8 Châteaux Castles of Provence to Visit
Perched on hilltops throughout the region, the castles of Provence are intriguing. These seemingly impenetrable fortresses have stone foundations and ramparts for defensive purposes. Reflective of turbulent periods in French history, many of the châteaux in southern France were built on summits maximising the ability to anticipate enemy approach.
Today, many of these castles are privately owned, restored and luxurious. However, other properties are state-owned and maintained for public access and educational purposes. In this article, we explore eight (8) of the castles of Provence.
A name that is so well-known in the wine world, it might be easy to forget that it started with a new castle (châteauneuf). During the Middle Ages, the Provencal wine trade was limited to those, mostly monks, who had access to land and financial resources. In 1317, Pope John XXII, the second of the seven popes to reside in Avignon, ordered the construction of a summer residence north of the town.
Known as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, this new settlement sparked the rise of organised grape growing in that area. The terroir, a mix of sandy, well-drained soil, remains perfect for grapes. Part of the signature of Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards is rocks called galets roulés that landed on this bank of the Rhône River centuries ago via seasonal flooding. The sun heats the smooth stones during the day and warms the plants overnight. Only one wall of the original castle remains standing. Still, the Pope’s 14th-century construction project was fortuitous as Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards fall under an Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) and are legendary for excellent wine production.
Château des Baux de Provence
Perched on a rock outcrop are remains of the 10th-century medieval fortress of Les Baux de Provence. The powerful lineage of the House of Baux ruled much of the region from this castle for almost 500 years, making it one of the most powerful groups in France.
Today the old village is a pedestrian-only zone, and all vehicles must park outside the ramparts. Visitors to Les Baux enjoy magnificent views of the Alpilles, vineyards, olive groves, and the Mediterranean on a clear day. The village caters to tourists with its boutiques, galleries and restaurants. Tiny, cobbled streets meander through the town at odd angles, but in the end, most of these routes lead to the castle at the top of Les Baux. Entry to Château les Baux requires a ticket purchased in combination with the Carrières des Lumières multimedia show for a slight discount.
Once inside the castle walls, follow the map for a self-guided discovery tour of the expansive chateau property. Well worth the effort, but the climb to the highest point requires sturdy shoes and stamina but is not recommended for vertigo sufferers. There are demonstrations of ancient weapons such as catapults and trebuchets for additional entertainment for kids.
Château de Tarascon
Tarascon sits on the left bank of the Rhône River in Provence, across the water from
Beaucaire. Located south of Avignon and north of Arles, it would be difficult for these two small towns to stand out compared to the larger, better-funded communities. However, for residents of Tarascon and Beaucaire, that is the charm. To strangers, Tarascon’s small historical section with its crooked, narrow streets looks unkempt.
Look beyond the shuttered windows and graffiti and imagine what the town was like when the imposing walls of the Tarascon Castle (le Château du Roi René) were completed in 1449. This castle was built on the site of previous 13th-century fortifications occupied by Charles d’Anjou, Count of Provence. Legends abound about Tarasque, a fire-breathing sea creature that had made its way up the Rhône River. In 2005, UNESCO included Tarasque on its Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity list.
Château de Tarascon – Centre d’arts René d’Anjou (website)
Boulevard du Roi René
Telephone: +33 (0)4 90 91 01 93
April – September: Open Daily
October – March: Closed on Mondays
Château de Beaucaire
A car bridge across the Rhône joins Beaucaire to Tarascon. Technically part of the Occitanie administrative region and the Gard department, we include the Château de Beaucaire on this list of castles to see as it is so close to Provence. Beaucaire is also the start of the Rhône-Sète canal, and the town’s name means beautiful stone. Evidence points to a Gallo-Roman settlement in this hilly area as early as 11 B.C. The ancient community gave way to a medieval town in 1067 and the establishment of a castle in 1180. Even though it is a sliver of its former size, the castle is impressive. Stand in the inner courtyard near the entrance and imagine the immense presence that once stood on this hilly promontory. Walk to the top of the site for a beautiful view of the Rhône River.
