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This unique area was classified as a Parc Naturel Régional (Regional Natural Park) in 2007. The park’s mission is to implement an innovative economic, social and cultural development policy that respects the environment and ensures the protection and sustainable development of the area. (Accéder au site du PNR Alpilles)
Set in the golden triangle outlined by the Durance and the Rhône, and at the heart of a region with a unique diversity of landscapes – the Crau, the Camargue and the Comtat – Saint-Rémy-de-Provence lies at the foot of the Massif des Alpilles. The Alpilles form a small, rocky limestone massif that stretches about 40 kilometres towards the west from the Durance at its eastern end, and about ten kilometres from north to south.
The town is surrounded by a very wide variety of landscapes, shaped by human activity since ancient times. The first tribal peoples settled here in about 600 BCE, at the end of a small valley on the north face of the Alpilles. There was plenty of water, and the forest provided game and wood. This marvellous site offered all the conditions that favour human settlement.
It was the Greeks who brought the cultivation of olives and vines to Provence.
Stone began to be quarried at the foot of the Alpilles in ancient times. The Romans created an irrigation network around Glanum, part of which is still in use.
In the Middle Ages, the marshes to the north were drained, and the construction of the Réal canal allowed a much larger area of land to be cultivated.
Over the centuries, Saint-Rémy developed into a town whose principal activities were food production and quarrying. From the 19th century, large-scale sales of agricultural products were the economic salvation of Saint-Rémy.
Specialisation in agriculture left the landscape clearly marked by rural life, with no heavy industry but also with no urban encroachment, which helped preserve the countryside around Saint-Rémy as the harmonious landscape we see today, so appreciated by visitors from around the world. Vines and olive trees now grow to the south, at the foot of the rocky cliffs, below the forest and garrigue of the Alpilles. A rich agricultural plain spreads out in the other three directions, divided by cypress hedges and mainly covered with fruit trees, market gardens, corn fields and sunflowers. Horses and sheep are also bred here.
Water from the canals does not reach the foot of the Alpilles, where most of the vineyards and olive groves are found. The vineyards are organic and many are A.O.C. classified Les Baux de Provence.
In 1956, a terrible frost wiped out all the region’s olive trees. Some trees grew again from the roots, and in recent years many more have been planted, enabling a new oil mill to be built at Saint-Rémy.
These lands are dominated by the limestone cliffs, the scented garrigue and the forests of Aleppo pine and holm oak that form the rich natural environment of the Alpilles. From the heights of the Alpilles, the view over Saint-Rémy nestling at the foot of the massif is unforgettable. The beauty of these landscapes and the richness of the flora and fauna justify protective measures such as the “red zone” and orders to protect the biotope.
In this area the fauna is not easily seen; it is the presence of a few rare, iconic species that makes it special:
Bonelli’s Eagle - with four nesting pairs, this is the highest concentration in France, which has fewer than 30 pairs in total. There are also a few Egyptian Eagles.
Europe’s largest population of Eurasian Eagle Owls, the world’s largest nocturnal bird of prey, is also found here, with about fifty pairs.
Many other birds also make their home here, among them the more common Barn Owl and Tawny Owl, the Short-Toed Eagle, the Ortolan Bunting, warblers such as the Dartford Warbler, the Orphean Warbler, the Blackcap and the Spectacled Warbler, the Partridge, and the Tawny Pipit.
The area is notable for colonies of bats numbering tens of thousands of individuals, though unfortunately they are decreasing. Of the 26 species recorded in Europe, 19 are found here.
Finally, the Alpilles are also home to Europe’s largest lizard and largest snake: the Ocellated Lizard, which can be more than 50 centimetres long, and the completely harmless Montpellier Snake, which can grow to 2 metres!
These key species must not overshadow the presence of 101 other protected vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish), as well as wild boar, rabbits and small rodents, not forgetting the insects, scorpions and centipedes recorded in this vitally important massif.
At the foot of the slopes is the forest, mainly composed of broad-leaved trees such as holm oak, downy oak, maple, false acacia and white poplar, together with pinewoods. There is a wide range of coniferous trees, including Aleppo pine, Corsican pine, cedar and cypress.
On higher ground, the garrigue is formed of stiff or prickly bushes such as Kermes oak, rosemary, cistus or rock roses, and juniper.
Finally, you reach the specially protected brachypodium grasslands, made up of small, low-growing plants such as thyme, lavender, asphodel and iris, which form a wonderful flowering carpet in spring. These plants are important to maintain a layer of humus over the limestone rock. So it is worth getting to know them and taking special care not to pull them up; it’s important to be aware that you should not pick unidentified flowers or plants, as some of them are very rare.