Les Baux de Provence offers a majestic hilltop location, superb food and wine, sites of historical interest and the celebrated Cathedral of Images, now called the Quarries of Lights, on the edge of the village.
Click here to book a hotel in Les Baux de Provence
The first thing that astonishes you when you arrive is the sheer scale, not only of the surrounding countryside but of the village itself. Les Baux de Provence was, and still is, more like a mighty, fearsome stronghold than a pretty village perché. In 1998 it was promoted to the elite official category the Plus Beaux Villages de France (Most Beautiful Villages of France).
Les Baux is indeed, officially, a village since the population in the inner walled city is only 400. The number shrinks to just 22 outside the main tourist season (many locals live in the neighbouring village of Maussane les Alpilles).
This said, Les Baux is far from dead in winter and has a very lively and imaginative Christmas programme. Click here to read more about traditional Christmas celebrations in Les Baux de Provence.
And, despite the village's modest population today, the size of its buildings - the Château and its massive keep, the opulent Saint Vincent's Church and grandiose Renaissance private mansions - attest to Les Baux' former wealth and power.
The lowlands of the Alpilles around Les Baux are covered with pine and cypress trees and abundant olive groves and vineyards. Les Baux produces three AOC olive oils and three AOC wines: red, rosé and white (the latter was promoted to an AOC in 2011).
But as you approach the village, this lush countryside gives way to huge rocks with monstrous shapes carved out by erosion and wind. Legend has it that sorcerers and evil spirits inhabit the caves and crevices.
Known as the Valley of Hell, this dramatic, bleak and jagged mineral world is said to have inspired the poet Dante's vision of the same in his Divine Comedy.
The composer Charles Gounod wrote and set part of his 1863 opera Mireille there. The writer/film-maker Jean Cocteau shot Le Testament d'Orphée in the Valley of Hell in 1959 and described the eerie landscape as "a zone between life and death".
A THUMBNAIL HISTORY
The history of Les Baux is just as dark, fierce and turbulent. Built on a 245 metre (804 feet) high spur (in provençal, "baou" or "bau" means "rocky escarpment"), the village commands the surrounding flatlands - the Crau - and an important stretch of the Via Aurelia, the Roman road connecting Arles and Aix en Provence.
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 really 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.
In 1481 Les Baux was absorbed into France and King Louis XI, fearful of its potential as a focus for unrest, destroyed the Château. The village later became a centre for Huguenot Protestantism and an unsuccessful revolt against the crown led Cardinal Richelieu to order that the Château - which had been partly rebuilt - should again be demolished in 1632.
The town was granted in 1642 to the Grimaldi family, the rulers of Monaco, as a French marquisiate and to this day the title of Marquis des Baux remains with them.
By the 19th century, Les Baux had become a ghost village and the provençal poet Frédéric Mistral, who lived nearby, described it as "a place windswept by despair."
However, its fortunes began to improve in 1821, when the geologist Pierre Berthier identified a red rock which could be used to produce aluminium and named it bauxite (the bauxite mines remained active until the end of the last century).
Les Baux' reputation received another massive boost in 1945 with the arrival of a luxury hotel-restaurant, L'Oustau de Baumanière. In the 1960s the then-Minister of Culture, the novelist Andre Malraux, presided over the restoration of Les Baux' historic buildings. Today it is among the country's most popular tourist attractions. In 1998 it was named one of The Most Beautiful Villages of France (Les Plus Beaux Villages de France) an elite and highly controlled official honour. Les Baux is the only one in the Bouches du Rhône département.
WHAT TO SEE
Les Baux is compact but you need a good half day to view it - more if you want to linger on the smaller sights. Click on the map to enlarge the image.
At the top of the village, the Château des Baux de Provence is the star attraction all the coach tours make a bee-line for, and with good reason.
After weaving through the crowds in the narrow lower streets lined with wall-to-wall snack bars and tawdry souvenir shops, it's a breath of fresh air to emerge into the huge (7 hectare / 17 acre) castle keep at the top of the hill with sensational open views across the surrounding landscape.
The Château is in ruins but you still get a strong sense of this atmospheric, impregnable, slightly sinister fortress riddled with dungeons, chapels and secret passages.
Children will be fascinated by the life-sized reproductions of evil catapults, trebuchets and other war machines. At set times, actors give humorous demonstrations of mediaeval armour and weaponry and unsuspecting members of the public - men, women and kids - are conscripted to operate the contraptions.
