As I drive around the corner, I am greeted by the sight of craggy, twisted rocks and pillars and white limestone hills that look like a set designer’s extravaganza. Overlooking the spectacular Alpilles ranges and plateaus of olive groves and vineyards is the windswept village of Les Baux-de-Provence, near Avignon in southern France, perched on a massive promontory. Built on an 800-ft-high spur, the word bau meaning rocky outcrop, the village commands the surrounding flatlands with its dramatic geology. Ruins of once-mighty bastions, broken windows and dangerous staircases, morph out of the limestone, looking down at a patchwork tapestry of wheat fields, cypresses, olive groves and vines.
Inhabited by Celts and Romans long ago, in the Middle Ages, Les Baux was home to proud and rebellious feudal lords who controlled more than 70 villages in this area. The Lords 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 found on the municipal flag. Les Baux, with its majestic hilltop location, has always been a place of strategic defence and a lookout point. It was in 1998 that it was promoted to the elite category of ‘The Most Beautiful Villages of France’. Today the village is a tourist attraction where busloads arrive every day, and explore the narrow streets, dine on sunny terraces and clamber up the ruins.
Bundled up in fleece, I brave the fierce mistral and trudge up the warped grid of narrow streets to the Château at the top of the hill, with its maze of narrow passages, dungeons and rooms. Many walls of the castle were simply carved out of the rock and many peasants made troglodyte homes within the soft stone. I climb stairs that lead to nowhere, explore the skeleton of a Gothic arch, and look up at glassless windows etched against the sky. There are life-sized reproductions of siege machines that can entertain adults and kids — like the Trebuchet, a kind of sling catapult that could shoot 100kg stones; huge catapults; and a giant battering ram. “You could try your hand at a medieval crossbow if the howling mistral allows it,” says my guide Claire Novi, with a smile. I see the remains of a very large pigeonnier or dovecote that looks like a medieval mail-sorting station. “The pigeons were like ancient emails and the right to own a pigeonnier was a lordly privilege,” points out Claire. I stand on the edge of the cliff looking down at a panorama of olive groves and small farms, listening to Claire’s tales of medieval troubadours singing ballads to woo young ladies and hapless prisoners thrown off the cliff as punishment by cruel lords.
I am fascinated by the convoluted history of the village. “The village went through many changes of fortune and was razed and rebuilt several times; for many years it was a hotbed for Protestant revolt,” Claire explains. From 1642 the village was granted to the Grimaldi family, the rulers of Monaco. I discover that a serendipitous discovery made the village famous again in the 19th century: the French geologist Pierre Berthier found a red rock from which aluminum could be extracted, and named it ‘bauxite’ after the name of the village! Les Baux became a ghost town for many years, until 1945, when chef Raymond Thuilier opened the hotel-restaurant L’Oustaou de Baumanière and attracted clients — this led to the ruins being restored and placed under protection.
Claire shows me channels and grooves cut into rock and cisterns built to collect rain water. I see sea shells embedded in almost every rock face, reminding me that this was part of an ancient sea long ago; in some places, the wind has sculpted the rock into bizarre shapes like honeycombed coral. I explore the village lined with stately renaissance mansions that have been converted into museums and art galleries. The stark remains of an ornate window bears an inscription ‘Post Tenebras Lux’, a Calvinist saying meaning ‘After the darkness, light’, and is a reminder of the Huguenot influence of that time. Just below the Château, the 12th century Saint Vincent’s Church is one of the village’s ‘troglodyte buildings’, partly carved into the rock. I love the modern stained glass windows by the French artist Max Ingrand and donated by the Rainier family of Monaco, one even depicting a sheep shearer. Claire tells me about the special midnight mass at Christmas, called the ‘Pastrage’ when villagers, dressed in traditional costumes, become the characters of the crèche, bringing it to life; they are surrounded by shepherds, women in traditional costumes, and a lamb is offered to Baby Jesus.
In the Chapel of Saint Blaise, where once the guild of wool combers and weavers met, I watch a film An aerial view of Provence. Accompanied by Mozart’s music, this 15-minute film whisks me over the most beautiful monuments and landscapes of Provence. I spend some peaceful moments at the Penitent’s Chapel, a bare chapel enlivened by huge murals depicting the Provencal shepherds celebrating Christmas, done by local artist Yves Brayer. For a glimpse into Provencal culture, I spend some time at the Santons Museum housed in a building dating back to 1618. Santons, meaning ‘little saints’, are made today to decorate Christmas cribs. Long ago, this originated when the people were banned from worshipping in churches during the French Revolution and they secretly made figurines from clay, cloth — and even bread — for worship in homes. Today it’s a custom to have these as part of the Christmas Nativity scene. I see extravagant Neapolitan santons from Italy made of wood, with elaborate silk costumes at the museum, alongside simple Provencal santons depicting Biblical characters or farmers, shepherds and fishermen.
A hundred metres from the castle is the Val d’Enfer or the ‘Valley of Hell’, a name given to the twisting rock formations, which look like bleached bones, carved over centuries with gaping holes of quarries. I visit an ancient quarry that is the venue of an extraordinary son et lumiere show called the Carrieres de Lumieres, covering the high-ceilinged, 4,000-sq-m space with a kaleidoscope of colour and art. Each year, there is a new production in place. The present show that we see is called Monet, Renoir...Chagall: Journeys Around the Mediterranean. As I walk in, I suddenly find myself surrounded by light, art, and music, in an extraordinary audio-visual experience that draws carpets of images on the cavernous walls of the quarry. I am enchanted by the flowers, figures and landscapes that I see projected on blocks of the quarry, followed by a modern presentation of high-rise buildings and underwater scenes. Some 70 projectors with fibre optic cables, a two million euro investment, and the brilliant son et lumiere magician Gianfranco Iannuzzi’s creativity...this show is like nothing that I have seen before.
From high drama to haute cuisine…At the foot of the Alpilles, situated in a luxurious garden, is the La Cabro d’Or, a Relais and Châteaux hotel with a Michelin star restaurant. The name is derived from a local legend of a Golden Goat that has been seen on a nearby hilltop, at the edge of a spring or just disappearing behind a tree. They say that if you catch the goat, it will lead you to a hidden treasure! A leisurely lunch at the restaurant with a lot of fresh local produce is as memorable as the views from the windows. Much later that night, as the mistral howls outside my windows and rattles the panes, I dream of the landscapes of Les Baux and the legend of the Golden Goat.
Fly Air France to Paris and connect to Marseille (about Rs 54,000). Enjoy their on-board gourmet meals by Michelin star chefs. From there, take the TGV train to Avignon and do a day trip to Les Baux.
What to eat
Marinated olives, Languedoc cheeses, beef stew and local duck. Have a meal at the award-winning restaurant at La Cabro d’Or, a Relais and Châteaux hotel with a Michelin star restaurant in Les Baux.
What to Drink
Local Pastis, an anise liqueur.
What to Buy
Pottery, linen and glass as well as dried lavender.
For more information, see visitlesbauxdeprovence.com.