Bouches-du-Rhône (13150) Population: 10,826 Altitude: 17 m
Tarascon is an ancient fortified town on the Rhône, between Avignon and Arles, two of Beyond's most popular towns.
Tarascon's Medieval sites feature 15th-century Roi Rene's chateau, the 12th-14th-century Saint Martha collegiate church (both located in the center beside the main river bridge) and the 15th-century Saint Jacques church with its lovely Cordeliers cloister. Market day Tue.
Other main attractions are the Tarascon market (Tuesdays), one of the most popular in the region, and the colorful Provencal fabrics that come from Tarascon's Carles Demery factory.
The town has some narrow Medieval streets for wandering, ancient walls and old fortified arched doorways, pretty arcades, and lots of little shops and cafés.
The Place du Marché is quite nice, a cobblestone street of shops and terrace cafés and the very interesting facade of the 17th-century Hotel de Ville.
Running south from the ancient Hotel de Ville is the Rue des Halles, with lovely arched arcades along both sides.
Comparing Tarascon and Beaucaire. With the two towns of similar size, joined by a bridge across the Rhône, we couldn't help do some comparing. Each town has its own character and its own points of interest. Wandering the narrow old-town streets (away from the most popular ones), however, is quite different between the two.
In Tarascon, the inner streets were less interesting, in that there weren't ancient doorways or historical sites; in the poorer part of the town, the streets were downright filthy, with junk, trash and discarded items scattered or piled in many places. Either the Tarascon street cleaners have the whole month of August off, or they don't bother coming into the center of the old town.
The Carles Demery factory, located in Tarascon, makes the Provencal cloth that's seen in most Provencal markets and is sold worldwide. Locally, the cloth is sold in boutiques and stores in most towns and in many market places of Provence and the Cote d'Azur.Tarascon's Provencal fabrics are displayed in the Souleïado musem, located in a fine old 14th-century building in the town center.
The Provencal textiles became popular in the 17th century, and at that time the main export route was down the Rhône to the shipping point at Marseille.
In addition to the "Charles-Demery" museum in Tarascon, Provencal fabrics are exhibited in the "Chateau-Gombert" in Marseille and the "musee Arlaten" in Arles.
The Château de Tarascon has a compact section on one end, with a pair of round towers in front, and a lower extension to the side. The castle is built on the edge of the Rhône, with a moat (now dry) circling the other three sides, and an arched causeway to the entrance, no doubt once protected by a draw bridge, and effectively making the castle an island.
A preceding castle existed on this site in the middle of the 13th century, occupied by Charles d'Anjou, Count of Provence and brother to France's King Louis XI (Kings). In 1367, the Duc d'Anjou had the idea that Provence could replace the power of France in the region. In the ensuing battle and siege of Tarascon, the castle was destroyed.
The new Chateau of Tarascon was begun in the year 1400, by Louis II d'Anjou, and was completed in 1449 by his son, King René. (These were "kings" of Sicily and Naples at the time, not Kings of France.)
In the 16th century the castle was used as a prison.
Today, the inner courtyard is open to all, with free access up the the second level and the book store, gift shop. Tickets for visiting the interior of the castle are available in the gift shop.
- Open: Feb-Apr, 9h30-17h30; June-Sept, 9h30-18h30; Oct, 9h30-17h30; Nov-Jan: 9h30-17h00.
- Closed: 1 Jan; 1 May; 1 Nov; 11 Nov; 25 Dec.
- Entry: 7 €; 18-24 yrs, 5 €; 12-17 yrs, 3 €.
Tarascon's sister-city, just across the river, was in a sense the target of the plague ship. The Mediterranean port at Marseille was doing a brisk trade with the Levant, and was starting lucrative new trading with the New World and the West Indies.
The ship arriving in Marseille from Syria in 1720 was bringing a cargo of silk and cotton up to Beaucaire for the great medieval fair, and the merchants didn't want a costly delay in the shipment.
The port authorities were informed by the captain of sickness on board, but the city merchants, concerned only with getting the silk and cotton up to Beaucaire for the fair, got the quarantine lifted. The silk and cotton came in, and the Great Plague began, killing 50,000 of Marseille's 90,000 population. And then it spread.
