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Going Provincial, Provencal Style, in the South of France

January 12, 1986|ERIC L. MALNIC | Times Staff Writer

LES BAUX, France — Sooner or later, if you love to travel, you're bound to end up in Provence.

The question--with all that the the colorful heartland of southern France has to offer--is where to stay.

There's Avignon, home of the gigantic medieval palace the popes and their pretenders built and embellished for nearly a hundred years.

There's Arles, founded by the Greeks as a trading post in the 6th Century BC, flourishing aggressively through more than 2,000 years of changing emperors, kings, dukes and the like, eventually languishing into the relaxed, Gallic agrarian community that welcomed the eccentric likes of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.

There's Nimes, where the Romans left some of their most enduring monuments, including the tidy temple now known as the Maison Caree and a coliseum, capable of seating 20,000, that is considered the best preserved of the 70 the empire is known to have built.

Source of Bauxite

But before you choose one of these large, prosperous and justifiably famous cities, consider Les Baux, a modest town of 367 inhabitants that gave the world the generic term for the aluminum ore mined nearby--bauxite.

To dismiss Les Baux as a mining town would be akin to dismissing Kyoto as a whistle stop on the Tokyo line.

The site alone is worth a visit, a massive, jutting, half-mile promontory crowned with the ruins of a once-great fortress, enthroned by sheer rock faces that fall away on three sides to lush valleys of orchards and vineyards.

The secluded location, roughly equidistant--about 25 miles--from Avignon, Arles and Nimes, is similarly convenient, an hour's drive or less, to dozens of other Provencal attractions.

And consider the amenities: three excellent restaurants, one of which bears the coveted three-star rating from the Guide Michelin, two of which are part of charming guest resorts that offer tennis courts, a swimming pool and other niceties. Plus three other modest but comfortable hotels, all of them sited to provide spectacular views from secluded settings.

Military Strongpoint

Les Baux first made the map when it was chosen as a military strongpoint during the Dark Ages that followed the vandalizing of the Roman Empire. By the 11th Century the first of a series of princes, counts and dukes had built his castle there, holding sway over an array of towns and villages that eventually swelled to 50 or more in the lush farmlands.

One such ruler--Raymond de Turenne, the "Scourge of Provence"--was said to have chortled with glee at the screams of prisoners he ordered hurled to their deaths from the parapets.

Such boisterous flaunting of central authority can make kings mad, and when Louis XIII finally conquered the place in 1632, he celebrated his victory with a vengeance, ordering the hilltop fortress and the tiny community that surrounded it sacked and burned.

What remains is a startling breastwork of rectilinear ruins, etched in profile against the sky. While some of the glassless windows, doorless entries and stairs to nowhere were built with brick and mortar, others were carved from the monolith.

Dramatic Shadows

If you choose to prowl the ruins, try to schedule your visit for dawn or dusk, when the slanting sunlight casts dramatic shadows against the pale stone and out across the valleys below.

The "living village" on the shoulder of the promontory--dating from the centuries that followed Louis's revenge--includes an attractive jumble of houses, shops, chapels and cafes.

Day trips to Avignon, Arles and Nimes (don't forget the Pont du Gard, a stunning Roman aqueduct bridge over the river just east of Nimes) all begin with short, twisting routes through the rugged foothills of the Apilles, followed by straight, cypress-lined avenues that slice across the rich flatlands. The drives are fast and fun, allowing a comfortable return to your hostelry in Le Baux in time for dinner.

We stayed at the Mas d' Aigret, as the name implies, a farmhouse converted into a comfortable inn. Our spacious hillside room, like the dining room in the main hotel building a few yards below, was carved in part from the rock--attractive but, in the case of the dining room, a bit claustrophobic.

At about $45 a night for two, we considered the hotel a bargain; dinner in the dining room was good if unspectacular, costing about $30 for two.

Our dinners at two other Les Baux restaurants were extraordinary.

Grassy Terrace

At La Riboto de Taven, set amid lush vegetation in the Vallon de la Fontaine at the base of the floodlit promontory, we were led through a rose garden to a grassy terrace, where the maitre d' seated us for a predinner drink and presented the menu.

Minutes later, comfortable in a cozy room with fresh-cut wildflowers on the tables, we dined on oysters in puff pastry and medallions of veal. At about $70 for two, rather expensive, but memorably delectable.

The next night it was La Cabro d' Or, a rambling Mediterranean villa set amid another lush garden in the Vallon de la Fontaine. Dinner in the large, attractive dining room started with a mixed salad vinaigrette, followed by lamb in light pastry for my companion and tournedos of beef with a bearnaise sauce for me, followed with a sinfully delicious peach charlotte with an apricot sauce. Again, very, very good, and at about $60 for two, not quite as expensive.

It would have been fun to have topped it all off with a blowout at the truly expensive, three-star Oustau de Baumaniere, an elegant restaurant with a reputation that puts it among the top 25 in all of France. Unfortunately, reservations are hard come by, and even a week's notice proved insufficient.

Next time. . . .

For further information, contact French Government Tourist Office, 9401 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 840, Beverly Hills 90212.

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