When you first search the craggy hilltops for signs of Les Baux-de-Provence (pronounced boh), you may not quite be able to distinguish between bedrock and building, so naturally does the ragged skyline of towers and crenellation blend into the sawtooth jags of stone.

It was from this intimidating vantage point that the lords of Baux ruled throughout the 11th and 12th centuries over one of the largest fiefdoms in the south, commanding some 80 towns and villages. Their virtually unchallenged power led to the flourishing of a rich medieval culture: courtly love, troubadour songs, and knightly gallantry; but by the 13th century the lords of Baux had fallen from power, their stronghold destroyed.

Today Les Baux offers two faces to the world: the ghostly ruins of its fortress, once referred to as the ville morte (dead town), and its beautifully preserved Renaissance village. As dramatic in its perched isolation as Mont-St-Michel and St-Paul-de-Vence, this tiny château-village ranks as one of the most visited tourist sites in France. Lovely 16th-century stone houses, even their window frames still intact, shelter the shops, cafés, and galleries that line its car-free main street, overwhelmed by day with the smell of lavender-scented souvenirs. But don't deprive yourself for fear of crowds. Stay late in the day, after the tour buses leave; spend the night in one of its modest hotels; or come off-season, and you can experience its spectacular character—a tour-de-force blend of medieval color and astonishing natural beauty.