Digne-les-Bains, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France

Digne-les-Bains is a French commune, capital of the department of Alpes de-Haute-Provence, located in the region Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. The presence of three rivers (the Bléone, the Mardaric, and the Eaux-Chaudes, made it an ideal place for human settlement, and appreciated for its thermal waters.

Located on the edge of the Prealps of Digne, on either side of the Bléone, Digne-les-Bains is the capital of the Alpes de Haute-Provence department. Placed at the geographical center of the department, this town is home to 16,844 inhabitants, making it one of the smallest prefectures in France by its population.

Before the Roman conquest, it was the capital of the Bodiontici whose name is found. on the trophy of the Alps in La Turbie. the city then became a Roman city named Dinia at 1th century. There are a few rural establishments all around the city, such as the Hôtelleries de Gaubert (south-east of the city), where the excavated building is occupied from the beginning of the 1st century to the end of the 4th century. In this sector, at the foot of the Cousson, the soil has been cultivated continuously from Antiquity until recent reforestation. Like the rest of France, Digne is caught up in the wars of religion, the town also active during the French Revolution.

Prehistory and antiquity
Digne-les-Bains dates back to the Neolithic era. The presence of three rivers, the Bléone, the Mardaric, and the Eaux-Chaudes, made the place ideal for human settlement. Before the Roman conquest, it was the capital of the Bodiontici (or Brodiontii), whose name is found on the Tropaeum Alpium at La Turbie. The town then became a Roman town named Dinia in the 1st century, and became a frequent commercial stop during the Roman era. Following the Romans, it was known as Digna by 780, and was appreciated for its thermal waters.

There are a few rural settlements near to the town, such as the Hôtelleries de Gaubert, southeast of the town, where the excavated building was occupied from the beginning of the 1st century to the end of the 4th century. In this area, at the foot of Le Cousson, the soil has been cultivated continuously, from antiquity right up to the recent reforestation.

Middle Ages
Two separate districts were formed: The town and the city. The town, an ancient site, was surrounded with the castrum of the episcopal chateau built on the Rock. The two neighbourhoods functioned as two independent entities from each other and from their inception. The town remained under the supervision of the provost of the chapter while the city or castrum was of the bishop. The arrival of the Angevins at the head of the County of Provence in 1246 accelerated the recovery process of the comital rights usurped during the previous period by lay or ecclesiastical lords.

The return of the comtal power in the city led to a change in the relationship between local authorities and community: In 1260, the city of Digne was given the right to appoint cominaux responsible for ensuring the management of the city. The consolidation of the two sites was done administratively in 1385 by institutional trustees, replacing the cominaux, responsible for representing both the city and the village. The institution evolved with administrative rationalisation at the beginning of the 15th century.

Early Modern era
Like the rest of France, Digne was taken in the Wars of Religion. In 1562, the Huguenots broke into the cathedral, shredded the tables and smashed statues, removed relics and ornaments and burnt them with the choir on the forecourt. The town was attacked by Protestants in 1574. In 1575, it was the Church of Saint-Jérôme which was sacked. In the following years, the city remained under pressure. In 1579, the captain of Archal occupied the surrounding countryside.

In 1589, with the advent of Henry IV, the ultra-Catholics in the Catholic League controlled the town, until 1591. The same year, the town fell before the Royal armies of Lesdiguières. The cathedral, guarded by the defenders, was attacked, bombarded with catapults and then stormed. It is also during this period that the inhabitants seized the château of the bishops, on Le Rochas, destroying it to prevent it from falling into the hands of one party or another.

French Revolution and the First Empire
The news of the storming of the Bastille was welcomed, this event announced the end of royal arbitrariness and, perhaps, more profound changes in the organization of the France. The city was established as the capital of the Basses-Alpes district from March 1790, to the creation of the departments. The patriotic society of Digne was founded in September 1790 (the second Department by seniority); it was affiliated with the Jacobins in June 1791, and became a relay of the club in the Department, accepting the affiliations of many clubs in the Basses-Alpes. It also received the request of affiliation of Carpentras. First called Bourgeois Alcove, it then took the name of Patriotic Club, then on October 9, 1792, Société des amis de la Constitution, de la Liberté, de l’Égalité [Society of friends of the Constitution, of freedom, of equality]. It established a committee of correspondence responsible for relations with other popular societies affiliated on 14 November 1792.

