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Les Baux

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The ruins of the Roman city of Glanum and the medieval fortress at Les Baux de Provence are, respectively, 20 and 30 kilometers south of Avignon. Together, they make an interesting scenic and historic day trip.
Picture of the rock at Les Baux de Provence Photograph of the rock at Les Baux de Provence Picture of Chateau des Baux

Ruins of the castle at Les Baux Picture of the chateau at Les Baux
Courtyard of the chapel at Les Baux de Provence Castle wall at Les Baux Picture of a trebuchet at Les Baux castle

Bau (it rhymes with “toe”) is the Provençal word for a rocky outcrop or cliff. The word is nearly synonymous with Les Baux (it rhymes with “Play-Doh”), the gleaming white rock that rises 245 meters above the vineyards and olive groves on the plain between Avignon and Arles.

People have made use of the rock for at least 8,000 years. In historic times, Celtic tribes built a fortified town in the second century BCE; and Romans quarried the rock as building material for the city of Arelate (now Arles). But the history of Les Baux really began in the 10th century, when the family of feudal warrior-princes known as “the Lords of Baux” began to build a fortified castle on (and into) the rock. Early on, the family took the name Baux after their fortress, Château des Baux. They also claimed ancestry from Balthazar, one of the three kings (also called “magi” or “wise men”) from “the East” who followed the Star of Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant Jesus.

Through their military prowess, the Lords of Baux controlled much of Provence until 1481, when the death of the last member of the Baux dynasty brought Provence under French rule. (The plural French name for the town thus refers to the medieval family that ruled 79 towns and villages from their château on the bau.) Of course, many people in Provence were less than happy about their new status as subjects of the French monarchy. As a precaution against its use in a rebellion, King Louis XI ordered Château des Baux destroyed in 1483.

A French baron partially restored the castle during the Renassance. But during the 16th century Wars of Religion, the castle became a refuge for Protestant Huguenots who were rebelling against the Catholic French monarchy. The castle was destroyed again in 1632, on the order of the king’s chief adviser, Cardinal Richelieu.

The ruins of Les Baux were abandoned until the 19th century, when geologist Pierre Berthier discovered that a large deposit of reddish ore near the rock contained readily-extracted aluminum. He named the ore bauxite. Although the mines surrounding Les Baux ran out early in the twentieth century, bauxite remains the the world’s main source of aluminum.

Today Les Baux is a very popular tourist attraction. Visitors can wander along footpaths to explore the ruins of the Château— now preserved in arrested decay, as ongoing excavation and restoration continues— and shop for souvenirs and tchotchkes in the adjacent village. The castle is also an outdoor museum of functioning medieval siege weapons. That collection includes what is claimed to be the world’s largest trebuchet, a kind of catapult for hurling large objects over city walls.

The best time to explore the castle is late in the afternoon. The tour buses and crowds are gone, and the ruins are bathed in beautiful warm light.

Restored columns at the ruins of Glanum Picture of the ruins of Glanum Photograph of the ruins of Glanum

The ruins of Glanumle Plateau des Antiques— are just outside Saint-Rémy de Provence. Ligurian Celts founded the town around a natural hot spring in the 6th century BCE. Because they (and other ancient peoples) believed that hot springs had medicinal properties, the Ligurians named the town Glanis, after their deity associated with healing. Extensive contact with Greek merchants from Massalia (now Marseille) influenced the architecture in Glanis.

After Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, Glanis became the Roman city of Glanum. Beginning in the 1st century BCE, the Romans rebuilt the town to their standards, with a forum, temples, and an aqueduct. Also in typical Roman fashion, the Celtic deity Glanis entered the Roman pantheon; but in time Glanis and his shrine at the hot spring would be subsumed by Valetudo, the equivalent Roman god of health.

Glanum prospered because of the spring, and also because of its strategic location on the Via Domitia, the road linking Italy with Spain. But that prosperity ended in the 3rd century CE, when the declining Roman Empire could not stop Germanic-speaking invaders from destroying Glanum. The displaced inhabitants moved to a nearby site, and availed themselves of Glanum’s rubble to build what became Saint-Rémy. All that remained of Glanum were the foundations of its former buildings, which in time were buried and forgotten. When archaeologists began systematic excavation in the 1920s, they reconstructed some of the lost columns on the foundations to help visitors imagine what Glanum was like.

Two well-preserved massive monuments at the southern entrance to Glanum survived the destruction of the rest of the city. They have attracted visitors since the Middle Ages, when they first acquired the name les Antiques. Picture of the Municipal Arch at Glanum Inside the Municipal Arch at Glanum

The Municipal Arch, built early in the 1st century CE during Augustus Caesar’s reign, was the first Roman triumphal arch in Gaul. Located directly on the Via Domitia, it was meant to instill appropriate respect for Roman authority. A visitor’s first sight of Glanum would be the sculptures on the outside of the arch depicting Gaulish prisoners in chains being carried off by a Roman officer. The ceiling inside the arch has unusual hexagonal carvings.

Picture of les Antiques at Glanum Picture of the Mausoleum of the Julii at Glanum
Picture of a frieze on the Mausoleum of the Julii  at Glanum

The Mausoleum of the Julii faces the Municipal Arch, separated by what used to be the Via Domitia. 18 meters high, it’s one of the best-preserved of all Roman monuments. The date and dedicatees of the Mausoleum are uncertain, although experts on Roman history, art, and architecture have offered educated guesses.

Based on its artistic style, the Mausoleum is most likely older than the Municipal Arch; it was probably built between 40 and 20 BCE. An inscription says that three Julius brothers— Sextius, Marcus, and Lucius, sons of Gaius— dedicated the monument to their ancestors. The most likely interpretation is that Gaius and his unnamed father were Gaulish Celts who were granted Roman citizenship by Julius Caesar. Accordingly, they took the name of Caesar’s powerful clan, the Julii. Who these nouveau-Julii were, and particularly how they acquired the wealth that permitted such an ostentatious monument, remain a mystery.

The Mausoleum is a cenotaph, a memorial without an actual tomb. The first of its three levels contains four friezes that presumably attest to the valor of the Julii by invoking heroic scenes from Greek mythology, which would have been well-known to even to colonial Romans. At the top is a kind of chapel with statues of two men— presumably Gaius and his father— wearing togas, the Roman formal attire.

A very special part of my visit to Glanum was lunch at its restaurant, Taberna Romana. Mireille Chérubini, the proprietress, served what she claimed was authentic Roman cuisine, from recipes documented by Roman authors. I sampled cicerona, a paste of chickpeas flavored with cumin that’s more than a little like hummus, a staple of Middle Eastern and Greek cuisine. And also samsa, a mixture of chopped olives that’s the likely ancestor of tapenade, the ubiquitous Provençal spread. For dessert there was goat cheese in honey, flavored with mint.

Guidebooks and Web sites may not yet have caught up with the unfortunate fact that Ms. Chérubini closed the Glanum restaurant in 2014. She said that after 21 years, she no longer wanted the choking burden of bureaucratic red tape associated with the Glanum concession. Taberna Romana is now her catering company, which serves various Roman festivals in Provence, and sells products at various museums, archaeological sites, and shops in southern France. So you may still be able to sample Ms. Chérubini’s resurrected Roman cuisine.

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