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Lesser-known Southern France, Part II

If you don’t need the rock-rib certainty of hotel reservations each night -- in other words, if you’re open to adventure -- southern France is a great place for a meandering road trip. Rent a car, buy a good road atlas (Michelin’s Atlas Routier, available in any French bookstore, has served me beautifully), and just take off. The best formula for fun and great memories: stick to the back roads and follow your instincts.


Copyrighted image - used with permission.

Visiting Aix-en-Provençe one June, my companion and I kept running into people who held very strong opinions about Les Baux, a village perhaps 50 miles distant. Some told us it was an ancient place fallen to ruin, but others said it was relatively modern. Some called the Les Bauxian food tourist fodder, but just as many called it among the best in France. We were told variously that a visit there would make us glad and sad.

We blamed all these contradictions on our poor language skills, but couldn’t help growing wildly curious about the place. Looking at the map, we saw that Les Baux was situated about 50 or 60 miles to the northwest, in an area neither of us had ever seen. Why not rent a car, check out Les Baux, and then wander for a few days in the region? We set out a few days later, with no planned route or itinerary and certainly no hotel reservations.

Situated on a stark and steep rock spur that towers high above the gently rolling Provençal countryside, the land that constitutes Les Baux is about half a mile long and an eighth of a mile wide, completely invisible from below. Riddled with grottoes and caves, Les Baux was a natural refuge from marauders and the elements in neolithic times, and by virtue of its steep site it was a fortified stronghold as early as the Iron Age.

It wasn’t until the Eleventh Century, however, that Les Baux came into its own. For the next five centuries its Lords -- who claimed descent from Balthzar, one of the three magi -- were among the strongest in all of France. They ruled from their warrior’s aerie over more than 80 towns and villages, dominating all of Provence, owning Sardinia, seizing princely titles and duchies throughout Europe (among them: Prince of Orange, King of Arles, and even Emperor of Constantinople). Their power is particularly remarkable when one considers that, at its height, Les Baux contained no more than 5,000 inhabitants. That they were a fierce and warlike people is beyond debate.

Les Baux eventually went the way of all great warrior societies: it softened with time and success. In 1483, Louis XI conquered the village and destroyed the fortress. Despite this, Les Baux maintained some of its former greatness until, in 1632, Louis XIII ordered the village completely destroyed and the inhabitants forced to leave. A new Les Baux, built on the outskirts of the ancient village, rose in the 1700s.

Today Les Baux is divided into two parts: the "new," living town, and the dead town. If you seek unspoiled travel experiences, you’ll find the new town, with its pizzerias and carnival-like atmosphere, exasperating. There’s a bright side, however: you can find a passable hotel here and at night, when the day-trippers leave and the din is dimmed, it’s a quiet and lovely place to be.

But let’s not dwell on crass commercialism: one comes to Les Baux for the dead town, the town destroyed by Louis, among the most haunting and mysterious ruins the world knows. Atop the rock spur the winds are fierce and they -- together with time, rain, snow, avalanche -- have sculpted and welded together ruin and mountain until it is often impossible to discern the difference between the two. The streets, the fortress with its ramparts, the castle: all have become fragments sprouting from the dry and scrubby earth. Here, says the guidebook, stood the imposing west wall of the castle or the main entrance to the fort, but all you see is a broken foundation or a gaping window, a fallen chimney, half of a stately arch.

Enough remains of Les Baux to excite your imagination: as you wander around you find yourself envisioning homes, ways of life, epochs. The only true signs that people really lived here are the holes carved into the rock, "closets" and storage space for the fallen stone buildings which abutted them. Here had ruled a race of people so powerful that it became necessary to destroy them completely; and yet today the only remaining signs of their existence are negative: holes, hollow spaces, emptiness. The extinction of this ancient place was complete and final, obliterating its history. The memories of Les Baux, as Henry James once said, are buried under its ponderous stones.

Copyrighted image - used with permission.We spent a few hours wandering about the ruins, and then sat on the southern edge of the spur for a simple picnic lunch: cheese, a baguette, apples. From here was a magnificent view over the southern part of Provence, clear to the ocean: Arles, the Camargue, Aigues-Mortes. I turned to study the dead city behind me. It was true, what I’d heard: at that moment I felt both happy and sad.

As for the mystery surrounding the food… It is, sad to say, mostly tourist fodder in the new town. But it’s a short downhill trek to the 14th Century provençal farmhouse which houses L’Oustau de Baumanière, one of the country’s legendary restaurants. Brought to life after World War II by the celebrated chef Raymond Thuilier, L’Oustau was considered the finest French country restaurant in the entire world during the 1950s and 1960s. Royalty, including Princess Grace of Monaco, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, and the Shah of Iran, traveled here to sample Messr. Thuilier’s cuisine. Today his grandson, Jean-André Charial, carries on the family tradition of culinary excellence.

Leaving Les Baux the next morning, we headed north. Avignon was our eventual destination, but, since we had no reservations to meet, we meandered slowly along on back roads. In this way we stumbled onto ruins of an ancient Greek and Roman town called Glanum, which contains the oldest buildings in France (sometime around the second century B.C.). It was an entirely unexpected pleasure to find ourselves suddenly immersed in sculptures commemorating Caesar, a triumphal arch, a sanctuary of Cybele, mosaics, and other Hellenic remains.

Later we stopped in the charming town of St. Rèmy de Provençe and liked it so much we took a room for the night. The town’s center is a small circular medieval village. The "new" village, itself quite old, encircles its predecessor. The once-splendid wood and brick chateaux of the newer village are now hotels and restaurants, picturesquely draped by wisteria and lavendar trees.

In the evening we ambled about, taking in the town’s beauty while seeking a restaurant to suit our mood (that night the two operative words were casual and inexpensive). We settled on Restaurant des Arts St. Remy, mostly because a glance inside revealed paintings hung floor to ceiling. And small wonder: the restaurant has been there so long -- often trading paintings for meals -- that its former guests include Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Vincent Van Gogh, and Jean Cocteau. As for the food: a good local red wine, saucisson chaude en croute, entrecote with green peppercorn sauce, onion crepes, salade verte, cheeses, citron sorbet...

And then to bed: to dream, perchance, of another day spent meandering along the back roads of southern France. I’d tell you all about it, but I’m out of room.

Happy travels!

Part I (July '98)