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Oppède, France

The Ruins of Oppede-le-Vieux

These medieval ruins have survived since the 12th century, even providing shelter from the Nazis. 

Perched upon the Petit Luberon mountaintop in Provence, is an ancient French town, lying mostly in ruins, but maintaining a remarkable story. 

Left abandoned in the early 20th century, this small, picturesque medieval town, a maze of narrow streets and secret caverns carved into the steep mountainside, proved the perfect hiding place for a commune of artists fleeing the occupying German army during World War II.

One of the enigmatic artists living in this ghost village, would write an account of their time hiding from the Nazis amongst the ruins. She was the rumoured inspiration for ‘The Rose’ in her husband’s most famous book, The Little Prince; her name, Consuelo de Saint-Exupery. 

Dating back to the 12th century, Oppede-le-Vieux, was once a vibrant farming community, that lived perched upon a rocky mountain top dominated by a church and a castle. Protected by medieval ramparts, the warren-like town of stone houses, was home to around 900 inhabitants. 

But the almost constant shadow of the Petit Luberon mountain made their homes dark, damp, and difficult to maintain. During the 19th century, many of the farmers from the ancient town began to move down into the valley to be nearer to their fields, building more modern and practical homes in a town they called Oppede-les-Poulivets. In 1909, the city hall officially moved down the mountain, sealing the fate of Oppede-le-Vieux. 

Left abandoned to the elements, nature soon began to reclaim the old town. The castle roof fell in and the entrances to the medieval grottos buried into the mountain became covered in ivy. 

After France fell to Germany in the summer of 1940, the haunting ghost town became the ideal hiding place for a group of artists. Calling themselves le Groupe d’Oppede, and led by architect Bernard Zehrfuss, the commune grew to around 50 painters, writers, and sculptors fleeing Nazi oppression.

The remote mountaintop provided the perfect location, as one by one, the old abandoned buildings were re-opened and turned into self-sufficient homes for the commune. 

Writing in 1946, Consuelo de Saint-Exupery would dedicate her book, Kingdom of the Rocks, to “my husband, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, lost on a reconnaissance flight over France, July 1944.” Consuelo describes how, “they were all lost in their labour, their eyes glowing, their movements quick and skillful, they painted…blotting out the grey stains of time and the dinginess of neglect these vast halls had suffered for at least a century.”

The small community prospered on the mountainside until 1942 when Germany moved to occupy all of France, and the artists fled their idyllic abandoned town. Consuelo wrote of how, “the first German patrol entered the ancient town of ruins, finding most of the houses empty and the studios full of rubbish.”

Today, Oppede-le-Vieux remains largely abandoned, although fairly recently, several families moved back up the mountain, and little by little, parts of the ancient ghost town have returned to life. Exploring the narrow winding streets, leads to crumbled old stone houses, an ancient graveyard overlooking the vast valley below, and the ruins of a castle, left open to the sky, where Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s beloved Consuelo once wrote, “the seeds sown in the ruins of Oppede will die only to be born anew.”