Sitting dramatically atop a limestone outcrop in the spectacular foothills of the Alpilles mountains, the immense 11th-century Château des Baux dominates the tiny village of Les-Baux-de-Provence nestling beneath its once mighty fortifications. Clamber to the top of the château and you will be rewarded with sweeping vistas over the surrounding countryside. The sense of splendid isolation is overwhelming.
The village is no less dramatic. Narrow cobbled streets weave amongst 16th century stone buildings. It is understandably but still pleasingly car free, which allows it to retain much of its historic atmosphere. It helps that the village has done a lot to prevent the gaudy commercialisation you can find elsewhere. Just one of the reasons it was named one of France’s most beautiful villages.
The village’s history can be traced back to at least 6000 BC, when Neolithic peoples made good use of its easily defended location. It was in the 10th century when the Baux family fortified the village that things got interesting though. The Lords of Baux were one of the most powerful aristocratic houses in France, it was they who ordered the construction of the fortress in the 12th century.
To get a sense of how significant Les-Baux was, there were 3,000 inhabitants in the mid-13th century. Today, it has a resident population of fewer than 400. As a medieval stronghold it was regularly attacked and besieged, but it retained its power until the mid-15th century when the last Princess of Baux died. Passed from one family to another for 200 years, its final downfall came in 1631.
King Louis XIII, angered that Les-Baux had become a refuge for Protestants, sent one of history’s most sinister individuals, Cardinal Richelieu, to restore control. After a 27-day siege, the town capitulated and Richelieu ordered the fortifications destroyed. The castle and buildings within were abandoned leaving only the ghostly ruins that spread for close to a kilometer over the hilltop today.
The village streets were quite busy when we arrived so we headed straight to the castle. Remarkably, very few people had chosen to pay the €8 entrance fee and the castle and its grounds were almost empty. Dotted around the site are lifesize models of medieval siege engines including ballistas (a medieval missile launcher), trebuchets and couillards (big catapults), and battering rams.
It doesn’t take too much imagination to picture the castle under siege. There are good information boards to explain the buildings and give some historical context. Requiring more imagination is buying into the legend of the Magi King, Balthazar. It’s said that after dropping off his gift of frankincense at that stable in Bethlehem, Balthazar continued to follow the star to Les-Baux.
The Baux dynasty even claimed Balthazar as one of their own. It explains why their coat of arms has a star or comet with sixteen silver rays, and the family motto, A l’asard Bautezar (To chance, Balthazar). Mulling over this historical unlikelihood, we descended into the village proper. The streets were a bit quieter and we made our way to the small square where the 12th century Eglise Saint Vincent can be found.
There are wonderful views from this square, and we were intrigued by the hamlet in the bottom of the valley. After mooching around for a while we descended through the Eyguières Gate (Watergate), and the only entrance to the village until 1866, to the valley floor. From here you can truly appreciate the scale of the task facing any would be attackers. Les-Baux is formidable.
For all its history, perhaps Les-Baux’s lasting contribution to the world is lending its name to Bauxite, the red-hued stone and main source of aluminum. Deposits were discovered in the area by French geologist Pierre Berthier in 1821, and he named it after the Baux family. You can still see reddish stone in the landscape, even if, like the Baux themselves, anything worth mining is long gone.