The rock is what you notice first. Perched high on a stone escarpment that rises up abruptly at the edge of the Entreconque Valley, it’s hard to separate the houses and buildings from the rock they are built on and, in some cases, actually a part of. There’s very little color in the buildings. Unlike some parts of Provence the houses here are not painted and almost all of them feature natural stone facades. It’s not hard to understand why humans have been settling on this small piece of rugged land for thousands and thousands of years, the village of Les Baux-de-Provence dominates the surrounding area like a majestic sentinel. The protection it offers is formidable, and yet (or maybe because of that fact), over the years it has been the scene of countless battles, sieges and assaults accompanied by much bloodshed, death and misery.
One of the official “Most Beautiful Villages of France,” Les Baux-de-Provence is a fascinating look back into the history of France and a way of life that is long since gone. I’ve been here three times now and honestly, I never get tired of the village. There’s always something new to discover, something new to explore, something new to dive into even deeper. The Château des Baux-de-Provence, a ruined castle dating back to the 13th century, is by far the most well-known feature of the village, but there is a lot more to see and do here.
[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]
A Little History
Situated in the Alpilles hills of southern Provence, between the Entreconque Valley to the east and a bizarre, chaotic collection of white limestone rock formations to the west known as the Val d’Enfer (Valley of Hell), Les Baux-de-Provence has been settled by humans since at least the Neolithic times, around 6,000BC. Many have described the land the village is built on as a ship, because looking at it from a distance it really does take the shape of a large boat about to set sail into the valley beyond. The village we see today began to emerge sometime in the 10th century when the town was fortified for the first time. An imposing castle was built high on the peak of the rocky outcrop that juts up from the earth in the 13th century.
For over five centuries the castle was at the center of numerous territorial disputes in the area. The ambitious Lords who first built the castle expected to be able to rule all of Provence from what they thought would be their impregnable perch. It never really worked out that way and they were forced to defend their tiny piece of land over and over and over again. During the 1300s the population of the village rose as high as 3,000 before it began to gradually subside. At one point over 79 surrounding towns and villages were part of this feudal domain. In 1631, tired of the seemingly endless attacks and ensuing battles, the inhabitants of Les Baux asked King Louis XIII for permission to tear down the castle and his consent was granted. From that point on the village enjoyed a much more peaceful life.
During the 1800s the village fell into decay, in part due to a lack of accessible water. Bauxite, from which aluminum is derived, was discovered in the village by French geologist Pierre Berthier in 1821. Hence the name “bauxite” – from “baux.” You can easily make out some reddish deposits in the landscape all around the village, though the vast majority of the ore was removed by the end of the 1900s.
Over the years many great painters, including Picasso, Van Gogh and Seyssaud have spent time in Les Baux. When the Second World War ended Les Baux began to experience a renaissance that saw an influx of artists and gourmet restaurants. In 1966 the entire town was placed under the protection of the Ministry of Culture and environment. With a small population of less than 500 people, the village today survives almost exclusively on the tourism industry. More than a million and a half visitors pass through the village each year. During the summer months it can be incredibly crowded and even during the off season you’ll usually find it busy.
A Walk Through The Village
The heart of the village is actually pretty small. One main street, Grande Rue Frédéric Mistral, runs from the southern end of the town to the northern. Another smaller street, Rue de la Calade, runs parallel to it on the west. There are two small cross streets and that’s pretty much it. You’ll find these narrow streets filled with a large selection of shops, boutiques, galleries, restaurants and cafés. A few small squares here and there, along with some shaded terraces, make for an absolutely charming little village. The Office de Tourisme is located at the northern entrance to the village and it makes for a good starting point if you want to take a walking tour of the town. You can get a small map from the Office de Tourisme which lists the major sites in the village. I’ve also included a link to a downloadable version at the end of this article.
From the tourist office walk up to the small Musée des Santons which features a large collection of the small figurines that are so popular throughout Provence, mostly used for manger scenes at Christmas. Several different collections, including Neapolitan figurines from the 17th and 18th centuries, 19th century “santons” with paper maché faces and glass eyes and figures by many famous makers are featured in the museum.
Down the street from the museum is the Porte d’Eyguières, the only entrance to the village until 1866. This large “gate” is quite impressive and from it you can also walk down a bit out of the town if you wish. The Musée Yves Brayer contains oil paintings, watercolors, sketches, engravings, lithographs and more from the 20th century artist whose name the museum bears. Brayer was known primarily for his paintings of everyday life but he also produced illustrations for books, created murals and wall ornamentations and even costumes from the theaters and operas of Paris, Amsterdam, Nice, Lyon and more. The museum is housed inside one of the most beautiful buildings in the village, the Hôtel de Porcelet, built at the end of the 16th century.
One of the most impressive sites in the village is the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs, a 17th century chapel built by the Brotherhood of White Penitents. The interior is decorated with frescoes by Yves Brayer from 1974 which show a typical Provençal Shepherds’ Christmas. Just across from the chapel is the Église Saint-Vincent a large church which dates back to the 1100s. The southern section of the church is built right into the rock, something that is very common with many buildings in Les Baux.
At the southern end of town you’ll find the entrance to the castle and another chapel, the Chapelle Saint-Blaise, which dates back to the 12th century. Heading back into the center of the village is what remains of the Brisson-Peyre residence, once a large mansion that dates back to 1571. Today all you will see is a large mullioned window with an entablature that bears the engraving, “Post Tenebras Lux 1571” or “After Darkness, Light,” a Calvinist inscription. Close by, and also built in 1571, is the Hôtel de Manville, now the home of the town hall.
The Hôtel Jean de Brion, a beautiful 16th century building, now houses the Louis Jou Foundation. An artist, engraver, illustrator, typographer and editor, Jou was a friend to Derain, Picasso and Apollinaire (among others) who became the towns pioneering artist when he moved here in 1939. You can visit his studio and see a large collection of his work and others.
Château des Baux
I’m in the process of writing a separate, more in-depth article about the ruined castle on the website, but let me just say here that it is one of the primary highlights of Les Baux-de-Provence. The castle grounds take up even more space than the village itself and if you are visiting the village you absolutely must take the time to explore the castle. Admission is not free, but it’s not too expensive. The last time we were here I spent more time exploring the castle than I did the village. Between the castle keep, the underground passageways, the two towers, the two chapels and more, it is a fascinating piece of history.
More To Do
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 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.
Les 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.
The Office de Tourisme (located at the northern end of the village) is open from 9AM to 6PM from April 8 to September 30. The rest of the year it is open from 9:30AM to 5PM. Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays it is open from 10AM to 5:30PM. Of course, be sure to check online ahead of time as they hours can change. You can find lots of information about the village in the Office de Toursime and on their website listed below.
What: The village of Les Baux-de-Provence
Where: Les Baux-de-Provence (Bouches-du-Rhone) (Google Maps)
When: All year
Phone: Office de Tourisme – 04 90 54 34 39
Download a PDF brochure (in English) with lots of information about the village.
Download a PDF map (in French and English) of the village with highlighted sites.