Last modified: 2013-11-25 by ivan sache
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Flag of Les Baux-de-Provence - Image by Arnaud Leroy, 20 February 2005
The municipality of Les Baux-de-Provence is one of the most visited places in Provence.
It might be the second most visited village in France after
Mont-Saint-Michel. The permanent population of the village is only 381 (2006) whereas the average number of visitors per year is more than 1.5 million.
The village is located on a rocky plateau, 245 m a.s.l., 15 km from Arles and 25 km from Avignon. It has been completely restored and made free of cars; the village has no less than 22 buildings and architectural elements registered on the National Historical Heritage list (the church, the citadel, the city hall, the hospital, chapels, houses, doors...). The village is dominated by a huge citadel, which spreads over more than 7 hectares and requires one hour and an half for a complete visit. From the top of the citadel, there is a beautiful circular view on Arles, the plain of Camargue and the massif of the Alpilles.
The rock on which Les Baux was built is a safe place dominating
inhospitable marshes and controlling access to the Alpilles mountains.
It is a kind of eagle's nest, used first as a shelter, then as a
The lords of Les Baux built their first fortress in the 10th century, and a village developed under the protection of the fortress. The St. Vincent church is one of the oldest buildings in the village. Its left nave, that is the earliest church, dates back to the 10th century, with a typical Carolingian architecture and three troglodyte chapels; its main nave was built in the 12th century in the Romanesque style, with a gallery added above the entrance in 1550; its right nave was built later in Gothic style, with three lateral chapels. The modern glass-windows, designed in 1955 by Max Ingrand, were offered by the Crown Prince of Monaco, who has been bearing the title of Marquis des Baux since 1643. The southern side of the church is surmounted by a dead's lantern, in which a candle was lit to announce a death.
The lords of Les Baux were indeed powerful warlords, who claimed to
descend from Magus Balthazar; their motto was Au hasard, Balthazar
(Haphazardly, Balthazar) and their coat of arms showed the 16-pointed
star that guided the Magi to Betlehem. For five centuries, the lords of
Les Baux owned 79 domains and allied with the most powerful families in
Europe. Mistral wrote about them: Race d'aiglons, jamais vassale
(Eaglets' dynasty, never vassal).
They were in constant struggle with their powerful neighbours the Counts of Toulouse and of Provence, and later completely enclaved into the Kingdom of France. The struggle caused permanent instability and devastation all over Provence.
Among the most famous lords of Les Baux are Hugues I, builder of the first fortress; Raymond des Baux, the cause of the famous guerres baussenques (Wars of Les Baux); Raymond de Turenne, nicknamed "The Scourge of Provence"; and Alix des Baux, the last member of the dynasty. When Alix died in 1426, the domain of Les Baux was incorporated into the County of Provence as a Barony; the "Good King" René and his wife "Queen" Jeanne favoured the development of the village.
The citadel include several buildings erected on different times to fulfill the needs of the ruler of the citadel. Most parts of the citadel were built directly on the rocky plateau and some other parts were dug inside the rock. The castle was often modified and revamped; the donjon, the pigeon house and the big towers were added in the 13th century and several other buildings were added in the 16th century.
In the middle of the 15th century, Les Baux was incorporated to the Kingdom of France. There was a last revolt, which "forced" King Louis XI to destroy the castle and establish a Captain-Governor in the village in 1483. The most famous Captain-Governor of Les Baux was Constable Anne de Montmorency, François I's favourite, who transformed the village into a town with 3,000 inhabitants and rebuilt the castle. The main street of Les Baux (Grand-Rue) is lined with big buildings that belonged to the rich families of the village. The most beautiful of these buildings is the Manville hotel, built in 1571 by an architect from Vivarais for Claude de Manville. Born in a Protestant family in Toulouse, Manville went to Les Baux with Constable of Montmorency and was appointed Captain of the Royal Galleys and Knight of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher. The Manville hotel is today the city hall of Les Baux.
At the end of the 15th century, the Reformation spread to Provence and
reached Les Baux. The town declined because of the struggle between
Protestants and Catholics. Les Baux was also involved in a plot set by
the serial-plotter Gaston d'Orléans against his brother Louis XIII. In
1632, the town surrendered after a 27 day siege and the inhabitants of the
village asked Louis XIII to destroy the castle and restore peace.
