Travel: The back road to ruins in southern France
IF IT is long and complex history you want, Les Baux de Provence in the south of France is your place.
Perched on a rocky spur, this living museum of castle ruins is one of the best historic sites in France giving a profound experience of life dating back to the 10th century.
The cliff-top castle was mostly destroyed in 1633 during one of many sieges, but today it is an historic site high in the sky that brings to life the daily routines and living conditions in the Middle Ages.
We have visited this spectacular place several times and never tire of its rocky splendour and rich history.
However, this time we took a wrong turn in the car on our way to Les Baux de Provence from our base in nearby Uzes.
We were a bunch of women in a car, gossiping and not paying attention to the lady on the GPS telling us to take the third exit on the roundabout.
We found ourselves in the back roads near St Remy de Provence.
"The GPS will reconfigure," we said and just sat back and enjoyed the beautiful countryside outside St Remy. Lush and green fields, plane trees and vines, narrow roads, endless sunflower fields... a lot to enjoy despite being lost.
Even the cyclists riding side-by-side on the narrow road couldn't spoil the enjoyment of these beautiful back roads.
The farmer on his slow-moving tractor towing cases of apples, trapping us behind him for kilometres on the narrow roads, did not bother us.
We just followed him and congratulated ourselves on being lost in this glorious landscape.
In the end, our GPS lady got us to Les Baux de Provence by way of these back roads, finally taking us up a dangerously high and winding road that had all of us in the car holding our breath.
Our reward was the view of the castle ruins crowning the village of Les Baux as we approached from this back-road route. It was something we would not forget.
The castle ruins are easy to traverse with good walking shoes despite their towering and crumbling presence.
A self-guided audio tour gives you an engaging presentation of the tumultuous history of the lords of Les Baux who presided over the centuries.
The walk leads you to extraordinary discoveries in the ruins: towers, chapels, underground passages, dungeons.
Full-size replica siege weapons send shivers down the spine and attest to medieval military tactics of the times.
Enormous catapults defy belief.
Battering rams used to strike at the base of the walls of besieged sites show that man has always been horribly inventive when it comes to weapons of war.
The panorama over the Baux Valley to vineyards and fields of olive trees extends down to the sea.
The grey and twisted rock formations dotting the valley are simultaneously ugly and beautiful.
It is said they inspired one of Dante's visions of hell in his classic The Divine Comedy.
Certainly, looking at their tormented shapes, you can easily feel a strong and creepy connection to what a vision of hell might be.
I have romped over these ruins several times, put my head in the replica stocks like every other tourist for a photo, and absorbed the history and wondered how hard and difficult life must have been all those centuries ago.
On this visit, it was a quick look at the ruins and then a slow walk down the winding maze of streets through the village.
I was with a bunch of women, serious shoppers every one of them, and while castle ruins and tumultuous history held their attention for a full half hour, it was the handmade ceramics and jewellery and fashion that beckoned.
Restaurants and cafes overlooking the panoramic valley give respite from history and shopping and make Les Baux de Provence the perfect place to visit in the south of France.
Read more of Ann's travels at annrickard.com.