Les Alpilles, a limestone extension of the Luberon range whose ragged white peaks from afar boast the outlines of a great mountain chain; alas, few rise above 400 metres…arid limestone crenellations set against a brilliant blue sky. Olive and almond trees spread across the lower, south-facing slopes, pinned in place by the occasional line of dark, slender cypress. Higher up, the slopes are planted with kermes oak (Quercus coccifera) and pine, but just as likely the rocky landscape is dotted with ragged bushes and covered by maquis, a poor pastureland suitable only for sheep.
Saint Remy de Provence, Les Alpilles
The Alpilles are roughly divided in two, between the Alpilles des Baux in the west and the Alpilles d’Eygalières in the east. The lovely little town of St-Rémy de Provence nestles in the middle. St-Rémy, birthplace of scientist and astrologist Nostradamus (rue Hoche), very much epitomises Provence. It’s a town of boulevards and squares shaded by plane trees. The tangled labyrinth of narrow streets have a festive atmosphere especially on market day (Wednesday) and when they hold the bull running festivals.
Vincent van Gogh was treated here in the psychiatric centre a few minutes south of St-Rémy. He stayed at the Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole after he relieved himself of one of his ears. It was here that he painted The Starry Night, one of his best loved works.
Glanum and Les Antiques
South of St-Rémy lie the magnificent ruins of Glanum and Les Antiques. Les Antiques is a cenotaph rather than a sepulchre, as originally thought. It stands next to a fine triumphal arch, giving access to the city of Glanum, built over 2,000 years ago. It’s a worthwhile and well-interpreted diversion – don’t forget to look for the fossilised shells in the limestone pavements.
Elsewhere, Maussane-les-Alpilles is a serene, unspoiled village centred on a large square below the church, used in season as overflow seating for nearby bistrots and cafés. Come back mid-afternoon and sit in the shade with a glass of chilled wine or panaché and let the world pass you by. It’s amazing how the waiters have taken to the new French law about traffic having to stop to allow you to cross the road once you have shown your intention of doing so by placing your foot on the carriageway. I’m surprised they survive the week…maybe they don’t; I wasn’t there long enough to find out!
Eygalières Les Alpilles
In the east, Eygalières is a small town of winding, narrow streets, an authentic and charming village. On Thursdays the town bursts into life as its market day. It’s the same in Fontvieille in the opposite direction, towards Arles. these little towns assume no pretensions to grandeur, but just exude a laissez-faire atmosphere – it’s so typical of many small Provencal villages.
Dr Terry Marsh has written extensively for magazines and produced guidebooks for walkers to the French Pyrenees and the French Alps. He blogs at Love French Food