’ll be asked for your ticket.
[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]
The ground here is fairly level and it’s a short walk up to what’s left of the ancient walls of the castle. Along the way you’ll see some modern replicas of old medieval weapons used to lay siege on castles and fortifications. The trébuchet is one such device. It was used to hurl projectiles weighing over 200 lbs towards the walls and ramparts of a castle or village. If you visit the castle during the months from April to September you may be able to see a demonstration of some of these bygone weapons.
In about 600BC olive growing arrived in Provence via the Phoenicians. Before you enter the castle ruins you can walk to the edge of this rocky protrusion on which they sit and look out over the Entreconque Valley where you’ll see large groves of olive and numerous vineyards, all woven together in a patchwork that creates a beautiful gold and green checkerboard. In the background you’ll see the Alpilles, a small range of low mountains that run through Provence.
The Sarrasine Tower
As you enter the castle ruins the first thing you’ll see is the Sarrasine Tower (also known as the Castle Guard) on your right. Built on top of a rocky projection it sits across from another tower, the Des Bannes Tower. Together they formed the outer protection for the castle at the southern end (a large gate stood between them) with the Paravelle Tower and the Castle Keep serving the same function on the northern end of the fortifications. The square structure of the Sarrasine Tower is supported directly by the rock with no underlying foundation. Its walls originally rose much higher than they do today. You can still see several slits at the top of the existing walls used by archers.
As you pass the Sarrasine Tower you’ll enter into what is known as the “second outer courtyard.” Here a few houses were built against the large rock wall on the right hand side, carved directly out of the rock itself. The stone that was removed from the rock face was then used to build the outer facades of the house. Outside one of these houses you can see a modern reconstruction of a “pillory,” once used for punishment and public shaming.
The Hare’s Hole
As you walk over a small bridge you’ll see a small entrance to the castle, cut though the large rock wall, known as the “trou aux lièvres,” or “hare’s hole.” It opened up on the other side of the rock and provided a secret, though very well protected, entrance into the castle. Above the entrance once stood a wooden balcony from which rock, oil and boiling water could be dropped on any intruders attempting to enter the castle through this hole.
Chapelle de Sainte-Catherine
This chapel, built very close to the entrance of the castle, contains some of the very oldest surviving remnants: two Romanesque arches that adorn the wall facing the entrance which date from the 12th century. The chapel, though now in ruins, was once a magnificent place of worship with carpets, silk cushions and elegant chairs, benches and chests. Two altars, a small organ and several paintings adorned the interior. It was restored in the 16th century and the original primitive barrel vault roof was replaced with a gothic vault with intersecting ribs.
[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]
The Castle Keep
Just past the chapel is the “first outer courtyard,” a large square where the guards were housed. From this courtyard you can climb up to the “Castle Keep,” built partly out of the hollowed rock. Four stories high, it contained the living quarters for the Lords who inhabited the castle over the centuries and a dungeon. It’s a long climb up some very narrow and very steep steps but it’s well worth the trip up to the top where you’ll find magnificent views of the castle, the village and the surrounding countryside.
Across from the castle keep you’ll find the castle’s bakery which contained three rooms on the ground floor. You can still see where the oven once baked all the bread for not only the inhabitants of the castle, but the villagers as well (who paid a tax to use it). A sink, window, door, paved floor and finely carved cornice all give us a good idea of what this little bakery once looked like many years ago. The Paravelle Tower once stood near here but almost none of it has survived. All that remains now is the large rock promontory on which it once stood.
In 1993 excavations at the castle revealed a staircase, carved from rock, that descends to two large rooms, known now as the “lower rooms,” also carved directly out of the rock. There are traces of a fireplace, a door and a window that offer some idea of how these rooms once looked.
For several centuries three reservoirs supplied the castle with water. One of them can be found just past these lower rooms. A mixture of crushed terracotta, sand and lime was used to make the walls of the reservoir watertight and we can still see the opening where run-off water entered the reservoir and the second opening where water was drawn from it.
