“ Country: France / World Region: Europe „
Somehow, the Alpilles seem out of place. Once south of Avignon, you feel you've left the hills behind. The Rhone Valley widens out towards the river's estuary and you start anticipating the marshes of the Camargue, so flat and watery that they almost merge into the sea. Then this rugged little range of peaks rears up in front of you.
They are, of course, easily by-passed. Their full width is only about thirty kilometres and they can be avoided either by tracking the westward curve of the river down to Arles, or by taking the A7 autoroute, which drives south-east through the gap between the Alpilles and the Luberon hills in its rush towards Marseille and the Côte d'Azur. Regrettably perhaps, many visitors follow its example.
Others, while not neglecting the Alpilles entirely, content themselves with a brief visit to the area's best-known attraction, the fortified hilltop village of Les Baux de Provence. Les Baux is indeed a fascinating place, but it is by no means the only one in the Alpilles. The whole area is also attractive scenically and, in my view, deserves to be better-known.
* The natural Alpilles *
In a public park in the village of Mausanne-les-Alpilles can be found a most interesting geological map of France. It is formed like a mosaic from blocks of stone, each cut into the shape of the département (county) from which it originates. At the base are the crystalline granites of the eastern Pyrenees, in the middle the dense volcanic rocks of the Auvergne. The local département of Bouches-du-Rhone is represented by the light-coloured limestone so characteristic of the region.
Limestone landscapes tend to be arid, and in places the peaks of the Alpilles are almost bare humps of rock, weather-worn and human-worn: human-worn in that tree-felling and over-grazing with goats has helped denude them of their original greenery. Nowadays only a scattering of scrub masks their contours and softens the glare when the sun reflects from the almost-white outcrops of stone. Although seeming sparse and dull from a distance, this scrub, known as garrigue, comes to life when seen close to, being often bright and fragrant with wild flowers and herbs. Lavender, artemisia and cistus thrive here, as do rosemary, sage and thyme.
Nevertheless, this might seem a desolate landscape were it not for the waves of green woodland that lap around the lower slopes. Here are thickets of oak, cypress and maritime pine, pleasantly shady in summer when the bald hill-tops are too hot for comfort. Red-berried pyracantha bushes were adding colour in the autumn when I was there. Lower still, in the valleys, the woods give way to human plantations, of olives, vines, apricots and almonds, with typically French plane trees in the villages and poplars beside the roads.
* The human Alpilles -St Rémy *
The Alpilles are sparsely populated, the main towns skirting the edges rather than being found up in the hills themselves.
Approaching from the north, the first place you come to is St Rémy-de-Provence, which is mainly famous for being where Van Gogh spent a year voluntarily committed to a lunatic asylum after cutting off his ear. Fortunately, he was allowed out to paint in the surrounding countryside, and produced some of his best work while there. Come to think of it, if you find it hard to envisage the scenery, you could always take a look at his canvasses from that period (try, for example "Olive trees with the Alpilles in the background"), though you'd be unlucky if you found it in reality to be quite as dark and disturbing as he did.
You can visit the institution where Van Gogh stayed and follow a trail to the locations of some of his paintings in and around St Rémy, which is in any case rather a lovely little town. Through traffic is kept away from the very centre, where a warren of narrow lanes hides a tree-lined square with a fine church and classically French Hotel de Ville. There is also a regional museum housed in a 16th century mansion, worth seeing for the building alone.
Ascending from St Rémy one quickly reaches the complex of Roman monuments known as Les Antiques, together with the remains of the ancient town of Glanum. This is an impressively excavated site, and well-presented with explanations of how its occupancy and layout changed from pre-historic times through the Roman to its final abandonment and decay. Visiting it is decent value at 7Euro. Somehow, though, I can never find patterns of foundations in the ground, however well-explained, quite as engrossing as actual buildings. Probably a failure of the imagination on my part. If it's a failure you don't share, and you enjoy classical relics, you would probably also be interested in the ruined Roman aqueducts to be found to the south-east of the Alpilles near Fontvieille.
* The human Alpilles - Les Baux *
Fewer than ten kilometres south of Glanum you reach Les Baux.
It would be easy to say that the first thing you see of Les Baux is the ramparts formed out of the rocky crest that towers above the road, but in truth the first thing is usually the line of cars and coaches parked along the roadside. They force themselves on your attention whilst the ramparts are better camouflaged and hard to spot. Even out of season, Les Baux is never without visitors.
Les Baux is a natural fortress, perched atop a little plateau of limestone with sheer cliffs descending on three sides, and just a narrow ascent to the entrance on the fourth. There are traces of the site having been used as a stronghold since Neolithic times, but its heyday was in the Middle Ages, when its lords exerted their rule across the surrounding countryside and behaved like independent mini-monarchs in the resultant domain. Attempts to put them in their place could usually be seen off by a strategic withdrawal to their mountain retreat until the nominal suzerains were diverted by more pressing business elsewhere.
Eventually, on the death of Alix, the last Princess of Baux, resistance crumbled, and in 1483 Louis XI ordered the fortifications to be demolished - a tall order since many were hewn from the rock itself rather than built on top of it. For this reason, much remains to be seen today, and a visit to the Chateau is well worth the 7.70Euro price tag, including use of audio-guide. Apart from the surviving castle buildings, dungeons and ramparts, there is display of mediaeval siege engines and breath-taking views of the Alpilles to either side and the plain that stretches south towards the sea.
