Fontvieille is a charming Provençal village in the Bouches-du-Rhône department in the far south of France, close to Arles and Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
This quaint old town has a lovely old lavoir (wash house), a shady central square, and a bustling open-air market on Monday mornings. It is a delightful place to spend a few pleasant hours and is also the perfect base for exploring three outstanding nearby sites.
The first is Daudet’s windmill. Alphonse Daudet is a beloved French author who spent much of his life in the South of France. His best-known work, Letters from my Windmill, tells tales of Provençal life – a mixture of day-to-day events and local folklore. The windmill still exists and is a popular destination for lovers of French literature.
Barbegal Aqueduct and Mills
Next are the remains of a Roman aqueduct, part of an elaborate system that brought water to nearby Arles, a major city in the Roman Empire. After passing through the aqueduct, the water had to go down a steep, rocky hillside to continue its journey. “Why not take advantage of this?” thought the clever Romans.
So, Roman engineers designed a series of mills that the water raced through, one after another, as it tumbled down the hillside. The power these generated was enough to mill grain for 12,000 people a day! Historians call it, “the greatest concentration of mechanical power in the ancient world.” A mock-up can be seen in the Museum of Ancient Arles, an outstanding museum you definitely shouldn’t miss.
From the end of the aqueduct, at the top of the hill, you can look far across the fields and see Montmajour Abbey, a favorite of Vincent Van Gogh. He painted it several times. You can see it here in the upper left corner of his painting The Harvest.
The abbey is no longer in use but is well worth a visit. It sits on top of a huge rock, which seems awkward until you realize that at the time it was built, it was the only spot above water. The surrounding countryside was all marshland and has since been drained and turned over to agriculture. It is fun to stand on that massive rock and look around, imagining what the world was like back in ancient times.
Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Silicon Valley and Provence. He is the author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Keith & Val’s Adventures in Provence. Read more at Life in Provence.