We are currently staying on a campsite in a small town called Maussane Les Alpilles, which is in the Alpilles national park in western Provence. The Alpilles is chain of silvery-grey jagged mountains that provide a dramatic backdrop to the neat rows of olive groves and vineyards that dominate this area.
The tourist office in Maussane (which also happens to be the campsite office) had details of a hike from the town up to an old castle at Les Baux de Provence and so we decided to give it a go. We have been wanting to do some walking and this provided us with our first real opportunity. The temperatures in France for most of the summer have been boiling, often topping 35 degrees, and so we haven’t wanted to do much strenuous activity unless it was in the swimming pool or guaranteed to be in the shade. The temperatures here though have been about ten degrees lower, making activities like hiking more appealing.
Even so, we got up early and set off whilst the air still retained some of its cool from the night. The walk is about 4km each way and takes you firstly up along quiet roads out of town. Once you reach the Domaine de Manville (a hotel, spa and golf course on the edge of Maussane), you leave the road behind and the rest of the walk is on paths through olive groves and up towards the castle. You cross over the cattle grid to enter the golf course and turn immediately left, following a footpath across the fairway. Be warned though, we nicknamed this section of the walk ‘mosquito alley’ as there were hundreds of them, big ones too, landing all over us as we walked along the path. In fact, we picked up the pace and ended up almost running through this section. We must’ve looked quite comical, twitching away looking for mosquitos landing on us, occasionally slapping ourselves to attempt to squash another one that was having a bite!
As you climb higher, the path gets narrower and, fortunately, the mosquitos fewer until you are right below the outcrop of rock on which Les Baux stands. At this point the path splits and you have to go either left or right to circumnavigate the rock as the entrance to the village is on the other side. It is a fairly easy walk, although the path in places is very narrow and uneven and so you have to take it slowly, but our two girls managed it with ease. Just don’t forget to apply mosquito repellent before you set off! (All of us except Emma forgot and we suffered for days afterwards with some nasty bites).
The town of Les Baux
Les Baux is one of the most picturesque and famous of Provence’s hilltop castles. The castle was built in the 10th century and takes its name from the Provençal word for a spur-shaped rocky escarpment – a baù. The Lords of Les Baux claimed to have been descended from Balthazar, one of the Magi, and the symbol of the town is a sixteen pointed star that is said to have guided him from Bethlehem to the fortress.
If you’ve got children with you, make sure you stop in at the tourist information centre when you arrive because they have a very interesting trail to follow that takes you into all sorts of places around the town that you might otherwise miss. It was following this trail that we learned about the star. We also discovered some troglodyte houses carved into the rock, explored the church and visited the small but fascinating Santons museum.
Santons are small figures that are used to create a Christmas crib scene, something that is apparently a family ritual in Provence. In Autumn, people go for walks where they gather moss, bark, olive tree sprigs and other items to use in their scenes. Then they go to the local fairs to choose and buy their santons. The figures are displayed in the traditional manner, grouped around the manger, but as well as the figures of Mary, Joseph, the three kings and the shepherds that we would all recognise, they also display local Provençal characters as well – maybe the town major, a tambourine player or miller (or sometimes even modern figures like Gerard Depardieu). Often, around the crib scene itself is a wider landscape with the figures getting smaller the further away they are. They were quite incredible in their detail. As well as small, painted, clay santons, the museum had some larger figures dating from the 17th and 18th centuries that were made of wood and were dressed in local costumes made of Provençal fabrics.
At this time of year the town is a lovely place to have a wander, although we were told that it gets unbelievably busy in the summer months. We had brought a picnic with us, but you could just as easily stop for lunch at one of the many cafes and restaurants found lining its narrow, cobbled streets. There are public toilets at several locations in the town too.
