Hidden in Provence is a haunting ghost village. Perched high upon a mountaintop in the Lubéron is an ancient town, filled with narrow, cobbled streets, the ruins of empty homes and an old castle. It was once used as a hideout during World War II, and was home to the lady who stole the heart of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
The story of Oppède-le-Vieux is really a tale of two towns. One in the valley, is still thriving. Whilst the its twin, lies empty on the mountaintop overshadowing it.
Oppède-le-Vieux dated back to the 12th century, and used to be bustling town, with homes carved into the mountainside, surrounded by ramparts, and at its centre, a church and a castle. Once, this charming town of steep, winding streets was home to over 900 people.
But as beautiful and picturesque as Oppède-le-Vieux was, it became increasingly impractical to live in by the 19th century. The Petit Lubéron mountain cast an almost ever present shadow over the town, which made the quaint homes dark, damp and hard to maintain.
Faced with a daily climb down the mountain, many of the farmers working in the valley below Oppède-le-Vieux simply began living in it, giving birth to a new town, called Oppède-le-Poulivets. Oppède-le-Poulivets swiftly became a far more practical place to live, with its closer proximity to the olive groves, fruit orchards, vineyards and fields of lavender. The town hall itself moved down into the valley in 1909, sealing forever, the fate of Oppède-le-Vieux.
The old, medieval town perched on the rocky precipice was left empty and abandoned, slowly becoming reclaimed by nature. Roofs fells in, the caverns burrowed into the mountainside became lost in the undergrowth, and the ancient castle fell into ruin.
But the story of Oppède-le-Vieux took an unusual twist in the summer of 1940; for when France fell to Germany, a group of architects and artists sought refuge amongst the crumbling ruins of the mountain village.
The rabbit warren nature of the old ghost town proved to be the perfect hiding place for a commune of around 50 artists, calling themselves le Groupe d’Oppède…
We know a little of the daily life of hiding amidst the haunting ruins, as one of the commune wrote an account called ‘Kingdom of the Rocks’ in 1946. She was born Consuelo Suncin de Sandova, but is better known as the most likely inspiration for ‘The Rose’ in her husband’s most famous book, the Little Prince. Consuelo had met and married Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in 1931. The pioneering aristocratic aviator and writer disappeared never to be seen again in 1944, it is thought somewhere over the Mediterranean, south of Marseille.
The small community thrived in their secret hideout, bring life back to the ruined town. They wired electricity into their makeshift homes and artists studios, Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry writing of how, “as night blotted out the Lubéron this was the only gleam of light that could be seen in the valley. The peasants of the lower slopes and plain said to each other now, in a blending of hope with superstitious fear : ‘The lamps of Oppède have been lighted again!”
The secretive commune set up a school, and renovating the town; “they were all lost in their labour”, explained Consuelo, “they painted….blotting out the grey stains of time and the dinginess of neglect these vast halls had suffered for at least a century.”
In 1942, Germany dissolved the Free Zone, occupying all of France, forcing the artists hiding in Oppède to flee their idyllic mountain retreat, leaving it abandoned once more. Consuelo wrote, “the first German patrol entered the ancient town of ruins, finding most of the houses empty and the studios full of rubbish.”
Following the abandonment of Oppède-le-Vieux by the commune, the end of the war saw several people move back up the mountain, but today the old town is still largely empty. One visitor wrote of how, “there remains a beguiling atmosphere, shadows hovering behind every crumbling corner, a sense of the past and of things that happened long ago.”
Exploring Oppède-le-Vieux on foot is one of the most magical things to do in one of the most beautiful parts of France. The winding streets lead to crumbled old houses, to caverns dug into the mountain walls and half hidden by ivy, to an old graveyard overlooking the newer town below and the ruins of a castle, where once the beloved wife of the doomed Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, “the seeds sown in the ruins of Oppède will die, only to be born anew.”
By Luke J Spencer