Our couchsurf near Salon-de-Provence was perfectly situated for day tours into the hill towns of Provence. Our first tour was to be of the Alpilles, a long limestone range full of olive trees, vineyards and medieval towns.
We got off to a bit of a bumpy start, circumnavigating Salon a couple of times before finding the correct road. We’d planned a little route round the Alpilles, starting at Eyguières, transiting Mouriès, then hitting Les Baux-de-Provence, where we had our first stop.
Les Baux is one of those villages that have given themselves over to tourism, and is officially classified and labelled as “one of the most beautiful villages in France”. The old village is full of lovely souvenir stores and expensive restaurants. I doubt that anyone actually lives there anymore except in summer. Despite this you can’t help but be charmed. It is built on a bare rock between two ravines with a ruined castle on the summit. The flagstone streets twist and turn, opening up into small squares with views over the valleys below: the Val de la Fontaine (the valley of the fountain), and the more disturbingly named Val d’ Enfer (the valley of hell). This dramatic and bleak valley is said to have inspired Dante’s vision of hell in his Divine Comedy.
Thankfully the village is anything but hellish and the lady at the tourist information was positively angelic, giving Alexander and Eoin a treasure hunt to complete with the promise of a reward at the end. It’s amazing the effect a bit of a quest has on the boys. After groaning up the incline from the carpark complaining about being tired they took off at top speed searching for the first clue. Soon they were in and out of museums, inspecting gargoyles, griffins, and stained glass icons in churches, searching for ancient troglodyte dwellings outside the old city gates and finding seashells embedded in the castle walls.
Les Baux’ strategic position meant it was settled early, both by Celts and by Romans, who quarried stone there and transported it by boat to Arles. But it reached the height of its power in the early Middle Ages, when it was dominated by the fierce, proud, rebellious and ambitious princes of Les Baux, who controlled 79 towns and villages in the region. They 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 on the municipal flag. The princes of Les Baux were deposed in the 12th century, but thereafter the château remained renowned for its elegant court, where troubadour poet-musicians practised the ornate chivalric tradition of courtly love.
After a lunch of cheap crêpes eaten in the shade of a plane tree on one of the squares, we headed up to the château, but decided against entering. The boys were all châteaud out and we were only too happy to save the hefty admission fee. They soon repented of their decision, however, when they found out that there were life-size reproductions of catapults, trebuchets and other war machines on display. Too late.
Returning to the tourist information, Al and Eoin each claimed their prize: an unpainted sheep santon, which are small hand-painted terracotta nativity figurines produced in Provence. We’ll be getting the paint brushes out when we get home and decorating our own little santon.
It was heading into the hottest part of the day when we left Les Baux and, unwilling to stand for hours in the burning sun, decided to not stop at the Roman ruins of Glanum. We did however drive past its splendid triumphal arch as we drove into the pretty town of St Remy-de-Provence.
We headed straight for a plane-shaded square and revived ourselves with a water fight from the fountain and a couple of coffees. Then, somewhat reinvigorated, we took to strolling through the lovely streets and squares, successfully resisting the very appealing shops.
The old town is fairly small and surrounded by a ring-road of boulevards. You can see the remains of the 14th-century protective wall in the old portes (gateways), still in use today as the entrance ways into the ancient center of old Saint Remy.
We were all a bit hot and bothered at this stage so decided to head back home to the swimming pool.