A swampy area of the Rhone, roughly where Tarascon is now, was once called niger focus, or "heart of darkness". A later reference called it id est niger locus, or Nerluc. When the Romans arrived, they called the small collection of habitations here Ernaginum, probably from the habitants' ur-naga, reflecting the worship of a primeval serpent or dragon.
A huge monster emerged from the sea and chose the river Rhone as its new home. The legend of this ancient creature, as described in 12th-century writings, was of a half-serpent half-lion monster from Gallicia, the ofspring of the ancient-world serpents Leviathan and Onacho.
Tripod.com tells us it was a "dragoness, half land mammal, half fish. She outsized twelve elephants, had teeth like swords and a skin like iron. Her father was the water dragon Leviathan, her mother the giant snake Onachus, and her name was Tarasque".
Wikipeda says the Tarasque was "a sort of dragon with six short legs like a bear's, an ox-like body covered with a turtle shell, and a scaly tail that ended in a scorpion's sting. It had a lion's head, horse's ears, and the face of a bitter old man". A variation says his head is that of a lion, yet with a horse's ears, but his face, with eyebrows and mustache, is that of a sad and bitter old man.
Whatever its actual appearance, the Tarasque terrorized the region in the best traditions of unfriendly dragons. She breathed flames, destroyed houses, frightened the animals and people alike. The dragon destroyed the bridges and then devoured anyone who tried to cross.
Local heros, including the King of Nerluc and knights, fought the Tarasque, and perished. Others tied animals along a trail into a deep swamp, near Avignon, with a reputation for being impossible to escape from. But the swamp belonged to the realm of the devil and the Tarasque was a creature of the devil. So when the Tarasque followed the trail of delicious animals into the swamp, it was warned in time to escape the trap.
Along Came Martha
Martha (Saint Martha of Bethany) was born sometime in the 1st century to a Syrian duke named Syro and his wife, Encharia of Magdalene, in Bethany, near Jerusalem. As a girl Martha lived with her brother, Lazarus and her sister, Mary Magdalene. Their friend Jesus was a frequent visitor in their home.
Following the crucifixion of their friend, a group including the siblings Martha, Lazarus and Mary Magdalenem, along with Mary Jacobe, Mary Salome, St Maximinus and Cedonius, were cast adrift in a small boat without sails, oars or supplies. They eventually landed safely at Marseille where they split up and went their own ways. Martha of Bethany went either to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer or Aix-en-Provence, and became a missionary, regarded for her gracious manner.
Martha was in Nerluc one market day, to spread the word of her Christian God to the pagan people, where everyone was talking about the dragon. The townspeople chalanged her to prove the strength of her religion by subduing the dragon. Martha set out, bare-foot, in her white dress, to find the dragon, with no other weapon than a jar of holy water, and with the whole town following her. At the dragon's lair, Martha held up two sticks as a cross and stopped the dragon as if pierced by a sword. (It's also said she used hymns and prayers to charm the beast.) She sprinkled holy water on the dragon to quench its fire, then used his sharp tooth to cut off her braids and make a bridle to lead the now-tamed Tarasque back to town.
The people, still terrified by the monster, attacked it and killed it with a shower of stones. Martha forgave the wretched town's peope, and converted many of them to Christianity. One source has it that Martha's feat with the dragon caused the entire province to converted to Christianity. The citizens errected a new church in honor of Saint Martha and changed the name of the town from Nerluc to Tarascon. The Tarasque is now featured on the town's coat of arms.
Interestingly, the only monster known in Tarascon is the Tarasque, while on the opposite bank of the Rhone, the only monster known in Beaucaire is the Drac.
Moulin de Daudet
Alphonse Daudet was one of several writers inspired by Tarascon. Daudet's character Tartarin, from Tartarin de Tarascon (1872) was from Tarascon. Daudet's famous Windmill is located beside the little village of Fontvieille, 11 km southeast of Tarascon. Three of the four 19th-century wildmills are now just truncated towers, but Daudet's still has the blades. A couple of the mills were still working as late as 1905.
There's also a well-preserved windmill in the village of Graveson, 10 km northeast of Tarascon.