You can also take crossbow and fencing lessons and, at weekends, watch shows featuring eagles, bears, dogs and wolf-hounds.
Alas, these are in French only and are quite wordy, but also visually entertaining. Illustrated explanatory panels in English here and throughout the castle help fill in the picture.
The entrance fee includes a good audio guide in English too and there is a free activity book for children aged 7-12.
Within the keep is a picnic area and several machines dispensing cold drinks. There's not much shade in mid-summer (bring sunhats) and it can get very gusty on days of high wind.
This location is challenging for disabled visitors and parts of it would also be difficult for families with toddlers and push-chairs / buggies. Some of the higher vantage points bear danger warnings, though these are easy to avoid.
Some of the English-language tourist literature mentions a History Museum at the entrance to the site, but this is now closed. Just outside the Château, on the right as you leave, an intriguing shop sells reproductions of armour, weapons and chain mail.
The Château is open all the year round. A visit requires at least an hour and a half, especially if you want to watch one of the demonstrations. Details of show times can be found on the website for the Château des Baux de Provence. Tel: (+33) 4 90 54 55 56.
Just below the Château, the lovely 12th century Saint Vincent's Church is one of the village's "troglodyte buildings", as the French call them: i.e. it's partly carved into the rock, on the south side (on the right as you enter). You will also find here the little cart used to transport a lamb during the traditional provençal pastrage celebrations at Christmas.
On the other side of the church, the funeral vault of the Manville family, once the most powerful in Les Baux, has a fine Flamboyant Gothic vaulted celing.
The unusual modern stained-glass windows by the French artist Max Ingrand were made in 1955 and gifted to the village by Prince Rainier of Monaco, the Marquis des Baux. Outside, note the campanile, called La Lanterne des Morts (The Lantern of the Dead), where a flame used to mark the death of a Les Baux resident.
Across the square the 17th century Penitants' Chapel is empty inside except for the huge murals (1974) by Yves Brayer depicting provençal shepherds as they celebrate Christmas. This local artist also has his own museum, the Musée Yves Brayer, based in a nearby 16th century mansion, the Hôtel de Porcelet.
Several of the village's other grand old 16th century mansions are now used from time to time as exhibition spaces, such as the Hôtel de Manville, which also houses the Town Hall on its upper floors. Opposite is the ruined outline of the Post Tenebras Lux window (pictured top left), all that remains of a house that was once, as the Calvinist motto hints, used as a Protestant chapel.
A little down the hill, the Hôtel Jean de Brion houses one of Les Baux' least known but most charming museums: the Fondation Louis Jou. Born in Barcelona in 1881, Luis Felipe-Vicente Jou i Senabre, known as Louis Jou, settled in Les Baux during the Second World War and lived there until his death in 1968. Something of a Renaissance Man, Jou was an engraver, ceramicist, typographer, printer and painter, among other accomplishments.
The interior of this house, which Jou restored himself, is interesting in its own right. In it is displayed Jou's exquisite, whimsical work (pictured: Don Quixote), as well as his collection of engravings by Dürer and Goya. Across the road in his former workshop you can see his great old wooden printing press. You need to go there to request a guided visit of the house. It's open Thursday-Sunday afternoons only; you can phone in advance to book. (+33) 4 90 54 34 17 or (+33) 4 90 38 34 28.
Admission is free to the Santons Museum by the entrance to the village. It displays this historic folk art, both traditional provençal Christmas crib figures and examples hailing from Naples, Italy.
The differences are striking: the provençal santons, made of clay, are stiff and formal while the Neopolitan santons (on the right as you enter the museum) are made of wood, have elaborate silk costumes and take up expressive, very Italianate poses in the manner of the commedia dell'arte.
Certain santons are very large and the first room is dominated by a huge crib set against the looming cliffs of Les Baux. The explanations are in English as well as French and some of the showcases are set low at children's-eye-level.
ALSO OF INTEREST
The Cathedral of Images, a spectacular son et lumière show in a disused quarry outside Les Baux de Provence, was relaunched in 2012 under the new name Carrières de Lumières (Quarries of Lights). Pictured: an image from the latest show at the Quarrries of Lights.
Read an interview with Gianfranco Iannuzzi, the son et lumière magician who has designed the shows at the quarries in Les Baux for over 20 years.
Les Baux also has a strong commitment to modern art and has a lively programme of cultural events throughout the year. Click here for full details of the current art shows in Les Baux de Provence (in French).
