Bories the Stone Heart of Provence
The following is a chapter on the stone Bories of Provence is adapted from Mary-Lou Weisman’s book, Playing House in Provence: How Two Americans Became a Little Bit French. The Weismans arrived in Provence in September 2003 for the first of many visits to the South of France. The couple was not content to visit as tourists; they wanted to experience Provence on a deeper level.
Published in 2017, Playing House in Provence is a memoir that traces some of their experiences, missteps and notable encounters in Provence. Read more about Mary-Lou’s background and her published books on her website.
The DNA of Provence
Provence has a heart of stones. Dry stones. Pierres sèches, to put it French-ly. In Provence, stones do speak. Fences, roads, churches, roadways, ramparts, and houses, are all made of them. They tell the story of Provence from as far back as Neolithic times and perhaps even the Bronze Age–and they’re all in plain view
I should admit upfront that I have a fierce desire to know how people lived long ago. As long ago as possible. From the beginning. I love a ruin – the older the better – which is why I fell in love with bories. Luckily, my husband, Larry shares my passion.
Bories (bore-eze) are igloo-shaped huts made of dry stones, with nothing to hold them together. They are scattered all over the Provencal countryside. Most of them come in two sizes: small; to shelter a shepherd, or medium-sized, to shelter a family. They were prime Neolithic real estate.
My husband and I spent four sequential Septembers in the Vaucluse area of Provence, renting medieval houses, shopping in markets, cooking meals, attending fairs, riding bikes, mangling the language and otherwise pretending we were French. We thought we’d seen everything, until the last day of our fourth and last September.
We were driving home to Bonnieux to pack when we came upon a borie bonanza in the form of a sign encouraging us to make the turn onto a dirt road. The sign read “L’Enclos des Bories,” an enclosure, a borie village. We had visited the impressive borie village just across the highway from the beautiful town of Gordes, but it’s so renovated that, to our eyes, it seemed more Disney than Neolithic. Set high on a hill, this borie village was a beautiful wreck, yet the integrity of every feature of the village was evident.
The people who lived here were self-sustaining, the guide tells us. She speaks French slowly, plainly, and with helpful expressive gestures. We understand her!
A large stone-threshing floor evidences the fact that they grew wheat. They farmed vegetables, trapped foxes and hares, and hunted wild boar. They built cisterns, a well, an irrigation system, and gutters for the recovery of water. We see the pens where the villagers kept sheep and goats, and the square niches in stone walls where they raised bees for honey. Some of the pierres sèches walls have vertical stones on top to discourage penned animals from climbing over. Our guide points out holes in the timeworn stone thresholds and indications that wooden doors once secured the entrances to these bories, to assure privacy and to protect homes from the frigid mistrals.
She shows us some small bories, each with little window-like openings, placed strategically along the periphery of the village, allowing a panoramic view of the Luberon Valley. They are lookout huts for surveillance, to detect advancing marauders. We know that the three, hilltop villages we’ve lived in – Saumanne, Goult, and Bonnieux – were once defensive outposts, but now we see what they must have looked like at their inception.
We are stunned to learn that these very outposts were used by members of the French Resistance during the Second World War. Even today, occasional hippies left from the sixties, will wander into the village, tuck themselves into a borie and treat themselves to a Neolithic sleepover.
She tells us that the cypress trees – the tallest trees in Provence, the trees so beloved by Van Gogh – played a critical role in borie village life. If there was a cypress tree standing at the entrance to the village, that meant that travellers could find a welcome, a place to pause and refresh themselves. If there were two, the hospitality included something to drink and eat. A three-cypress village meant the ancient equivalent of a three-star hotel: good drink, food, and a place to spend the night. This explanation seems so wonderful that it verges on the improbable.
Our guide dazzles us with more details of borie life. I see the hives. I hear the bees. I can imagine villagers – people much smaller that we, who don’t have to duck their heads to enter their homes – sitting down to a meal of bread, lamb, and legumes and perhaps an intoxicating beverage made from honey.
For each of our four seasons in Provence, we had set out to find “la vraie Provence,” the real Provence that exists in its quaint, medieval villages and to some extent, we had. Contemporary Provencales have worked to keep their ancient architectural and cultural legacy alive and deceptively original, in spite of the inevitable transformative losses to modernity.
What we have seen of Vaucluse village life is far less real than what visitors saw in the seventeenth century, or the eighteenth, nineteenth or twentieth centuries. As American writer and Francophile Edith Wharton wrote, “Each later generation draws a new baseline and finds it hard to imagine what has already been lost.” Even more, will be lost to visitors who come after us. But here, in this living museum of an outpost, we have been transported. These were the first communities, the first villages, the first places the earliest settlers called home.
We stop in front of a rectangular two-story house, with one delineated square window on the second floor, where the residents slept. This is one of the more modern dwellings in the village. On the first floor is the doorway, taller than the usual borie doorways. Where the floor is now dirt, our guide tells us, it used to be terra-cotta tile. The living room would have been furnished with a crude table, chairs, cooking implements and, of course, a fireplace.
We have gotten our wish, and time-travelled from the present into the past and arrived at the place of beginning. Scooching down at the threshold we poke our heads inside.
“Entrez,” our guide says. “Faites comme chez vous.”
“Go on in,” she says. “Make yourselves at home.”
Stone Bories of Provence
Mary-Lou and her husband visited the Enclos des Bories outside of the village of Bonnieux. The site is open to the public daily from April through mid-November. Roughly 20 stone enclosures were discovered in the cedar forest on the outskirts of Bonnieux. This collection of buildings are the remains of an authentic hamlet where shepherds lived with their families and livestock. These bories were not relocated from other parts of the region but rather exposed from the forest growth. There is also a stunning view of Bonnieux from this location. Please note that walking to the site and within the Enclos des Bories is uneven and not recommended for those with mobility problems.
Located 1.7 kilometres outside of the picturesque town of Gordes is le Village des Bories. The restoration of this hamlet began in 1969. The structures of dry-stone construction had suffered from many years of forest and underbrush encroachment. In the 1960s Pierre Viala visited Gordes falling in love with the perched village and surrounding countryside. A lover of architecture he was particularly interested in the dry stone masonry. Pierre sèche construction utilized the abundant supply of limestone found in the area without mortar. Viala purchased le village des Savournins in 1968-69, and the restoration began one stone at a time. Since 1983, the town of Gordes owns le Village des Bories.
Le Village des Bories (website)
Telephone: +33 (0)4 90 72 03 48
Open daily from 9 am
There is a small museum onsite with archival drawings, documents and ancient tools