Bargème: Crowning Jewel of the Var

Ester Laushway (October 2007)

Bargème, the second in our series on “Les Plus Beaux Villages” in France, is one of those hidden treasures that we would all like to stumble across, but which is much easier to find if you know where to look. Built out of the rock on which it stands, at 1097 metres, it is the highest village in the Var.

Only a very select number of people enjoy its remote beauty on a permanent basis. The medieval village, dominated by the imposing ruins of the feudal castle and the squat outline of its Romanesque church, numbers a grand total of 10 inhabitants! The houses outside the ramparts bring the population up to 140, not counting the sheep and goats that are an important part of the village economy.

Tiny and secluded as it is, Bargème is more than worth a detour. Beautifully restored, it exudes a timeless tranquillity that does the soul good. There are flowers everywhere, softening the stark beauty of its stones, blooming in window boxes, lining the cobbled streets, blossoming in nooks amongst the ruins and carpeting the little village gardens on the edge of the ramparts. The only sound that places the scene in this century is the far-off pop of rifle fire from the vast military camp to the South.

You should visit Bargème on a day when you have plenty of time, because just getting there is not the kind of thing you can, or should, rush. Take the Le Muy exit from the A8 autoroute, avoiding Draguignan at all costs, and follow the D25 through Bargemon, which is not to be confused with Bargème. The road is lovely, if loopy, winding up and down and through a succession of forests and gorges, fields and meadows. After some hairpin bends, you enter the no-man’s-land of the huge Canjuers military camp, where you come across signs for tank crossings, and an entire deserted village, looking oddly spooky, as if aliens had spirited its inhabitants away.

As you approach Bargème, the road passes through little forest meadows, which make perfect picnic spots for anyone remembering to leave them as unspoilt as they are. After a final climb uphill, the village greets you with the silhouette of the four round towers and the impressive square dungeon of the ruined château looming dramatically against the sky. The four-level military château was built in the 13th and 14th centuries by the Pontevès family, who still own what is left of it today. The 16th century Seigneur of Bargème, Jean-Baptiste de Pontèves, was by all accounts a nasty piece of work, greedy, vain and cruel, and hated by the villagers. During the bloody wars of religion, they took revenge, killing first him and then four of his descendants, one after the other. When Antoine de Pontevès was stabbed in 1595 in front of the church altar during Sunday mass, the Parliament of Aix decided enough was enough. The people of Bargème were ordered to build a chapel in atonement for their murders: built in 1607, it stands at the western end of the castle courtyard.

The free car park just below the ramparts, lets you explore the castle ruins and expiatory chapel, the two 14th century gates, the 18th century wash-house and the medieval lanes of Bargème on foot. Once you have absorbed the discreet charm of the village exteriors, stop at the Mairie (open every week-day afternoon except Wednesday) and ask them to open the parish church of St Nicolas. Its simple Romanesque architecture does not prepare you for the splendid profusion of gilded carvings, the richly painted apse in blue and gold and the extraordinary 16th century sculpted retable of Saint Sebastian that it houses. The trompe l’oeil curtains framing the apse are topped by a painted chalice into which a stained-glass cross is set, through which the sunlight beams down. The church was magnificently restored from 1990 –2000 and is used for three concerts of Baroque music every summer - note it on your calendar for next year! The Mairie de Bargème is on 04 94 50 21 94.

Copyright © 2008 Anglo-American Group of Provence