Les Baux: A pocket guide
Clinging to an ancient limestone promontory, Les Baux de Provence is one of the most visited villages in France, and it’s easy to see why. Narrow cobbled streets lined with shops, cafés, and restaurants wend car-free past ancient houses up to a splendid castle. For centuries, on this striking site, the Lords of the Baux established their power and imposed their rule over all Provence. Their motto was “Race d’Aiglons, jamais vassale” (“Race of Eaglets, Never Vassals”), and these proud princes gained a reputation for artistic sensitivity—they were great supporters of troubadours—and astounding savagery, fighting all comers and hurling prisoners from the castle rocks to their deaths.
The dramatic ruins of the tenth-century Château de Baux crown the village and dominate the landscape. The castle was largely destroyed in the seventeenth century by Louis XIII, but it’s a thrilling place to visit, for adults and children alike—visitors can take crossbow and fencing lessons and watch falconry. Most fascinating of all are the reconstructed (as well as original) medieval siege weapons: Massive trebuchets and battering rams send the visitor rocketing back to medieval Europe and the time of the Crusades. Just below the château, the lovely twelfth-century Saint Vincent’s Church is one of the village’s troglodyte buildings, partly carved into the rock.
As if this weren’t magical enough, the huge rocks that ring the promontory are visions of monstrous shapes carved out by erosion and wind. Legend has it that sorcerers and evil spirits inhabit the caves and crevices. Known as the Valley of Hell, this dramatic, bleak, and jagged mineral world is said to have inspired Dante’s vision of the same in his Divine Comedy. Jean Cocteau filmed his famous Testament d’Orphee there and called the eerie landscape “a zone between life and death.” To recover from visions of hell, lunch or dinner at the recently renovated, fabled Michelin-starred Medieval Oustau de Baumaniere, is advised. Fortunately, close to Les Baux are several truly gorgeous luxury villas to totter back to after a day with Dante and an evening with Gargantua.