Les Baux de Provence

It’s one of the most iconic places in Provence but, even despite the large numbers of tourists, Les Baux de Provence deserves a place on any Provence touring itinerary. Between the cities of Arles and Avignon and close to St Remy, Les Baux is very centrally located. Make sure you get there early because by late morning, the place will be packed with visitors – and when you get there you’ll see why. Les Baux is among the more stunning sites in Provence and is one of les plus beaux villages de France. There are more than one-and-a-half-million visitors each year.

The little village, a tight crush of medieval stone, grows apparently organically from a steep and soaring rock outcrop. Some buildings are semi-troglodyte, seemingly growing out from the rock itself. From this intimidating vantage point, the lords of Les Baux ruled throughout the 11th and 12th centuries over one of the largest fiefdoms in the south. In the 19th century Les Baux found new purpose: the mineral bauxite, valued as an alloy in aluminum production, was discovered in its hills and named for its source. A profitable industry sprang up that lasted into the 20th century before fading into history.

Today Les Baux offers two famous faces to the world: its beautifully preserved medieval village and the evocative ruins of its fortress, once referred to as the ville morte (dead town). In the village, lovely 12th-century stone houses, even their window frames still intact, shelter the shops, cafés, and galleries that line the steep cobbled streets. At the edge of the village is a cliff that offers up a stunning view over the Val d’Enfer (Hell’s Valley), said to have inspired Dante’s Inferno.

Castle entry isn’t cheap, but you shouldn’t miss it.  Here, in the Middle Ages the princes of Les Baux gained reputations for on the one hand artistic sensitivity – great supporters of troubadours – and on the other, acts of astounding savagery: fighting all comers and hurling prisoners from the castle rocks to their deaths a few hundred feet below. They  claimed to be the descendants of Balthazar, one of the Three Wise Men, and the 16-pointed silver star which guided the kings to Bethlehem is still on the municipal flag. The views from the castle ruins are quite stunning – olive groves and vineyards stretch away across the plain to the sea.

The castle ruins are extensive enough to clamber over, taking you up towers and walls, and affording the opportunity to fantasise about hurling a few fellow-tourists over the edge yourself. On a hot day, with so many visitors around, it can be sorely tempting.

There are many little boutiques down in the village selling typically provençal souvenirs. There are even a couple of decent ones. But you don’t come to Les Baux to shop – there are plenty of other better shopping opportunities elsewhere. And the same goes for eating places. Apart from the nearby Michelin-starred Oustau de la Baumanière (which I found very disappointing on my one visit) good restaurants are thin on the ground. My suggestion is to plan to spend the morning at Les Baux and then travel on to St Remy where you will have a much better choice of quality restaurants.

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