Sep 28, 2012

Top 10 most famous castles in Provence

     While Provence certainly doesn't offer France's best and most impressive palaces, there is one worth your attention: Palais des Papes or Palace of the Popes. You can read about my detailed visit on the site. Still, Provence has plenty of castles and forts which might please you, standing as witnesses to the tumultuous history of the region. But don't expect any extravaganza, their main purpose of these buildings was military and it shows.
     Unfortunately, except for the Chateau d'Uzes, I wasn't able to visit any of them. I planned to visit Chateau d'If, but the sea was rough and I passed by Tarascon castle, which looks mighty impressive from the outside. So here is the Top 10:

1. Palais des Papes

2. Château d'If

     François I, in the 16th century, recognized the strategic advantage of an island fortress surveying the mouth of Marseille's vast harbor and built this imposing edifice. Its effect as a deterrent was so successful that the fortress never saw combat, and was eventually converted into a prison. It was here that Alexandre Dumas locked up his most famous character, the Count of Monte Cristo. Though the count was fictional, the hole through which Dumas had him escape is real enough, on display in the cells. On the other hand, the real-life Man in the Iron Mask, whose cell is also erroneously on display, was not imprisoned here. The IF Frioul Express boat ride (from the Quai des Belges, €10; for information call 04-91-46-54-65) and the views from the broad terrace are worth the trip. The site is more about the scenery, don't expect much inside :)

3. Les Baux-de-Provence castle 

     Erected during the 10th century above the namesake village, this castle reached its peak during the medieval period until it started to decline in 16th century because of family feuds and religion wars. Despite its prominent military role, it was also here that the most famous minstrels and troubadours of the day sang songs of courtly love to the maidens of the House of Les Baux. While the chateau (as you can see) is in ruins, you still  get a strong sense of this atmospheric, impregnable, slightly sinister fortress riddled with dungeons, chapels and secret passages. From April to September many shows are held there, from siege machinery, the archery to treasure hunt for children.

4. Tarascon castle

     Built on the banks of the Rhone, the castle of Tarascon defended the access of the possessions of the counts de Provence. The basics of the castle were placed in 1401 by Louis II of Anjou, after the previous castle was destroyed. The construction was continued by his first son, Louis III of Anjou and was completed in 1449 by his second son, René I of Naples. However, after the 15th century the region became a part of France and thus the castle was no longer of particular strategic importance. In the 17th century it was turned into a military prison and remained to function as such until it became national property in 1932.
     Today the castle can be entered through a restored bridge, parts of which are from original drop-down bridge of the building. It houses a nice collection of tapestries from the 17th century, with the whole interior being far more delicate than it appears from the outside.

5. Château de la Barben

     Anchored on huge rocks, this castle is first mentioned in a 1064 property register from the abbey of St. Victor of Marseilles. A then-fortress was owned by King René (yes, the one who finished the Tarascon castle!) until he sold it in 1474. The château was completely transformed due to an important rebellion against the "Édit des Élus" (Edict of the elected concillors") issued by Richelieu in 1630. During the rebellion, a gang known as "Cascaveous" set fire to the nearby forest and a part of the fortress. King Louis XIII condemned the Aix communities which had participated in this riot to give compensation to Gaspard de Forbin to restore his castle. In the Age of the Enlightenment Barben was turned into a castle where austerity and classicism were combined to give this building the appearance very similar to what you see today (that's what it says in the brochure).
     The castle is commercialized to death with many different tours, activities, medieval market, zoo, castle B&B... No offense, but this seems too much, at least on paper.