In 1639, Les Baux became a Marquisate, awarded to the Prince of Monaco as a reward for his help against Spain. Peace was restored and the village developed out of the citadel and the walls, after the draining of the marshes. In 1791, France purchased the village, then a rural hamlet, to the Grimaldi family.
The Eyguières gate got his name from the Provencal word aigo, "water". In the past, there was no fountain in the village, and the villagers had to go down into the plain to get water in the so-called Fountain Valley (Vallon de la Fontaine). Since the gate was the main gate of the village, it was locally known as lou porteau (The Gate). The Grimaldi coat of arms that decorates the gate was damaged during the French Revolution. The nobles' privileges were abolished in 1790 but the Crown Prince of Monaco retained the honorific title of Marquis des Baux. Near the fountain mentioned above, there was a pleasure garden called the Count's Garden or the King's Orchard. The small pavilion near the fountain was built in 1581 for Jeanne de Quiqueran, wife of the Baron and Governor of Les Baux; however, it is known as Queen's Jeanne Pavilion.
In the 19th century, Les Baux was nothing but a ghost village with
very few inhabitants left. The ruins fascinated the Provencal Felibre
poet Frédéric Mistral (1830-1914), who lived in the neighbouring
village of Maillane; Mistral called Les Baux un lieu où souffle la
désespérance (A place where desperateness blows). He ordered a copy of
Queen Jeanne's Pavilion for the decoration of his grave in Maillane.
In 1821, the geologist Berthier discovered near Les Baux a red rock from which aluminium was produced, and named it bauxite.
In 1945, the cook Raymond Thuilier opened the hotel-restaurant L'Oustaou de Baumanière, where several heads of state and members of the international jet-set stayed. Les Baux was rediscovered, the ruins were excavated, restored, revamped and placed under protection.
The White Pentitents' Chapel was rebuilt in 1937 by the Brotherood of
the Oc-speaking Penitents. In 1939, they placed in the chapel a statue
of St. Estelle, the patron of the Félibrige movement. The statue was
later stolen, and the chapel was decorated by the painter Yves Brayer
in 1972. Brayer (1907-1990) is one of the most famous French figurative
painters of the XXth century. He lived in Les Baux from 1961 to his
death; in 1967, he built a traditional Provencal house (mas), where
he received several artists of his friends (André Chamson, Henri Bosco,
Armand Lanoux, Jean Giono), who wrote essays on his work. Brayer
painted several Provencal landscapes and still lives; he illustrated
several books, including Mistral's and designed scenery and costumes
for theater and opera.
The painter Antoine Serra (1908-1995), of Sardinian origin, is less known than his friend Brayer. In the 1930s, he worked in Marseilles, where he painted the port, the docks and was appointed Director of the first Maison de la Culture out of Paris by André Malraux in 1936. In 1946, he settled a troglodyte workshop in a rock in Les Baux, where he worked until his death. In 1950, his masterpiece, "The Midnight mass in Les Baux", was shown in the Salon d'Automne in Paris.
The French writer André Suarès (1868-1948) spent his last years and died in Les Baux. Suarès was one of the first writers to warn the Europeans against the rise of Fascism and Nazism; he expressed his love for Italy and classical culture in his most famous book Le Voyage du Condottiere and wrote several biographies, e.g. of Pascal, Goethe, Dostoievski, Debussy and Tolstoi. Suarès always remained isolated and underestimated. He wrote that literature would probably the last shelter for a free man.
The illustrator Louis Jou, of Catalan origin, worked with Apolliniaire, Picasso and Cocteau. In 1921, he met Suarès and became his best friend. He bought and restored a Renaissance hotel in Les Baux, where he settled in 1939. He worked alone in his workshop, with his own characters brought back from Spain, and released the famous Livres de Louis Jou, illustrating Louise Labbé, Benjamin Constant, the Song of Songs...
Ivan Sache, 20 February 2005
The flag of Les Baux-de-Provence, widely used in the village, is red with a 16-pointed star in the middle.
The flag is a banner of the municipal arms, which were ascribed to the Armorial Général as De gueules à une étoile à seize raies d'argent (Arm. II, 112; bl. I, 389; registration fee, 40 l.).
These are the arms of the feudal family of Les Baux, gone extincted at the end of the 15th century.
Ivan Sache, 20 February 2005