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DRY STONE CONSTRUCTION IN THE MONTS DE VAUCLUSE
Taking a walk in the Monts de Vaucluse, you'll cross an area of pines, oaks and overgrown scrub, with a wild and abandoned feel which contrasts strongly with the carefully maintained appearance of the agricultural plain. But behind the curtain of “wild” vegetation, there are terraced slopes built by farmers over the centuries, especially in the twelfth and nineteenth. To make the land flat, they “broke” the slope with walls placed to hold the precious soil in place against erosion caused by storms. They mastered water, source of both disasters and prosperity. They drained the run-off streams which carved up the ground, catching the rare and precious water for irrigation in béals and aiguiers — types of cistern which dot the landscape.
They ripped the all-pervasive stone from the ground to build “Bories” (shelters), beehives, cobbled paths and threshing posts. In this way the hill farmers created, terrace by terrace, an agricultural marvel where vines, cereals, peas, and tubers grow in abundance, all organised around the olive tree.
From Ventoux to the Vaucluse mountains, passing through the Luberon, the Provence region is replete with a heritage of dry stone constructions. The walls of the cultivated terraces, huts (Bories), sheep shelters and dwellings. This heritage is an integral part of the Provence countryside. The term “dry stone” refers to a practice of assembling stones without using a cement or other binder, simply a clever stacking and fitting of undressed stones.
These stone structures were once used as shelters for the farmers and shepherds. The Luberon Bories Natural Park counts 1610 bories in eleven municipalities. At Gordes, there is a whole a village of bories open to walkers. Thirty huts bear witness to what was, for centuries, the life of deep Provence, that of the writer Jean Giono, rural and pastoral.
THE “PLAGUE WALL”
On the Vaucluse plateau an unusual wall, sometimes rugged and built-up, sometimes reduced to a few stones, stretches across the landscape. It is a memory of the Great Plague of Marseilles in 1720. The “Grand Saint Antoine”, a boat sailing from the Middle East introduced the plague to Marseilles and the epidemic rapidly spread around Provence, reaching the town of Apt. To prevent it entering the Comtat country, the vice papal legate set up sanitary barriers around its borders, building a dry stone wall from Monieux to Taillades, becoming a ditch as it crossed the plain of Coulon. Beginning in 1723, when all danger of infection receded, the wall was abandoned. The epidemic claimed more than twenty percent of the population of the Comtat.
In this typically Provençal universe the Plague Wall is a surprising feature, connecting Cabrières d'Avignon to Monieux over 25 kilometres. Built in 1721, it was intended as a sanitary barrier against the plague that ravaged Marseilles. Partly restored, it now marks a trail, walkable in one day or by stages of five to nine kilometres, leaving from from Lagnes or Cabrières d'Avignon.
The Vaucluse Dry Stone Association
This association, which maintains the dry stone heritage today, was created in 1983 by people interested in these vestiges of ancient agricultural and pastoral economies, the gradual disappearance of which are due to the progressive abandonment of the farmland, which has accelerated in recent decades for a number of reasons.