Set in the wild countryside just outside Gordes, the Village of Bories is a mysterious, eerily beautiful cluster of several dozen dry-stone huts restored to display a traditional rural way of life.
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A THUMBNAIL HISTORY
This dry-stone technique is thought to date back to the Neolithic era and is found all over France and, indeed, all over the world. In Provence you'll still see it widely employed to build walls and hill terraces while the huts themselves are often used today by shepherds and goatherds as mountain shelters.
More surprisingly, people also continued to live permanently in these rather primitive-looking bories until relatively recent times. The village near Gordes - which was originally labelled on 1809 land registry plans as Les Savournins Bas - seems likely to have grown up during the 18th and 19th centuries, judging by the fragments of pottery found there.
This was a period when the countryside began to be cultivated, and many stones were removed from the fields to prepare them for crops. At the same time, walls and housing were now suddenly required and, given the shortage of good timber, using the surplus stones to build them was a logical idea.
It appears that Les Savournins Bas was inhabited up until the second half of the 19th century. Once abandoned, the huts crumbled until the late 1960s when an enthusiast named Pierre Viala had the idea of restoring it. Gradually he acquired the land and repaired the huts between 1969 and 1976.
It was, Viala recalls, a huge task: many of the bories lacked foundations and two earthquakes in Provence around the end of the 19th century had taken their toll too.
Moreover the land was totally overgrown with brambles and trees. Once finally completed, though, the restoration won an architectural award and the Village des Bories is now classed as an historical monument.
The name borie (sometimes spelled bori) is new-ish too. In that 1809 land register, the dry stone huts are referred to as cabanes. The advent of the word borie was noted by Frédéric Mistral, the writer who compiled the languages and dialects of Southern France into a huge two-volume Provençal-French dictionary, Lou Tresor dóu Felibrige (The Treasure of Félibrige), published in 1886.
According to Mistral, the word derived from boria, low Latin for a shack or cattle house, can be spelled either borie or bori and did not become widely used until the 19th century. Locally the bories are sometimes called cabanes gauloises, or Gallic huts.
WHAT TO SEE
The Village des Bories consists of 28 structures scattered around in seven clusters. Apart from individual dwellings, these include a communal oven, goat, sheep and pig pens, silkworm rearing houses, barns and the all-important wine fermentation vat, though, curiously, there's no water cistern for the vilage, just a nearby well. Labels, in French English and German, are painted on rough stone slabs.
These huts, mostly shaped a bit like stone igloos or beehives, display the skill of their rural architects in creating houses with simple materials and tools, and considerable time was involved in creating them.
They were built of large numbers of thin, flat stones (called lauses locally) which were shaped into rough rectangles to make them easier to stack and placed on a slight slant to allow the rain to run off.
Once the walls had reached a certain height, larger slabs were set on top of them to form a roof or lid. It's a method known technically as a "false corbelled vault".
Blind walls facing north act as insulation against the fierce Mistral wind and a lining of rough mortar help to keep out insects. Some huts have several rooms, a chimney and even an upper floor or mezzanine created by placing stone slabs on oak beams.
The inhabitants lived from basic agriculture: olives, almonds, vines, blackberries, cereals, herbs - and truffles. Some huts in the Village des Bories contain a few traditional tools and pieces of furniture by way of illustration, though overall the site could do with a bit more information for the visitor.
Still, in the modern reception building at the entrance, there's a small museum that screens a short video documentary with English subtitles about the restoration plus archive photographs of Gordes and of dry-stone dwellings from other countries (there are also, handily, some toilets).
Rather meanly, a high stone wall has been built around the Village des Bories, so that you can't see any of the houses without paying to go in.
The ticket price isn't cheap and, given that the countryside in this part of Provence is so richly dotted with bories (there are over 400 in the Gordes area alone), some visitors may feel it's not worthwhile.
On the other hand this grouping is the largest in the region and, even if it's a largely reconstruction, the Village des Bories does give a real sense of how people lived in them.
The simple, curvaceous, rather other-worldly shapes of the dwellings and the way they blend harmoniously into the landscape make the village particularly lovely in the early morning or at dusk and highly photogenic, so don't forget your camera. It's open all year round until sunset.
HOW TO GET TO THE VILLAGE DES BORIES
On foot, the Village des Bories is 2.6 km / 1.5 miles west of Gordes. If you are coming by car or bicycle, the route is a little longer and you will find the village off the D15, down a very narrow track lined with scrubland, oak trees and stone walls.
Part, but not all, of this route is one-way and you might think twice about attempting this drive if you have a wide vehicle. You can leave your vehicle at the large car-park by the turn-off from the D15, but you will then have a 1,500 metre / 1,650 yard walk.
If you decide to drive right to the Village des Bories, you'll find it 500 metres / 550 yards from the nearest adjacent parking area (there are two). It was quiet when we visited in early spring, but we suspect that both traffic and parking would be tricky at the height of summer.
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An hour should be ample to visit the site and the little museum building. There's no café, so bring your own water in hot weather. Website for the Village des Bories
The official regional website Vaucluse Tourism in Provence includes more information about the Village des Bories and other attractions in the area.
Photo credits (from top): © Alain Hocquel for CDT Vaucluse, Georges Seguin for Wikimedia Commons (three images).