Provence’s Best (and Best Hidden) Ruins

The Amateur Gastronomer spent the month of August in Provence.  This is one of a series of articles on the region.

One of the greatest things about Provence is that there are ruins everywhere. From the well preserved Roman sites in Arles to the remnants of a 10th century château in Les Baux de Provence, the past is still very much present. And unlike in many French gift shops, there are no signs stating “touch with your eyes.” Climbing on and around the ruins is part of the fun.

I vividly remember climbing all over the château ruins in Les Baux de Provence during a trip with my family when I was six years old. The two weeks that we spent in Provence preceded by two weeks in Paris set in motion my lifelong passion for all things French.

Though I have since traveled to France more than a dozen times, it wasn’t until this past August that I returned to Les Baux.

Twenty one years later it was just as I remembered — a stunning sight on top of a hill with plenty of nooks and crannies to explore — though with more protective railing to prevent people from getting too close to the steep drop offs. There was that tall and narrow staircase leading to the top of the fortress, with deep grooves in the steps from hundreds of years of use. It was a bit tough to ascend as a full grown adult; I can’t imagine how I was able to climb up when I was younger. And I’m pretty sure that metal handrail wasn’t there when I visited in 1989.

While it was fun to revisit the sites from my first visit to Provence, it was the ruins in Oppède-le-Vieux that became a highlight of our trip.

Meaning Old Oppède, this tiny village is nestled into the Petit Luberon mountains and a short drive uphill from the more populous town of Oppède.

My husband and I happened upon Oppède-le-Vieux by chance, taking a scenic detour on a drive back from Cavaillon. We stopped to take photos of the old stone buildings and small square, and returned to explore the village and the ruins on foot a few days later.

We found it strange that none of our guidebooks had more than a sentence or two on Oppède-le-Vieux. The ruins there are one of Provence’s best kept secrets, with their open access and breathtaking views.

To get to the ruins, you walk through the arch underneath the bell tower and start heading uphill. The walk is a bit steep, over well-worn stones. Footing gets a bit precarious once you enter the château ruins and there are some steep drop-offs. I’d definitely recommend wearing a good pair of sneakers.

The first building you come upon as you make your way up the hill is a Romanesque church. Dating back to the 13th century and rebuilt in the 16th century, Notre-Dame-d’Alydon is currently undergoing a renovation. Inside faded frescoes add splashes of color.

The château ruins are a mix of walls, windows  and arches, with passageways that test one’s fear of heights. On one side you have a view of the tree-covered mountains, on the other the valley and surrounding villages. There are no railings so you’ll want to be careful near the edges and keep a close eye on any younger visitors.

After you finish exploring the ruins, the cafe beside the bell tower is a nice place for a leisurely lunch or coffee.

You’ll be hard pressed to find it in most guidebooks, but with its charm and off-the-beaten-path location, Oppède-le-Vieux is a great place to discover.

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