Les Baux-de-Provence, France
June 13, 2019
Halfway up, the Alpilles in Les Baux served up stunning views of Provence. The valley was a green canvas on which shingle-roofed towns and winding roads were drawn. All these were framed by pale towering rocks misshapen by wind and water through the eons. I thought it was heaven until I read the overlook marker:
Standing at one end of the Les Baux valley, the Val d’Enfer, or Vale of Hell, exhibits its white sandstone cliffs sculpted by the elements. It gets its name from Dante’s description of “Hell” in his “Divine Comedy,” which was inspired by this very place. The gaping holes of the quarries, which have worked from ancient times to this day, amplify the strangely tormented appearance of this mineral landscape, carved into so many fantastic shapes.
One man’s heaven was another man’s hell. What I saw as enchantingly majestic rock formations, Dante saw as writhing souls paying the wages of sin. This perspective was even more apparent in Van Gogh’s paintings of the tortuous mountains. The Alpilles, after all, was nature’s work of art, a massive block of limestone chiseled by her fluid hands.
It was at the Alpilles that bauxite, a kind of rock with various industrial applications, was discovered and named after the village of Les Baux-de-Provence. That must have accounted for the amount of quarrying in the region.
For our last stop, we half-expected to be turned away. Somehow the gatekeeper at the counter let us through among the last visitors of the day. Our ticket covered two historical sites that deserved their own visit each: the village of Les Baux-en-Provence and the fortifications of Château des Baux. At close to 5 PM, we could hang around just one, and we chose the fortress.
Les Baux-de-Provence, restored to its medieval glory, was touted as one of the most picturesque villages in France. Not only did it have a front row view of otherworldly – or hellish – rock faces of the Alpilles, its cobbled streets and masonry preserved the town’s quaintness in stone, so to speak. We were walking in a living museum, an ancient settlement now thriving on tourism economy.
Without the luxury of time for museums, we made a quick stop at a souvenir shop called La Treille. It might as well have been an arsenal from the Middle Ages. Items for sale were mostly weapons, armors, and insignia. It showed how war was central to life and death in medieval times. Providing a counterpoint to the war-freak implements, a mural presumably evoking courtly love was propped up in the middle of the store. The princes of Les Baux were lovers too, not just fighters.
My nephew Dylan bought a medieval pocket knife as I wielded a medieval battle axe for a selfie. My fun poses with the crescent blade belied the gory deaths the close contact weapon caused in an actual battle. Foot soldiers chopped one another up in no more than an arm’s length. Their blood would have splattered and mixed together. I perished the thought.
Off we hiked up Rue du Château to a rocky pinnacle on which the majestic fortifications of Château des Baux were built. The historic monument was composed of the ruins of castle walls and keeps preserved from the 11th century. Informative panels throughout the château circuit did the job of audio guides we didn’t rent.
It made sense that a fort was set on this limestone outcrop. The panoramic view that was spectacular to visitors was a crucial component of defense back in the day, a vantage point for sentries to survey the valley and surrounding mountains. The massive rocks that adorned the landscape formed a natural foundation for the castle and citadel.
The rocky ridges served a more practical purpose before visitors scaled up irregular stone steps to see breathtaking, literally for the moderately difficult climb, views. What attracted out-of-towners like ourselves was originally what kept them out. How times had changed.
The remains of the castle left to the imagination how it was in the Middle Ages until the final attack that demolished it in 1632. That said, ruins of the castle keep and chapels, courtyards and cisterns had been preserved.
The prominent displays, though, were the replicas of medieval armaments. By this steep stronghold, a small plateau had been cleared to house siege engines: several catapults and a battering ram. Dylan, however, felt attacked as we strolled by lavender fields between ruins, not by mounted knights, but by bees and bugs swarming the flowers.
The largest trebuchet catapult in Europe stood on Les Baux. It could hurl smoldering rocks and tar balls to almost a hundred meters. This was a medieval version of a cannon as crossbows were of guns. Otherwise, wars were fought with infantrymen and cavalry in close proximity using swords and the aforementioned axe.
Another siege engine on display was the battering ram. Period movies gave a visual cue on how it worked. By ramming the long iron-tipped beam onto heavy gates and ramparts, the attacking army could lay siege to conquered fortresses. The rise and fall of the House of Baux lay on both defensive and offensive skills. As was always the case, its turbulent history fulfilled the biblical proverb, “Live by the sword, die by the sword.”
Dante Alighieri and Vincent van Gogh may have been on to something. They saw beyond the serene natural beauty of Les Baux. Perhaps the blood and tortured cries of warriors and women shaped their perception of the rugged and asymmetric forms of Alpilles rocks. While I saw heaven, they saw Hades.