One of things I love most about Provence (well, Europe in general) is visiting medieval villages. History and ancient archeological sites are one of the reasons why I wanted to live in France, and Provence has no shortages of ruins and archeological sites. History abounds here. One of the wonderful places to visit, if you love to traipse around old ruins and be taken back in time, is the medieval site of Castrum Saint-Jean, just above the Provençal town of Rougiers.
The History of Castrum Saint-Jean
Castrum Saint-Jean, as we know it today, was a medieval site that began in the 12th century and continued to thrive until the 15th century, but the history of this place actually began about 100 years before this time.
Between the years of 1040 and 1044 there was a Castrum (castle) located at this site, which at this time was called the territory of Rothgerium. According to ancient text it was the property of the Venice family. Following the marriage of Odile of Venice to Viscount Foulques of Marseille, the property became listed as the Viscount’s domain. At this time, the husband and wife gave half of the property, along with half of the power, to the Saint Victor Abbey of Marseille.
In the year 1150 the Lords of Signes, lead by William of Signes who was a descendant of Foulques the Viscount of Marseille, raided the property. The castrum (castle), which was probably made of light weight and fragile materials and had little to no defense, was plundered, destroyed and abandoned.
At the end of the 12th century, a man named Geoffrey of Signes, Lord of Rougiers, set about to reconstruct this site. It would contain a new castrum (castle) and housing and would be surrounded with fortified walls. An archeological dig uncovered a coin dated from 1171 that has been traced back to the work of Geoffrey.
Archeological digs of the site uncovered the fact that there were 29 houses just beneath the castrum and built next to the side of the hill into the cliffs. These excavations were able to give historians information on medieval, rural houses in Provence.
Further records show that Louis IX, King of France (commonly known as Saint Louis), spent the night here in 1254.
At the end of this century, around 1280, this fortified village started to be abandon by its residents in order to populate the town below, which is located on the plains. This was due to a growing need for flat, farm land.
During the years 1330-1345, the population of Saint-Jean increase once again with the installation of glass makers. Archaeological evidence confirms the occupation of the castrum (castle) at this time in which a coin was discovered of Robert d’Anjou that was made between 1330 and 1337.
In the second half of the century and the beginning of the next century (1360, 1370, 1375, 1390 and 1410), it served as a refuge from wars, armed bandits and large populations of people who wanted to take over the village due to it being located on a major trade route.
When the Black Death arrived in 1385, the village was almost all but abandoned.
Currency issued in 1420, found on a dig, is one of the last testimonies of the occupation of the castrum. The site was abandoned all together during the 15th century and its residents moved to the town below.
In 1860 the Chapelle Saint-Jean of Solferino was constructed on the site. It was built by the inhabitants of the village to celebrate the passage of their lands to the Emperor Napoleon III upon a victorious return from Italy.
The Archeological Digs of Castrum Saint-Jean
During the archeological digs of Saint-Jean, which took place in 1961 and 1968, numerous items were found. Among them were 94,000 pieces of ceramics, 1700 metal pieces including tools, weapons and household items, 130 coins as well as many pieces of glass including bottles and cups. These have shed new light on the ancient people who lived in this rural, medieval village.
In 1967, the site was classified as a historical monument and became part of the property of the village of Rougiers.
The Medieval Site of Castrum Saint-Jean at Present
When visiting this medieval site today, you will find what remains of the castrum (castle), the Chapel Saint-Jean, a cistern, and a silo, as well as what remains of the 29 households in the cliff just below. Close to the edge of the cliff, just in front of the chapel stands an immense oratory, nearly 3 meters high. Just next to it is a statue of Mary holding baby Jesus.
Standing next to this oratory, you are offered one of the most amazing views of the village of Rougiers as well as the Provençal valley, and on a clear day you can actually see the Basilica Saint Mary Magdalene in the distance located in the village of Saint-Maximin de la Sainte-Baume. The view will undoubtedly take your breath away no matter what season you visit since at this point, you are about at a 600 meter altitude overlooking an immense valley.
There are no fences, railings or signs saying to pay attention and not fall over the cliff, so it’s up to you to be careful! No Darwin Awards please!
How to get to Castrum Saint-Jean
Once you have arrived to the village of Rougiers, by car, you will want to take the road straight through town going directly towards the hillside (just next to the bus stop and the village parking lot). Then you simply go straight and up. Once you start to ascend towards the hill, you will see that the houses become sparse and then finally, there is just open land and no more houses.
There is in fact, two ways to reach the medieval site. The first is for the more avid hikers and the second is to drive farther into the hillside and park in a dirt parking lot, which gets you closer to the site and has a lot less hiking involved.
If you love to hike, as I do, you will want to park your car in the little space on the left side of the road just after the last bit of houses that are situated on the left. The parking spaces are in fact, just an open area with a large cross next to it. If you park there, directly across the road is the hiking path that will take you up to the medieval site. You will first pass the ruins of the houses before actually making it to the top where the castrum (castle), the chapel and the oratory are. I personally love taking this route since hiking is a favorite thing of mine to do. The hike is uphill, but not a very difficult one so you don’t need to worry about over exerting yourself.
The second way to get to the Castrum Saint-Jean is, instead of parking at the cross, you would continue the drive into the hillside for about 5 minutes and then you will come upon a brown sign indicating parking for the site.
The parking area is all dirt, not paved at all. From this point, you follow the trail for about a 5 to 10 minute walk (depending on how fast you walk) and it will lead you directly to the ruins of the castle.
This is the first thing you will see when taking this route. By arriving at the site following this trail, your visit will start with the castle, the chapel and the oratory. From this point you will descend the hillside on the left side of the chapel (when your back is facing the statue of Mary and Jesus) and then follow the trails down to the ruins of the ancient village and houses.
The location map, along with my Google Local Guide review, is here.
As always, I would love to hear how your adventure went so please let me know by leaving me a comment below and tell me what your favorite part of the visit was.