Beaucaire is a small Provencal town located on the banks of the Rhone River. There is already in 11 BC. evidence of a Gallo-Roman settlement in this hilly area. The old community gave way to a medieval town in 1067 and the establishment of a castle in 1180. The name Beaucaire translates into beautiful stone, most likely a reference to the limestone found in the area. On a Sunday we headed out for a short afternoon exploring and a bit of history. The town of Beaucaire is located in the “Golden Triangle” of Avignon, Arles and Nîmes, all much larger cities with extensive historical monuments. The town of Beaucaire is bordered on one side by the Rhone River and on the other by the Rhône-Sète Canal. Unfortunately, the town is not nearly as captivating as the larger centers in the region and clearly not as well maintained.
The remains of the castle are impressive, even if a shadow of its former size. Standing in the open area after the entrance, you can imagine the immense presence that once stood on this hilly promontory. Admission to the castle is free and guided tours are limited. The view of the Rhone River from the top is worth the short climb. However, in our opinion, we found the condition of the site to be generally poor, compared to other historical monuments in the region. The town itself is not very big and it is worth taking a short walk through the old streets. In the historical part one begins to get an idea of what this center could look like in the time when the castle covered 26 hectares and the numerous mansions were at their peak. The pinnacle of this center was in the 18th century when the Madeleine’s Fair, still held every July 21, reached 250,000 visitors. However, over time, as the fairground’s importance declined and trade shifted to other centers, Beaucaire’s influence has waned. The city has a number of historic buildings that are unfortunately attractive, but not as impressive as those in many other larger cities. Even the tourist signage information panels have seen better days as we found many were broken or graffitied. The renovated port area on the Rhône-Sète canal can accommodate up to 200 ships. This is a bit of an imagination or certainly a triumph of logistics. Even many of the nearest cafes seem to make minimal effort to replenish the waterway.
My husband had visions of an afternoon nap right now, but he was unlucky. Just a few kilometers from Beaucaire is the Abbey of Saint-Roman. This monastery dates back to the 5th century. It was a hermitage and was inhabited by monks until 1538. The whole building was literally carved out of the limestone on the hillside. The structure is the only troglodyte monastery in Europe, where the inhabitants literally lived as cavemen in the rock. A castle was built on the former monastery after 1538. It was only after the destruction of the castle that the former religious building was uncovered. Listed in 1990 as a French State Monument, the abbey is the oldest monastery in the country. The standout elements of this visit were the beautiful view of the Rhone River over the ancient tombs, the incredible amount of hard labor required to build the structure, and the simplicity of life that existed within the walls.
The challenge facing Beaucaire and other small centers is that the entire region has such a rich and complex history that it is difficult to attract the necessary attention and funding. The Beaucaire Tourist Office has an informative website. However, it is short sighted that the parking in front of their office is permit only! It is potentially unfair to deny yourself a visit to Beaucaire. Certainly, it will never have the same hustle and bustle as the larger centers such as Avignon. If you do go, don’t miss the Abbaye de Saint-Roman, as it is really worth a reflective visit.