Take a short stroll through the old streets of Beaucaire. In the historical section, one gets a feel for what this centre was like when the castle occupied 26 hectares, and the mansion houses were at their prime. The height of prominence for this centre was in the 18th-century when the Madeleine’s Fair took place each July 21st with 250,000+ attendees. Over time the importance of the fair declined, trade shifted to other centres, and Beaucaire’s influence waned. Unfortunately, the town has appealing historic buildings, though not as impressive as those found in many other centres.
Château de Beaucaire (website)
Place Raimond VII,
Open daily in July and August
Château de Montauban
French author Alphonse Daudet wrote about Château de Montauban in the start of his book Lettres de mon Moulin. The Ambroy family home was originally an 18th-century farmhouse, and an impressive façade was added in the 19th-century. Welcomed by the family as a guest, Alphonse Daudet stayed at the impressive manor house on several occasions. Château de Montauban and the natural surroundings provided fodder for Daudet’s novels. As the windmill blades turned, crushing local grain into flour for the hungry quarry workers, Alphonse Daudet might have strolled by on his way to the Chateau de Montauban.
Château de Montauban
Open from June 2 until September 26, 2022 (Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays)
The demand for the quarried stone drove both the population and the economy of Fontvieille. The Roman amphitheatre (arena), ramparts, and theatre in Arles included Fontvieille limestone. Stone was vital in building the Barbegal aqueduct, which supplied water to Arles. Rock quarried and cut in Fontvieille was also used for the nearby Abbey of Montmajour between the 10th and 13th centuries. While you are in Fontvieille, please stop at the lavoir (public wash house), where you can almost hear the old gossip flowing as the village women did their laundry.
When it’s hot in Marseille, the Iles de Frioul are a great way to escape the city heat. Catch a ferry from the Vieux Port for a short ride to the archipelago of four islands. During the summer months, ferries run from the Vieux Port regularly. You can easily spend a day hiking the trails or lounging on the beaches of Ratonneau.
Do not miss visiting If, the smallest island with its fortress-prison Château d’If. Barely more than a rocky outcrop from the Mediterranean, the imposing stone fortress built during the reign of King Francis I (1515-47) dominates the island. The King expected Château d’If to provide protection for Marseille and the coastline from invading forces. After his death (1580-1871), the fortress became an island prison, like Alcatraz but with slightly warmer water. However, it is probably The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas that has fueled Château d’If’s fame since the novel’s publication in 1844.
Château de Saumane
Today, the population of the perched village of Saumane is less than 1000 people (935
according to a 2015 survey). The road leading to the town and Château de Saumane skirts a massive rock wall, which speaks to the castle’s past as a strategic, defensive outpost. Until the 13th Century, the hamlet fell within the Comtat Venaissin, the territory ruled by the Counts of Toulouse. After that time, Saumane fell under the Papal enclave that radiated from Avignon.
The origins of this 12th-century structure are unclear. Expanded in the 15th century, the fortress would have been impressive and visually impregnable with its sturdy rampart walls. However, the most significant architectural mystery related to the Château de Saumane is the extreme contrasts between its austere Renaissance façade and the stronghold entryway with walls almost two meters thick.
Writer, philosopher and political activist Marquis de Sade lived in the castle for five years (1745–1750), from 5 to 10 years old, with his uncle, the Abbot de Sade (Jacques-François-Paul-Aldonce de Sade). The Marquis’ young impressions of Château de Saumane’s strange architecture its dungeons, defensive walls and secret passages seem to be reflected in his later writings (The 120 Days of Sodom – Les 120 Journées de Sodome ou l’école du libertinage).
Château de Saumane (website)
Mont du Château,
Telephone: +33 (0)4 90 38 04 78
There are many reasons to visit Ansouis, including a Michelin 1* restaurant and fabulous ice cream. Situated at the very top of the charming village is Château d’Ansouis. Once a Celtic-Ligurian stronghold, the castle’s foundation was the base for a military outpost and eventually a bastide for several generations of the Sabran family. There were many alterations between the 12th and 17th centuries. After almost 1,000 years of title by the Sabran clan, the Château d’Ansouis changed hands in 2008 and is privately owned. Previously it was possible to visit on guided tours; check the website for details. The building itself is not architecturally striking but is well worth a visit for the Provencal history lesson, a chance to see some beautiful tapestries and the sweeping view of Mont Sainte-Victoire from the terrace.
Château d’Ansouis (website)
The website currently indicates that the castle will open to the public for guided visits in 2022.