Our Saturday itinerary was jammed packed with sight-seeing, including a walk (and climb) through a medieval hilltop castle town, a visit to a Roman Amphitheater and then an exploration through an Abbey from the 11th century. Diversity…that is just one of the great things about Provence. You can relax in the sunshine and sip a drink by the pool, go for an intense bike ride, explore hilltop villages, tour a winery or olive farm, and see Roman ruins scattered all over the area. It’s pretty amazing!
A view of our hotel property
We left our hotel bright and early (before 9AM) and drove a quick 5 minutes down the road to the medieval town of Les Baux de Provence, situated on a hilltop in the foothills of the Alpilles mountains.
Les Baux has traces of civilization dating back to 6000 B.C., but the castle and town that remains dates from the 10th century and reached its peak importance in the 15th century. For many centuries, the Princes of Baux strongly controlled Provence and were said to be descended from Balthazar (one of the wise men that visited the baby Jesus) and their coat of arms was represented by the Star of Bethlehem on a red background.
The Princes of Baux were superseded by the Barons and Masons of the Comptes des Provence who ruled from Les Baux in the 15th century. After a long period marked by family feuds and wars, the town essentially came to end in 1633 when King Louis XIII called for the fortress to be destroyed. What remains today is the shell of the castle and fortress, while the town below has retained several of the medieval village structures, many of which have been restored.
Les Baux is quite popular with both tourists and locals. There is a cavern that is separate from the village visit (and has its own entrance)…which has a laser light show and attracts a whole sub-set crowd. The medieval village also has interpreters in period costumes performing hat making…sword fighting….lots of demonstrations for kids and adults alike.
There was a good amount of parking at the base of the town (but would require a rather long and very steep climb up to the village) and then there are several lots all along the twisting and turning road that leads up to the village. We arrived right at the opening time, and got a primo parking spot right at the entrance to the village. My advice….go early or go late in the day!
Many visitors, including ourselves, want to see the remains of the Castle, which sits at the top of the “mountain”. This means that you have to walk through the very touristy and commercial village below. It’s pretty much all shops selling everything from hats and play swords to candy and souvenirs. Don’t get me wrong, we love to shop, but that was not our primary purpose for visiting, so we bypassed all of the shops and headed straight up to the Chateau. The village below is free to visit–but you have to pay for the parking (as described above). But to visit the upper portion of Les Baux (which has the great view), where the Castle and fortress remains are located and where you see the period demonstrations, you have to pay a fee to get in. I don’t remember how much it was, but it was worth it.
A trebuchet, a medieval device used to hurl objects from the fortress to attackers below.
Just beyond the village, and after paying the entry fee, you enter a sort of vast, flat area below the castle and fortress. There is an old grave yard, some old windmills and some replicas of weapons, such as the massive trebuchet that hurled rocks and other large things down to attackers below. As you approach the remains of the castle and fortress, you begin one of many treacherous climbs up slippery and uneven stairs to great vantage points. I would advise wearing durable, comfortable shoes and seriously considering whether or not to attemp any of the climbs if you are not somewhat fit and/or if you are afraid of heights (like myself).
The treacherous stairs we climbed at one of the towers.
Much like at the Roman Coliseum, you have to use your imagination when visiting the castle and fortress at Les Baux. Only fragments of walls remain…luckily artists have created representations of what things probably looked like.
On the day that we were visiting, the famous Mistral of Provence was in FULL force. The Mistral is a very strong wind that affects this particular region of France. It typically blows in the winter and spring, but can blow at any time of the year, usually lasting a couple of days but capable of lasting weeks. On our visit, the Mistral was particularly strong and at times was blowing us over!
We made our way back down and walked through the village below, making sure to pick up a few treats for ourselves….including some olive oil to take home. The village is not as picturesque as some of the hill towns we visited yesterday, but it is very quaint and worth visiting.
It takes about two hours to see the castle and walk around the village…but if you decide to see any of the demonstrations, etc. you would need to add an hour, or so. After leaving Les Baux, we headed to our next destination about a half hour away. On the way out, the surrounding countryside was full of olive farms and picturesque views with the Alpilles in the background.
We drove about 30 miles southeast to the ancient city of Arles, once an important Phoenician settlement later to be conquered by the Romans. And it is the Romans who left their mark throughout the city.
Arles was also home to Vincent Van Gogh for about a year, and where he painted some 300 works before going mad and having to check into “rehab” in nearby St. Remy de Provence.
Many guide books will tell you that you should visit these towns on market days so that you can not only sample the local produce/cheeses, etc, but also get a more authentic look how the locals live. While this is true, market days also draw big crowds from locals….which means lots of locals + tourists + lots of cars = no available parking. We drove around and around looking for a spot with no luck. Eventually, we simply went into a lot and stalked people going back to their cars. After about 20 or 30 minutes, our technique worked and we found a spot. Keep this in mind if you visit on a market day, and double the trouble if it is a weekend day (like it was for us).