The Silos and The Dovecote
Just down the path from the reservoir are four silos and the dovecote. The silos, which have a depth of between one and a half and two meters were used mainly to store grains, though they might have also stored liquids from time to time. Wooden or terra-cotta covers were probably used to cover these silos. The dovecote was thought be built about the same time as the castle keep. Carved into the rock are little niches known as “boulins” where pigeon eggs were placed and harvested. Pigeon flesh was a highly prized dish at the time and they were also occasionally used as messengers.
Visiting the Castle
I would plan on spending a minimum of one and a half hours exploring the castle. I spent almost three hours there myself and still felt like I could have stayed longer. A self-guided tour is available in ten languages from which you can learn all about the turbulent past of the castle and its Lords.
The Château des Baux-de-Provence is open everyday: in January, February, November and December from 10AM to 5PM; in March and October from 9:30AM to 6:30PM; in April, May and June from 9AM to 7PM; and in July and August from 9AM to 8PM. Of course, you should check online ahead of time in case any of the times have changed.
The cost for adults is 8€ and for seniors it is 7€. Children between 7 and 25 pay 6€, while children under 7 are free. There is a special family price for two adults and two children. Also, look for the “Pass Baux-de-Provence” which includes the Carrières de Lumières, the Château des Baux and the Yves Brayer Museum. It’s just a few euros more than a ticket for the castle alone and a really great deal.
More to Do
The village of Les Baux-de-Provence itself is certainly worth a visit and I would encourage you to spend some time there when you visit the castle. Throughout the year many special events take place in the village. Easter at Les Baux features an Easter egg hunt, a treasure hunt and story-telling sessions. Bird watching sessions, “fat ball” workshops, special walks and hikes, star gazing and guided tours are just some of the experiences you’ll find available. Check with the Office de Tourisme for more information about these events and more.
Within walking distance of the village and the castle is the Carrières de Lumières, a magnificent “light show” situated in an old, abandoned quarry from which much of the rock used to build the town was taken. Every year a different artist is chosen (Carole and I have seen shows dedicated to Vincent Van Gogh and Salivador Dali) and their paintings are projected onto the inside surfaces of the quarry, including the floor. It’s really something special and definitely worth a visit. One of the most popular tourist attractions in France, it can get quite crowded during the peak season so definitely buy tickets on line ahead of time if you can.
The village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence is only a short 20 minute drive away. One of the oldest towns in all of France, it is located in the Parc Naturel Régional des Alpilles (The Alpilles Regional Natural Park). It’s probably best known as the village where Vincent Van Gogh lived for a year and produced 150 of his paintings, including some of his best known canvases such as “The Starry Night,” “The Almond Branch in Bloom” and “Les Iris.” The historic “old town,” situated inside a circular roadway, is a marvelous medieval village full of boutiques, shops, fountains, hotels, chapels and restaurants.
Les Angiques features the Mausoleum of the Julii (from 30BC) and the Arch of Triumph (from 20AD), two of the best preserved Roman remains in Provence. Located about one kilometer south of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, these outstanding monuments are free to visit and open to the public. The neighboring Site Archéologique de Glanum on the other hand requires paid admission but is certainly worth it, especially to lovers of archeology and Roman history. Inhabited as early as the 7th century BC, it eventually became a Roman colony and was destroyed in 260AD and abandoned. Only rediscovered in 1920 you can now see remnants of the old Roman town, including temples, a forum, a basilica, spas, shops, houses and more.
The Château des Baux-de-Provence is located just off the D27 highway a little northeast of Arles. From Cannes or Nice in the east, take the A8 west which will turn into the A7, get off on the A54 near Salon-de-Provence and then take the D24 to the D27. From Nimes in the west, take the D999 to the D90, the D970, the D33 and the D17. There is plenty of parking all around the village but be warned: it is expensive! You have to drive quite a ways to find any free parking.