There is also the village of Les Baux, which nestles beneath the castle on what remains of the hilltop. This is not without interest - the church, a chapel, the museum, more views - but pales by comparison. Moreover, it is distinctly, if tastefully, touristy, with lots of cafés and arty-crafty shops. Time, I think, to hurry on, to eat and buy one's souvenirs more economically elsewhere.
* The human Alpilles - other places of interest *
To visit the other main towns - most of which are really no more than villages - let's do as they do and skirt the edges of the Alpilles.
Heading clockwise from St Rémy, the first we come to is Eygalières, a seeming ancient settlement at the base of a steep hill. Having climbed the hill one realises that this is the ancient bit, the sleepy village below being hyper-modern by comparison. On the hilltop are a ruined keep and chapel, with a tiny museum maintained by local enthusiasts, crammed with fossils, archaic agricultural implements and fading photographs - full of fascination if you have the time to study them - with no charge for entry, but donations welcomed. Further along the road in rather splendid isolation stands another chapel, that of St-Sixte, dating from the 12th century.
On to Orgon in the north-eastern corner of the range, a somewhat grubby town with an unsightly cement factory. No matter; the trick here is to find the back-road that leads up to the chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Beauregard. It is aptly named, since the view is sensational, across the Durance Valley to the Luberon range beyond. Unfortunately, it also encompasses the autoroute and main railway line, but one is high enough up for them not to intrude too offensively.
We now head south past the hillside castle of Castellas de Roquemartine - impressively situated but extremely ruined - to the town of Eyguières, not to be confused with its near-namesake visited earlier. This is a town of small squares and typically Provençal ambience, which prides itself on its decorative fountains and wells; I suppose they are rather special, given the parched nature of the local terrain.
From Eyguières it's best to retrace one's route to Roquemartine before turning west to pass through the highest, most rugged and least populous part of the Alpilles, some twenty-five scenic kilometres to Mausanne. In this pleasant village is found a Musée des Santons Animés, santons being the hand-made puppets that are a local craft speciality. Between here and Fontvieille one can also divert to visit the Roman aqueducts mentioned earlier and a windmill dedicated to Alphonse Daudet, a writer seemingly world-famous in Provence but relatively obscure outside the region. From Fontvieille the final quadrant of the circuit takes in the noted Romanesque chapel of St-Gabriel on its way back round to St Rémy.
* Things to do (apart from sight-seeing) *
You could complete the circuit described above comfortably in a day, half a day if you wanted to rush it, though you'd miss a lot by doing so. Add half a day each for St Rémy and Les Baux, and you might think the Alpilles need only detain you for a couple of days. In my view, at least another day is needed, simply for walking (or cycling or riding if you prefer - mounts of both kinds can easily be hired locally) among the hills.
A Grande Randonnée - one of France's official long-distance footpaths, in this case GR6 - runs right through the range, taking in many of the places I've mentioned, as well as the ravine-like cleft known as the Val d'Enfer and the panoramic high point of Le Caume. The stretch of GR6 from Eyguières to Tarascon would make an excellent hike, taking anything from two to five days depending on fitness and time spent sight-seeing along the way. Best done in Spring, with the wild flowers blooming in the garrigue and before the energy-sapping heat of summer sets in.
Apart from the scenery, if you are keen on bird-watching there are, I am assured, many exciting species to be seen, including various types of eagle and vulture not much found elsewhere. Or you could just sit outside a café observing village life go by and looking forward to an evening fruitfully spent eating and drinking.
* Eating and drinking *
The local cuisine is typically Provençal - plenty of seafood, lamb, Mediterranean vegetables, garlic and herbs - but with an even greater emphasis, if you can imagine such a thing, on olives and olive oil. Alpilles olive oil is of notable quality, and some restaurants offer special menus in which every element involve its use. I regret to say I didn't sample them; I like olives as much as anyone, but this seemed too much of a good thing.
Alpilles honey and goat's cheese are also worth looking out for, and while there I became addicted to the puff-pastry and almond confection known locally as a sacristan, the ideal accompaniment for a café grand crème, perhaps predictably so since I have been addicted to both almonds and coffee for longer than I can remember.
There is a local wine, which has recently acquired its own appellation contrôllée of Coteaux Baux-de-Provence, both red and rosé. I only tried the rosé, which was tasty enough without being much different from those found elsewhere in the region.
* Where to stay *
There are hotels of all standards in the Alpilles. Many of them are located around St Rémy or Les Baux, but, this being France, more or less all the villages have somewhere to stay. There are also chambres d'hôtes (B&B equivalents) and campsites to be found in the area. We rented a gîte (holiday cottage) in Fontvieille, which served us well enough, especially as we also wanted to visit Arles and Aigues-Mortes, but was slightly further west than ideal. I see from my researches on the net that there are one or two interesting-looking hotels at Eygalières, a village we particularly liked, which might be worth considering another time.
* Recommendation *
There are many higher and more dramatic mountains to be found in France than the Alpilles. Their tallest summit, at Tour des Orpies, measures just 493 metres, not much over 1500 feet, paltry by Alpine or Pyrenean standards. But they have their own individual character and are dotted with charming villages as well as the major historic attraction of Les Baux, all of which makes them well worth a visit.
You could see the Alpilles as an extended day-trip from Avignon or Arles, but there is more than a day's worth of sight-seeing to be had among them. You'll understand them better - and enjoy them more - if you stay.
© Also published with photographs under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2010.
For a review of Avignon, including advice on how to reach the area, see:
The Alpilles are a range of hills south of Avignon in Provence, with the notable ancient fortress of Les Baux and numerous other features of geographical, cultural and historic interest.