Defining the Country Around Les Alpilles

by admin on April 24, 2010

Let’s attempt to sketch a small region’s character (granted, each aspect lightly touched hereafter, is worth much more attention).
The region’s limits are somewhat arbitrary, or mostly a matter of feelings.
It extends around Les Alpilles with Les-Baux-de-Provence and its small valley, includes the Saint-Remy-de-Provence plain, to the North, part of the plain traversed by the Rhône river on the West with the cities of Tarascon, Beaucaire and of course Arles, extends South from Arles to include the Camargue, and to the East from Arles, the whole Crau valley to Salon-de-Provence.
Les Alpilles, a small but spectacular mountain range, are truly a lesson in geology: you can actually see the rock layers fold, undulate and break down. The range culminates at almost 400 m, just north of La Vallée des Baux, which is almost at sea level.
Around Les Baux, the earth is often red, from the iron oxide-rich mineral, well-known as an aluminum ore, and named “Bauxite” (worldwide) after that place.
Otherwise, Les Alpilles are mostly white limestone, which has been exploited for centuries.
That has left, in the peak under the castle of Les Baux, strange caves shaped after the huge blocks that have been carved out of the mountain. Some of these caves are still being used for wine aging.
The castle and tiny medieval village on top of the peak are what makes Les Baux famous today. From the castle, the sight extends to the sea if the haze allows.
For water is everywhere in the Vallée des Baux, which is irrigated by small canals and aqueducts actually dating back to the Roman empire.
Traces of the Roman presence abound, most famously in Glanum, just north of the range, near Saint-Remy-de-Provence.
So the Vallée des Baux is very green, but a wide palette of greens ranging from the olive tree to bamboos to cypresses and almond trees and mimosas, plus many fruit trees and the ubiquitous vine. Many people travel just to see the almond trees in full blossoming.
The region most famous product may be its olive oil, which some find superior to the best oils from Tuscany.
The olive fruit itself, and many products derived from olive and not just food, such as olive-scented soap for instance, are to be found on open air markets everywhere.
Also on these markets: a range of cotton materials printed with beautiful patterns of ancient tradition, with the recurring symbols of the olive branch and the cicada. The animal itself plays an important part in the summer concert, together with the cricket.
The cicada is of particular meaning to the guardians: the cow boys of Camargue, who wear cicadas all over their magnificent shirts.
Most difficult to describe is the gentleness of the lights in which the whole Vallée des Baux is basking.
Well known artists have been in love with the Vallée: the writer Alphonse Daudet, the painter Vincent Van Gogh.
The weather in the Vallée is one of the nicest in Europe, sunny except for a few days a year.
It remains rather mild in the summer whereas, less than 20 km away, it can be torrid in Camargue.
In winter however, the wind called Mistral, which builds up southwards along the Rhône valley, can be chilly.

Arles is the gateway to La Camargue, a very special piece of land and swamps, famous for its black bulls and white horses.
One cannot separate the Camargue and Arles from the bull fighting tradition, and certain (curious) cultural links with distant Spain.
Bull fighting is what once attracted to Arles no less than Hemingway and Picasso, Ava Garner, Peter Beard, not to mention the French celebrities: Yves Montant and Simone Signoret, Jean Cocteau. Arles’ amphitheatre still is on the circuit for spanish matadors … and flamenco players and singers.
Yet another link is maintained by the Gipsies, or Gitans, for whom one of the biggest yearly celebrations is the one being held in Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, between the Camargue swamps and a sandy Mediterranean beach.

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Les Alpilles and Les Bouches-Du-Rhône

by admin on April 22, 2010

Even when you know what you love about a place, it can be difficult to pinpoint what is absolutely specific to that place, and distinguish that from features inherited from the surrounding region.
Les Alpilles can be said to be a geological accident, in sharp contrast with the Northern plains of the Bouches-du-Rhône, and right in their middle.
Yet it is hard to separate them. If you spend some days in these quarters, you find yourself confronted with that accident upon every move. On the other hand, there is great unity in the landscape and the atmosphere across these plains, as well as the Rhône valley itself on the Western side of the Alpilles. As a result, whether you decide to traverse the range from Saint-Remy, North, to Les Baux on its Southern slopes, or to go around via Tarascon, you begin to integrate the range as a magnificent trick, something designed to make this part of the Bouches-du-Rhône perfectly balanced. Rather than an accident, it feels somewhat like the rock near the center of a japanese garden.
Bouches-du-Rhône is the name of a “Departement” (an administrative division comparable to a County), litterally meaning the Rhône’s Mouth, although the river’s delta is located downstream, beginning in Arles. But when you drive South in the Rhône valley, say from Lyon, along with the flow, you cannot miss the radical change that occurs in Avignon. It feels as if the valley widens there, and one enters the Bouches-du-Rhône shortly South of the city.
From Avignon, the Alpilles range is straight South, with the Rhône flowing to the South-West, and what appears, on a map, to be another branch flowing to the South-East, and toward the Côte-d’Azur. Except it actually is the river Durance flowing North-West, to join the Rhône South of Avignon !
( As a motorist, you have to make up your mind North of Avignon, precisely in Orange, between one highway leading to the Pyrénées and another leading to the Southern Alps. )
To summarize, then: the Northern plains of the Bouches-du-Rhône is the vast triangle widening South of Avignon, extending, along the Rhône toward the South-West, to the city of Arles and, toward the South-East, to Salon-de-Provence, with the Alpilles in the middle.
The Bouches-du-Rhône extends further South to include the Rhône’s delta and the Camargue, on the West, and to Marseilles and Aix-en-Provence to the East.

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Les Baux-De-Provence and Les Alpilles

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If you plan to visit the western part of the Provence region in southern France, known as “les Bouches-du-Rhône”, you will not want to miss the site called les Baux-de-Provence. “Les Baux”, for short, is a tiny village on the top of a large, somewhat tabular white rock, which it shares with the ruins of [...]

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