6. Château du Barroux

     This castle was built in the 12th century to oppose Saracen and Italian incursions. In 1274, as the Pope took possession of the Comtat Venaissin, Le Barroux became a fiefdom dependent upon the Apostolic Chamber of Carpentras until 1791, as the Comtat was joined to France. So, the tenant of the fief of Le Barroux was listed among the lords vassals and feudatories of Our Holy Father the Pope. It went through major overhauls in the 16th and 17th centuries, ultimately being abondoned. The castle was damaged during the French revolution and repaired in 1929 using private funds. It was set on fire by German occupation troops in 1944 as a reprisal for acts of resistance and restored again after 1960.
     Since 1993, the Association of the Friends of the Castle of Le Barroux has been continuing this work, with the support of the family Vayson de Pradennes, which still is the owner of the castle. Even though everything is not finished yet, the castle can now welcome its visitors and offer a splendid setting to various cultural and artistic events as well. Happy ending, I guess :)

7. Fort Saint-Jean

     Situated at the entrance to the Vieux-Port of Marseille, this fort was built in 1660 by Louis XIV in response to a local uprising against the governor. In 1790 Fort Saint-Jean was seized by a revolutionary mob who decapitated the commander of the royal garrison. During the subsequent French revolution the fort was used as a prison, holding Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, and two of his sons. Following the overthrow of Robespierre in 1794 about a hundred Jacobin prisoners held in the fort were massacred. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries Fort Saint-Jean was in the possession of the French Army and served as a final stop-off point for French Forein Legion recruits destined for basic training in Algeria.
     During World War II Fort Saint-Jean was occupied by the German military in November 1942. In August 1944 during the liberation of Marseilles, the explosion of a munitions depot within the fort destroyed much of its historic battlements and buildings. Although returned to the French Army, Fort Saint-Jean remained in a neglected and disused state until it was passed to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs in 1960. Classified as a historical monument in 1964, the damaged portions of the fort were reconstructed between 1967 and 1971.
It now houses the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations.
     While I was in Marseille, the fort was undergoing major restoration, just like much of the city. As you may know, Marseille will be the European Capital of Culture in 2013.

8. Château de Lacoste

     This castle definitely owes the fame to its owners. The infamous Marquis of Sade moved into this castle in 1771 in an attempt to escape the scandal he had provoked in Paris. The Marquis had inherited this castle from his grandfather in 1716, but only stayed in it for seven years. The building originally had 42 rooms, a theatre and a chapel. The castle was pillaged during the French Revolution and finally demolished in 1816, with its hewn-stones being sold piece by piece. For 30 years, the last owner pursued the castle's restoration, which was extremely difficult due to its extremely poor condition. In 2001, Pierre cardin bought the castle and started with renovation work. In summer each year, he organises a musical artistic festival in the quarries to the west of the castle. The picture shows the castle before the restoration work.

9. Chateau de Gordes

     Located in the middle of one of the most beautiful and famous villages in the whole France, the history of this castle dates back to the 11th century. Besieged unsuccessfully during the Wars of Religion, it was the stronghold of the Marquis de Simiane, the Dukes of Soubise, and in the 18th century the princes of Condé. Rebuilt in the Renaissance style by Bertrand de Simiane, the castle has had two different faces since then. In 1931 it became a national property. After hosting a museum dedicated to the work of Victor Vasarely from 1970 to1996 , it now houses, in addition to the tourist office, an art museum dedicated to the work of Pol Mara.

10. Chateau d'Ansouis 

     The castle, like virtually hundreds in Provence, stands above the village on top of the hill. It dates originally from the 10th century, but it has been modified many times since, principally because the original defensive role was lost (originally the castle protected the road between Aix-en Provence and Apt). Much of the castle we see today, including the main facade to the south, dates from the 17th century, as do the furnishings and tapestries that furnish the interior (although significant parts of the earlier fortified castle can still be seen as well). The typically 'French style' Provencal gardens and terraces around the outside are also very attractive, while the views from the terrace across the surrounding countryside are also exceptional. A guided tour is available from April to October.

     Yes, you have to admit that Provence is not the best destination for castles, forts and palaces, but if you are history buff, you have plenty of Roman ruins (Antique theatre in Orange, Pont du Gard, Arles & Nimes arenas, Glanum...), abbeys (Senanque, Thoronet, Montmajour, Saint-Michel de Frigolet, Saint-Roman...), museums and churches to please you!
     With my next blog entry I will start presenting the castles of Ludwig II of Bavaria: Neuschwanstein, Hohenschwangau, Linderhof, Herrenchiemsee and Nymphenburg. It's going to be a lot of work, that's for sure!

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