Trapped at Rougiers, Provence

The American University of Rome beckons me; my vacation is over. A week’s hiking in Luberon has been a blessed respite: gloriously protected landscapes both farmed and wild; lost 19th-century summer villages – bories; and, of course, food. Heading south I could not resist a small detour to visit the first deserted medieval village excavated in France, Rougiers.

Excavated for a series of seasons beginning in 1961 by the grande dame of medieval archaeology, Gabrielle Demains d’Archimbaud, it influenced the paradigmatic writings of her mentor, the legendary historian, Georges Duby whose work has had a great impact on all Italian medievalists.

Well signed, the road was barred but I ignored it and arrived high above Baume. I scampered up to the village of St. Jean, essentially a stout 12th-century castle, a well-preserved frescoed chapel, and dwellings clinging to the rock.

Looking up at Rougiers

Completely excavated using railway trolleys, and then preserved, it is the immense viewshed that is simply extraordinary. Modern Rougiers is a pinprick below in a green ocean, flowing like waves over the falaise and through the wide valley reaching east to Cannes.

On this eagle’s eyrie everywhere could be scanned. What struck me was the folly of creating this place. What had pushed the local lord, then his peasants to inhabit such a pinnacle? Was it the sheer determination to dominate. Certainly, D’Archimbaud’s canonical report leaves you in no doubt as to the miserly lives of the inhabitants.

The view across the valley from Rougiers

From this experience Duby drew huge conclusions, setting the standard for our understanding of medieval peasant life. Fifty years on, we know more and appreciate how exceptional – aberrant – Rougiers was. Life was better than this, then.

The bar was locked when I drove down. I was trapped. A young lad knew not how to help me, save to drive round the mountain. There the other bar was locked too. Only with a little fortitude and the doleful look of a group of French climbers did I find a way out and homewards.

Angry at first, I appreciated how this green ocean survives today – the restrictions against fire are rigorously observed, and thus, rarely visited, has Rougiers survived. I left in admiration of France’s zoning laws, which are every bit as good as its food and monuments. When I think of Italy, zoning complemented by signed footpaths have yet to strike a chord in the civic mind, and they should.

The Chapel of St. Jean

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