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Les hypogees du Crau – the Arles-Fontvieille group

7 September 2007

La Crau is a flat plain to the east of Arles, a landscape much beloved of Vincent van Gogh: rich farmland criss-crossed by canals, farmtracks and a railway line. To the north east are the Alpilles, a chain of limestone mountains, rich in bauxite. The first mountain is the Mont de Cordes which rises solitary from the plain and was once an island, and it's overlooked by another limestone ridge of Montmajour, on which was built a huge ugly fortress of an abbey, which dominates the view.

The area is not only significant for me from a Vincent van Gogh point of view, but also because it holds a number of important, secret, prehistoric sites. As we were to discover many of these were 'access interdit'.

There are five monuments in the so-called Arles-Fontvieille group (because they lie beteen Arles and Fontvieille, but doesn't it sound like a Provencal jazz band?): the grotte des Fees on the Mont de Cordes, the grotte de Bounias, the grotte de la source, the dolmen de Coutignargues and the grotte de Arnaud Castelets. They are variously referred to as grottes, hypogees or dolmens in the various literature I can find (which isn't much).

Just past the abbey on the D17 is the signposted hypogee de Arnaud Castelets.

Hypogee de Arnaud Castelets — Images

<b>Hypogee de Arnaud Castelets</b>Posted by Jane<b>Hypogee de Arnaud Castelets</b>Posted by Jane<b>Hypogee de Arnaud Castelets</b>Posted by Jane

Hypogee de Arnaud Castelets — Fieldnotes

The hypogee is a chamber cut directly into the bedrock – 8 feet deep – and topped with some huge capstones. Stairs are rock cut into the descent but are worn smooth with the many feet that have walked in and out of here over the past 5,500 years. The sides of the hypogee are unfeasibly flatly cut and slope inwards at an angle. The portal stone is a beautiful even U shape. The whole chamber is about 7 metres long and we absolutely loved it.

From the little information I could glean about the so called Arles-Fontvielle group of monuments (the information centre in Arles didn't know anything at all) I believed there were another 4 monuments in the area. We'd bought a very large scale map of the area and spotted another couple marked up and so we thought we'd try to check them out.

The grotte (or hypogee) de Bounias turned out to be an easy win.

Grotte de Bounias — Images

<b>Grotte de Bounias</b>Posted by Jane<b>Grotte de Bounias</b>Posted by Jane<b>Grotte de Bounias</b>Posted by Jane

Grotte de Bounias — Fieldnotes

It's quite close the the road, in the grounds of the restaurant de la Mont de Cordes (which has a very nice looking menu) where we asked for directions.

It was just 30 ms away from the eatery, cut into the top of small rocky rise. Bounias was even bigger than Castelets! The portal was arched at the same angle as the interior walls. The interior height is about 9 feet tall – imagine that 9 feet deep and rock cut! – and I paced it back for 14 long strides. An astonishing place! So HUGE and so hidden! There are no signs to it at all.

Next, marked on the map was the Dolmen de Coutignargues

Dolmen de Coutignargues — Images

<b>Dolmen de Coutignargues</b>Posted by Jane

Dolmen de Coutignargues — Fieldnotes

We had to trespass to get to it by squeezing under a barbed wire fence. We had anticipated asking at a farmhouse but huge locked metal gates – padlocked and topped with more barbed wire indicated that visitors should fuck right off. Nervously, aware of farmers with short tempers and shotguns, we sought out a path through the low, spiky bushes to the top of the hillock where the map showed the monument is. We found it and it's quite trashed. This one was not rock cut, which might account for the fact that I'd read somewhere it was called the dolmen de Coutignargues, rather than hypogee.

A deep pit had been dug and lined with drystone walling, which today only survives in places. Some large stones, perhaps capstones or portal stones, lay haphazardly here and there.

Delighted to have found it despite its condition we decided not to hang around. As we descended our trespassing became all too real...
...we heard the clang of those metal gates, a rattling of keys, a silence as whoever was there looked at our car… they tried the doors…. My heart pounded! We hid behind some bushes pathetically, pretending to look lost and studying the map in case he saw us. At the same moment he spotted us, Moth decided to come clean and exclaimed innocently "Bonjour monsieur! Nous cherchons le dolmen. Connez-vous ou est il?" He tried to fob us off with the grotte near the restaurant and then when we insisted that Coutignargue was 'ici', pointing at the map, he told us it was "pas possible" to see the trashed dolmen we'd just seen. "Ah well" we shrugged innocently, knowing smugly we'd already seen it. We squeezed back under the barbed wire and prepared for our greatest challenge – The Mont de Cordes.

The Mont de Cordes is a fascinating limestone peak rising alone 65ms from the plain of La Crau with dizzying silver cliffs of stone poking out of dense woodland clinging to its precipitous slopes.

Grotte des Fées — Images

<b>Grotte des Fées</b>Posted by Jane
Somewhere on the northern side of it is the vast and uniquely designed hypogee of La Grotte des Fees. We searched for a path to it – a couple were marked on the map – but every way we looked, every farm track we took was barred with enough barbed wire to satisfy a small army. It was impossible and we admitted defeat.

Vincent van Gogh often painted and drew round here and the Mont de Cordes features in many of his harvest landscapes, so it seemed only right to go up to the Abbey de Montmajour, which faces the mountain to get another look at it and from where the Dutchman enjoyed drawing the views so much. He drew the abbey, the rocks, the trees, the plain, the view of Arles on the horizon to the west, the fields and the harvesters. The view I particularly wanted I couldn't find, although I suspected I was within metres of it and it lay behind giant locked gates and more barbed wire.

It was good to sit up here, with the mistral blowing hard around us, cooling us from being roasted alive in the hot sunshine and stare out at the Mont de Cordes wondering where on earth the entrance to the Grotte des Fees was. It's up there somewhere...
Jane Posted by Jane
21st September 2007ce
Edited 26th November 2009ce

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