Thursday, June 2, 2011

Report from Les Alpilles

Les Baux-de-Provence
Watercolour postcard
©2000 Charlene Brown

At the end of May 2000, we headed for Monte Bianco, planning on a quick trip through the tunnel to France. Here is what happened instead…
As we made out way west, then north from Turin, it was like driving up out of a mauve sea of murk. The air got suddenly clearer, the highway got better and better, and the traffic got thinner and thinner. It was just amazing!
Then we discovered when we wheeled off our private autostrada for lunch at Morgex, that we were about the only people in Europe who didn’t know the Mont Blanc Tunnel was still closed because of the March 1999 fire… the closest alternate route involved heading up a narrow-looking road to the Petit St. Bernard Pass, said to be open at the time, though not guaranteed to stay that way… Well, that was a drive and a half, with the road carved out of ten-foot snow-banks in places, but the gentians and violas were brilliant, the glaciers dazzling… and there were (unsurprisingly) NO TRUCKS! Also no guardrails. It took the rest of a long day to get to France and when we finally arrived in Bourg St. Maurice we didn’t even have the strength to fire up our Best of Communism CD.
The next day we drove down the Rhone Valley, beautiful road, beautiful day, had a look around the Palace of the Popes at Avignon, and proceeded to Les Baux.  This is a place I’d been trying to get to since first seeing paintings of it by Yves Brayer, an artist who lived there. As nobody I’d mentioned this to had ever heard of Les Baux, we figured it was a sufficiently obscure location that we could just drift in and look around. Well – it was San Gimignano all over again!  There were cars and buses parked on both sides of the narrow road all the way up to it and all the way down the other side! Decided to find a room for the night and try again in the morning…Then we realized we’d come in one day from almost-closed-for-the-season ski country to high-season Provence. But we finally found a tiny little room on a farm near Fontvielle.
By setting out the next morning à bonne heure, we found a spot in the second best parking lot. Les Baux is a towering structure, the fortifications of which are carved out of and built up from a jagged rock formation called Les Alpilles. Although surrounded by olive and almond groves, the place itself is quite stark, taking the full force of the cold mistral, and was (allegedly) Dante’s inspiration for Hell in the Divine Comedy.
We spent three hours scaling the towers, dungeons and troglodyte caves, and examining the astounding artillery used by the various nasty groups that occupied the place seven to nine hundred years ago – a huge battering ram complete with A-frame cover to protect the batterers from boiling oil (apparently covered with animal skins and manure for that added protection one needs in stressful times), the biggest siege engine ever built, and a truly monumental – and portable! – trebuchet that required 60 men to assemble, arm, aim and shoot when in rapid-fire mode (we are talking two shots an hour here).