The Château des Baux-de-Provence
The ruined chateau at Les Baux is an exciting and atmospheric place to explore. The whole site is both majestic and yet natural – the remains of the fortress almost seem to be part of the rock itself, as if they are growing out of it. There are crumbling towers to climb and interesting nooks and crannies to discover. It was built in the 10th century and it covers a huge area. As you walk around, it is hard to believe that so much of it was simply carved out of the rock. The uninterrupted views of the surrounding countryside that you get from the top are stunning; you can see mile after mile of neat stripes of olive trees and vines, the Alpilles stretching away to one side and the flat landscape of the Camargue to the other.
The castle also had an excellent activity booklet for children aged 7-12 years with questions to answer and clues to find. You have to keep an eye on or hold the hand of small children though since many of the steps are steep and worn and the ground is very uneven. Try to pick a dry day to visit too as the site is virtually all in the open air. You get a free audio guide with your entrance to the castle and it is very informative and easy to use, although possibly too detailed and long-winded, especially for children. Added to which, there are detailed information boards up all around the site telling you about the different features and explaining how things work and so you could easily manage without the audio guide. In fact, ours just became a nuisance that we had to carry around with us!
One of the most impressive things they have at Les Baux is their incredible collection of siege engines, including a trebuchet, a couillard, a bricole and a battering ram. There is something about seeing these magnificent machines in-situ that really brings the history alive. We had recently visited the medieval city of Carcassonne and had learnt about all the features that they built into castles to protect them from sieges and so it was great to see the siege engines themselves and get an understanding of their size and what they were capable of.
The trebuchet was the largest of the siege engines. It was used to break through the thick, heavy stone walls surrounding castles. It was very powerful and very accurate; it could throw stone balls weighing up to 140kg for a distance of 200 metres and had a firing rate of two throws per hour. The trebuchet they have at Les Baux is 16m high and weighs nearly 10 tonnes; it is apparently the largest one in France. It has a large rod with a counterweight (the hutch) on one end and a pouch on the other, into which they would place the stones or other projectiles. To fire it, they would first tighten it, raising the hutch into the air on one end of the rod, thereby lowering the pouch on the other. A dowel attached to a rope was then inserted to stop the rod from moving whilst they loaded the projectiles. The dowel was then removed by pulling on the rope, which allowed the hutch to fall rapidly, and the arm of the rod to straighten up, throwing the stone ball with a huge amount of power. Couillards were similar to trebuchets but less powerful; they were also lighter and more mobile.
Bricoles would be used from inside the castle, to fire projectiles at attackers on the other side of the wall. I was surprised to read that they were often operated by women and it took about twenty of them to do so. They could shoot stones, large pebbles or even crushed stone and sand. In experienced hands, a bricole could reach a distance of 80 metres and manage one shot per minute, allowing the defenders of the castle to take down an entire cavalry charge.
Battering rams were used to break down the heavy gates and strike at the base of the walls of besieged castles. They comprised a long beam with an iron head suspended horizontally from chains and moved back and forwards by a team of men. It had a timber frame over it to protect them from projectiles hurdled at them by castle defenders. The frame would’ve been covered with wet animal skins, manure or turf to stop it from catching fire.
One of the challenges they had at Les Baux was that they had no water source; the castle is not near a river or spring to supply it with what it needed. Because of this, they had to collect rainwater and they had some ingenious methods of doing so, including building a wide, smooth, sloped pavement on one side that collected runoff and channelled it into a storage tank. They had plenty of wind though; the bitterly cold and strong mistral wind blows down the Rhône valley in Provence and across the top of the Alpilles. The people of Les Baux made good use of it by having several windmills within the castle grounds, but the poor farmers had to haul their grain all the way up there to be milled!
It was pretty hot by the time we started our descent back to Maussane and we were all tired from being on our feet all day. We covered ourselves with mosquito repellent in preparation for the journey, but fortunately all was quiet on mosquito alley. All in all it had been a great day but we were happy to take off our boots when we got back to the campsite and anoint our bites with cream!
One other interesting fact: the town gives its name to a mineral that was discovered in 1882 by French chemist Pierre Berthier on land near to Les Baux. It was purplish-red in colour and was unknown at the time. He named it bauxite. Apparently there were working bauxite mines in this area supplying aluminium ore until as late as 1990.