Tarascon - Merel Imel (February 2007)

Tarascon, the often overlooked neighbor of St. Remy de Provence, is an ideal destination for children or the young at heart. The château, one of the finest examples of a fortified medieval castle in France, will delight the princesses and noble knights in your family while being interesting to the parents that accompany them.

With your first glimpse of the building you will notice damage to its facade, the result of Allied bombardment from World War ll. However, the château is remarkably preserved. Originally built in the 13th century it was completely rebuilt by order of Louis II, father of King René. Construction began in 1400 and continued until final completion in 1449. It was the favorite residence of King René, and it was here he spent the last 10 years of his life, in this fairytale castle alongside the Rhone.

Upon crossing the now empty moat, via a foot bridge (once a drawbridge), one enters and climbs a flight of stairs to the inner courtyard and the reception area. There is a small formal garden (a nice relaxing area if you visit on a warm day) and inside an interesting reconstruction of the dispensary from the Hospital of St. Nicholas, with over 200 apothecary jars. It is also here that you begin to notice the craftsmanship of the buildings.

You now traverse another elevated walkway, going through the keep, into the Main Courtyard where you will find the remains of the busts of King René and his second wife, Jeanne Laval. The beautiful mullioned windows, carvings and the incredible staircase that you will climb adds much to the visit. Take time to explore all the rooms, as there is a special “throne” that children delight in finding! While there are some impressive 17th century tapestries on the walls you must use your imagination to envision exactly how life was lived here, for there are no elegant furnishings to view.

Keep exploring and climbing, climbing to the roof terrace and the wonderful views of Tarascon and the Rhone. (This is a good place to hold the hand of the littlest ones accompanying you since you are now 48m or 157 ft above the river.) As you look across the Rhone you will notice the flags flying from the ruins of the château at Beaucaire, the site each summer of avian flight shows featuring eagles and hawks. After your interlude on the terrace follow the arrows to start your descent. (Its fun to count steps going down, though often the number can not be agreed upon among those counting!)

As you descend you come across some very unusual art work carved into the stone walls. These ships and “graffiti” were carved by prisoners who served time here. The château served as a rather infamous prison from the 17th century right up to 1926!

As you prepare to leave the grounds you might notice a rather large green monster, part lion, part crocodile,who seems to be guarding the door. This “sculpture” is used each year in the festival of the Tarasque. Provençal legend says that Saint Martha came from Stes-Maries-de la Mer to tame this amphibious creature who would periodically climb out of the Rhone and eat little children, cattle and generally cause havoc by preventing anyone from crossing the river. After Martha’s good work the town celebrated and continues to do so each year on the 29th of July.

Directly across from the château is the Church of Saint Martha. It is well worth a visit. Do not attempt to enter from the front doors facing the château since they are almost always locked, access is from a side door. Originally constructed in the 10th century, the church has been rebuilt many times and is now almost completely restored after heavy damage in 1944. (On our last visit, there was an interesting display of photos of the damage and reconstruction.) Saint Martha’s remains, discovered in 1187, are in the crypt beneath the church in a beautifully decorated sarcophagus.

Behind the church is rue des Halles and its 15th century houses. Also of interest is the Hotel de Ville, an elegant 17th century building with a carved facade.

While not a typical Provençal village, Tarascon is a pleasant and easy place to visit with good parking right in front of the château. Originally a Roman port, the town now serves as a distribution point for the fruits and vegetables grown in the area.

For information call the Tarascon tourist office at 04 90 91 03 52 or e-mail tourisme@tarascon.org.

Copyright © 2008 Anglo-American Group of Provence