Les Baux takes part in the annual Festival of Nude Photography each May (the main event is based in Arles, but Les Baux is associated with it and puts on shows of its own).
And the village stages exhibits throughout the summer within the framework of the a-part Festival of Contemporary Art which takes place all across the Alpilles in July and August.
The Quarries of Lights are usually taken over on certain evenings throughout July for free avant-garde son et lumière shows. For further information see the a-part website.
In the summer of 2011, Les Baux hosted an extensive series of installations by the avant-garde French artist Arman. Click on the link for a full review.
If you are visiting Les Baux in winter, you might be able to witness some ancient provençal Christmas traditions such as the pastrage Christmas Eve shepherd's procession which originated in Les Baux. Click here for details of events in Les Baux de Provence over Christmas.
Some excellent wine is produced in the Alpilles area. Click here for a map and list of addresses of vineyards around Les Baux de Provence which welcome visitors.
The Vallée des Baux de Provence is also one of France's eight regions which produce fine AOP (appellation d'origine protégée) olive oils. There is one oil mill, Castelas in the immediate area, on the road leading up to Les Baux, which offers guided tours and oil tasting sessions. Click here to read more about the olive oils of Provence and a tasting session at Castelas.
The Les Baux de Provence Tourist Office website is (by French standards) very slick and has a well-translated and well-stocked English-language area. Website for the Les Baux de Provence Tourist Office.
As with all cobbled hilltop villages, wear flat shoes. Trainers would be better than sandals for the visit of the Château area, which includes some slippery rocks and steps and is partly covered with gravel.
How to get to Les Baux de Provence: Considering its popularity and its proximity to two major cities, Les Baux is hard to get to - though perhaps that's not surprising, considering that its reputation was built on its very inaccessibility.
The nearest rail station is Saint Martin de Crau, 14 km / 8.5 miles from the village. Click here for the train timetable. Select timetable no.8 (Marseille-Arles-Avignon) from the drop-down menu at the top of the page. However, there is no connecting bus service from Saint Martin de Crau to Les Baux de Provence.
A bus runs between Arles, Les Baux de Provence and Saint Rémy de Provence during the summer months only (with a connection to and from Avignon).
Other bus routes run throughout the year between Saint Rémy de Provence and Avignon, and between Salon de Provence and Arles, though neither of these passes through Les Baux. Links to the current bus timetables can be found on the website of the Les Baux de Provence Tourist Office.
In summer, cycling from Arles, Saint Rémy or Avignon might be an alternative, if you can face the hill!
By car, Les Baux is 19 km / 12 miles north-east of Arles and 30 km / 18.5 miles south of Avignon. The village is closed to cars. There is limited parking at the edge of the village, and you will need to be prepared to leave your vehicle quite a long way down the road in high summer.
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Numerous tour operators and bespoke concierge companies offer day trips by coach or minibus to Les Baux: try one of those advertising on this website.
Where to stay and where to eat: The splurge place is L'Oustau de Baumanière (pictured below). Founded in 1945 by the chef Raymond Thuilier, it quickly hit the spot for a post-war France more than ready to discover the good life again. Its clients have included Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Taylor and Picasso.
It is now run by Thulier's grandson, Jean-André Charial and, despite the loss of one of its original three Michelin stars, remains one of the most prestigious hotel-restaurants in the country outside Paris. Vallon de la Fontaine, 13520 Les Baux de Provence. Book a room at L'Oustau de Baumanière.
Charial also has La Cabro d'Or, a slightly cheaper, though still exceedingly luxurious hotel-restaurant which boasted its own one Michelin star for 45 years, but lost it in the 2014 guide. However, visitors report a high level of satisfaction. Route d'Arles, 13520 Les Baux de Provence. Book a room at La Cabro d'Or.
A more recent arrival at the Les Baux scene is the Domaine de Manville, a former farming estate transformed into a five-star hotel with a swimming pool, spa and 18 hole golf course. It opened in the summer of 2014. 13520 Les Baux de Provence. Book a room at the Domaine de Manville.
Click here for a full list of Michelin-starred restaurants in Provence.
At the lower end of the price scale, Les Baux is stuffed with unremarkable tourist eateries but locals recommend Le Variétés, 29 rue du Trencat, 13520 Les Baux de Provence, which has a fairly-priced set menu with local dishes and family-friendly choices. Tel: (+33) 4 90 54 55 88.