All that being said, Arles was a pleasant surprise to explore. We debated until the last minute whether to go to Nimes or Arles (Nimes also has Roman ruins) but in the end, we chose Arles. From what we could gather on travel sites and in guide books, Nimes has better ruins, but lacks in much else to see (no offense to Nimes or the lovely residents of Nimes).
One of our first stops was the Roman Ampitheater. Remarkably intact (and partially restored) it was amazing to see after last year’s visit to the Roman Colosseum that is only a shell of its former glory.
Built in 90 A.D., the arena was the site of chariot races and bloody battles between gladiators in front of 20,000 spectators.
After the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century, the arena actually became a little town and a fortress, and in medieval times, watch towers were constructed on 4 ends.
After our exploration of the Ampitheater, we wandered the narrow streets of Arles, where every turn was a photographic opportunity. The city attracts a lot of tourists, but because of its size, as compared to the small villages we have visited, you can find yourself alone in the maze of streets. I was really drawn to the vibe of Arles. It is very reminiscent of an Italian city….and at times I was convinced I was in Rome.
Our next adventure in Arles was very interesting but not very photo friendly. We ventured underground into the ancient Cryptoporticus, built in the 1st century B.C.
An engineering feature created by the Greeks and perfected by the Romans, the cryptoporticus was the underground substructure to support an above ground built structure, such as a Forum, which was the case in Arles. Typically, the arches and passageways of a cryptoporticus could be used as underground storage of goods, and a passageway. In Arles, due to its wet subterranean conditions, the cryptoporticus was not suitable for the storage of goods, but apparently, according to the Romans it was good enough as barracks for their slaves.
The Forum of Arles (long gone) was supported by the cryptoporticus, which (underground) is shaped like a U or a horse shoe. For our visit, it was very dark, and nearly impossible to photograph, but what was fascinating were the ruins of the Forum, which lined the walls of the passageways. From what I gather, in Roman times, they had a system of lighting the spaces…but this has since been blocked up. So my assumption is that the slaves who lived down there were not submerged in darkness (at least we can hope not).
I found the cryptoporticus very interesting, and it was nearly empty….I think we passed maybe two other tourists. And it was extremely cool down there…a welcome relief from the 95 degree blistering sun above. Interestingly, you enter the cryptoporticus from the main level of the Hotel de Ville.
As a complete shift in sightseeing, we visited the very lovely Cloisters of the Church of St. Trophime. Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Cloisters housed the Canons, the men that served the Bishop and managed the Church property. They had to live like monks, separated from society, and had to have places to live, eat, pray and sleep.
The Cloisters are quite lovely and the carvings found on the column capitals and at the base of arches were very influential on similar projects in the area. It’s a very calming place to visit and you feel quite removed from the hustle and bustle going on out in the streets of Arles.
Amazingly, the Cloisters, as beautiful as they are, did not last long for their intended purpose. The decline of Arles, the terrible Black Plague that enveloped Arles, and the move of the Papacy to Avignon (recall my earlier post about the Papal Palace in Avignon) meant the end for the Cloisters. By the mid 14th century, the Canons moved out and the spaces were used as graineries and storehouses.
Arles really had it all, and I’m glad we made the visit. On our way back to our hotel in Les Baux, we stopped at Montmajour Abbey, another medieval structure built between the 10th and 17th centuries by Benedictine Monks on what was then an isolated island in the middle of a swamp.
Mountmajour Abbey has a long and complicated history, and one that can not be told in this blog. The very abbreviated version is that the Abbey was at its peak influence from the 10th thru the 12th centuries. The Abbey held an important relic…a piece of the cross…and it became a place of pilgrimage. By the 12th century, it was at its peak of power. But by 1348, the Black Plague had reduced the population of Provence by half. And in the late 1500’s during the wars of religion, the Abbey was used as a fortress.
Just 200 years later, the Catholic Church refused to pay for the upkeep of the Abbey and it fell into disrepair and was later secularized and sold off in pieces.
I’m not sure how well Montmajour Abbey is promoted in travel guides, but it was not very busy at all. No tour buses or large crowds to contend with. During most of our tour, we found ourselves alone. It is literally right on the side of a major road linking Arles to Les Baux and is easy to find and there is ample parking.
And that was the end of our very long (and hot) day of Saturday. It was time to get back to Benvengudo and enjoy another delicious, inspired dinner. The evening’s plates included an avocado soup, a dish of artichoke hearts and grilled onions, fish with carrots, and a lemon sorbet with fresh fruit.
Tomorrow should prove to be quite the adventure! A boat ride to the Calanques!