Current guests are real history boffins, eager to sniff around any available ruin. First up was Glanum, a roman settlement that goes back to 150BC and was occupied for 450 years.
It’s hard to feel the vibe of ancient ruins with 4 kids under 5 in tow, let alone stop to read the descriptive plaques, but Glanum has some obvious novelties like the swimming pool into which a bearded stone man spewed water, a sauna complex of three rooms (hot, warm and cold) complete with early underfloor heating system, a sacred spring and obligatory towering temple pillars.
Outside the main ruins are a triumphal arch and mausoleum, both of which are huge and elaborate and got our resident history boffins choking on their baguettes.
Sunday, and no let up in the history boffins’ tour of Provence. Today they announced a visit to Tarascon, to admire the thundering great castle that sits on the banks of the Rhone. But these are serious boffins, and they insisted on visiting the church first, as a kind of warm up act, I suppose.
St. Martha’s collegiate church is vast and pompous; half gothic, half Romanesque. Downstairs is a crypt dating from the 3rd century, creepy and steeped in the stench of death – even fearless Child B couldn’t get out fast enough. Here lies Saint Martha; she who tamed the mythical ‘Tarasque’. Today there is a stone ‘Tarasque’ outside the castle, not deemed worthy of inspection by the boffins, but very worthy of clambering over by Child A.
Finally we got to cross the bridge for what we came for: a perfect sandcastle of a castle – and simply enormous to boot – complete with moat, sly holes above gates for dropping hot oil on intruders and dinky windows for shooting arrows out of. A Boy’s Own dream.
The castle was built in the 15th century, but two hundred years later was turned in to a military prison after Great Britain declared war on France. The castle is empty of all furnishings but full of ghosts; British prisoners have recorded with great grace and artistry their capture and in some cases, release. No mention of tarasques though.
Last stop on the history boffins’ strenuous tour was Lacoste, home to the Marquis de Sade who in the late 18th century lived on and off in the castle that looms over the village. This infamous French aristocrat spent a great deal of his life ducking in and out of prison for deeds that accounted to somewhat more than a good spanking; of course he gave his name to ‘sadism’.
The castle is gloomy and inherently creepy though our history boffins leapt about it with great enthusiasm, pointing out the layers of rebuilding through the ages.
After trying to peek through the keyhole (the castle ruins are now owned by fashion designer Pierre Cardin), we tripped down the ancient cobbles in search of ice cream. Settling on cool chapel steps looking out over the valley, the adults marvelled at the distant sights of Bonnieux and the Luberon mountains, while the children applied themselves to fast-melting ice lollies.