According to legend, the hereditary Lords of Baux in Provence were descended from Balthasar, one of the Magi, and their coat of arms portrays a sixteen-rayed comet, representing the star of Bethlehem, and the motto “A l’asard Bautezar” (“By the grace of Balthazar”). The modern French rendering of this noble sentiment – “Au Hazard Balthazar” - is the title of the 1966 Robert Bresson film. Its eponymous hero, a long-suffering donkey, was decidedly more placid than their lordships, who managed to mix it up over three centuries of local belligerence from the stronghold of their imposing fortress, the Château des Baux.
Classified as a national Historic Monument in 1904, the château perches atop a rocky hilltop on the western edge of the foothills of the Alpilles, overlooking the rugged contours of the Val d’Enfer to the west and the Costapera plateau to the northeast. The site gives evidence of human habitation since prehistoric times. The Lords of Baux enjoyed extensive influence from the early Middle Ages; at their peak their “Terres Baussenques” encompassed nearly a hundred strongholds in the surrounding region. They began the construction of the château in the 11th century, beginning with a tower, or keep, hewn out of the rock hillside up to a height of 20 metres. The fortifications grew along with their own propensity for strife. Raymond of Baux found himself being squeezed out by an alliance between the counts of Provence and Catalonia, and fought a series of “Baussenque Wars” between 1144 and 1162. The house of Baux also got stuck into the wars of papal succession in the 14th century, supporting Gregory XI, the last of the breakaway Popes at Avignon. The line of Baux finally came to an end with the death of Alix of Baux in 1426, after which the domain and château were eventually inherited by the house of Anjou. In 1481 the lordship of Baux reverted to the French crown who, taking no chances, in 1483 ordered it demolished. The château was somewhat restored during the Renaissance, but after falling once again into insurgent hands when in 1631 members of the Aix Rebellion against Louis XIII took refuge there, it was demolished in 1633 once and for all by Richelieu.
Les-Baux-de-Provence languished in obscurity for a couple of centuries, until the local discovery in 1821 of a reddish rock which proved to be a valuable aluminium ore, and which was named after the area. From the vantage point of the château the red patches of the depleted bauxite quarries dot the landscape. Culturespaces assumed management of the Château des Baux in 1993. Among the ruins are many interesting buildings, and the site is magnificent. Two 12th century chapels house the château’s oldest remnants, and the smaller chapel now offers modern entertainment in the form of a Culturespaces-commissioned film of aerial views of Provence. The 16th century hospital, or alms-house, was still in use up to the time of the Revolution. There is a windmill dating from 1652, a bakehouse, cisterns, and other buildings in two courtyards surrounding the château that would have housed its guards and artisans, as well as a large dovecote, its pigeonholes dug out of the rock and housing up to 2,000 birds.
The château was above all a military position, and in addition to the main keep there are several other mighty towers, including the Sarrasine tower (named in symbolic defiance of the invading Saracen hordes of the 8th century). In 2012 visitors can try their hand at medieval combat during the Mediévales des Baux, from 1 April to 30 September (weekends and holidays only). There will be demonstrations of several large working replicas of siege weapons, battering rams, and several different catapults: the trebuchet, the couillard, and the bricole, capable of hurling boulders, dead cows, or Greek fire a good 200 metres. A crossbow shooting range will offer target practice with authentic replica bows including longbows and English crossbows, supervised by qualified staff, with smaller bows adapted for children 5+, and instruction in medieval weapons and their use is followed by a dramatic show battle between a Lord of Baux and an opposing knight.
Château des Baux de Provence
13520 Les Baux-de-Provence
© M. Fasol
© C. Recoura
© C. Recoura