In 1792–1793, the section of Digne was controlled by the federalists. In connection with the section of Marseille, it disseminated the ideas of the Girondists. Digne welcomed the prefecture under the Consulate. The very popular prefect Lameth (1802-1805), created a shaded promenade between Pré de Foire and the banks of the Bléone and planted plane trees on the boulevard Gassendi.

In early March, 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte passed through Digne-les-Bains on his way from imprisonment on the island of Elba, gathering support as he moved north. This was early in his Hundred Days which ended with his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

Contemporary era
In 1851, the announcement of the coup d’état of 2 December caused uplift in rural areas, and peasants installed a provisional government in Digne.

As many municipalities of the Department Digne acquired schools well before the Jules Ferry laws. However, no instruction was given to girls in 1861, only the Falloux Laws (1851) required the opening of a girls school in the communes with more than 800 inhabitants (and that Courbons and Gaubert, small neighbouring rural communes, have a girls school). It was only in the 1860s that the town of Digne chose to open a school for girls (plus the Gaubert and Courbons schools for girls). It was with the Ferry laws that all girls of Digne and the attached villages were regularly educated.

In 1862, Digne absorbed the neighbouring areas of Courbons, Gaubert and Les Sieyes. These connected communes also had their schools, each a school for boys, with Courbons and Gaubert furthermore possessing a school for girls. The commune of Dourbes had two schools for boys (at Dourbes and at Villard), and none for girls.

In 1974, the neighboring village of Dourbes was attached to Digne. The municipality changed its name to Digne-les-Bains in 1988. Nowadays, the town of Digne-les-Bains continues to expand, mainly along the banks of the Bléone. It forms, with Entrages, Marcoux, La Robine-sur-Galabre, and Mezel, the Communauté de communes des Trois-Vallées (CC3V). The areas of Le Pigeonnier and Barbejas have been classified as Sensitive urban zones.

Historical heritage

Digne les Bains old town
It is easy to imagine that the old center, located in the Rochas district, is the historic seat of the city. Indeed, here dominate the majestic Saint Jerome Cathedral, of Gothic architecture, flanked next to the Clock Tower, surmounted by one of the most beautiful bell towers in the region. In reality, the city has its roots a little further north, in the Bourg district. Indeed, it is here that in the 9th century the Cathedral of Notre Dame du Bourg was built, on the remains of Roman villas. Remarkable Romanesque building, the Cathedral houses a crypt which contains a unique stack of archaeological, Gallo-Roman and medieval remains.

It is later that the city will move to Le Rochas, a hill that dominates the old center. In the 11th century, the bishop had his castle built there (on the site of the current prison). Little by little, the population will come to take refuge there and, in the 13th century, ramparts will be built at the foot of the hill. After the great plague of the 17th century, the city will expand beyond the fortified walls to take its current form. The fortifications are destroyed and few traces of medieval times will survive all these changes. However, the current restoration of the center brings out some very fine elements.

Religious architecture
The commune maintains a southern aspect and has remarkable heritage items including two cathedrals, an archaeological crypt under the Cathedral of Notre-Dame-du-Bourg [Our Lady of the City], the chapels (Saint Pancrace, Our Lady of Lourdes, etc.)

The Cathedral Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, an historical monument, is a Romanesque cathedral whose foundations date back to the 9th century. Victim of numerous attacks and looting, it was renovated at the beginning of the 13th century. Parts from the 11th and 12th centuries still exist. Its white marble altar is of the Merovingian era.

An archaeological crypt in the basement of the cathedral aids in the discovery of the history of Digne-les-Bains. In the crypt is the exact location of the origins of the city, attested by the presence of ancient walls from the 1st century AD. This corresponds to an urban space and implementation of three buildings of Christianity from the 5th century to the 11th century.

The Saint-Jérôme Cathedral, also an historical monument, is a Gothic cathedral from the 15th and 16th centuries. The facade is from the 19th century.

The Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes Church was built in 1870 on the Mountain of the Cross, north of Digne, though at the bottom of the slope. The brick walls are its main feature, with its large size.

The chapel of Saint-Vincent belonged to an abbey or priory. It is still in good condition. The Chapel of the Cross, located nearby, is gradually becoming a ruin.

There are numerous churches in the connected communes.

In Courbons, the parish church is Notre-Dame-des-Anges (13th-14th century). It was dedicated to St. Clair in the 17th century. Its single nave consists of three arched barrel bays, and emerges into a square choir. There is also a chapel of Saint-Pierre, south of the village, an establishment which may be very old.

The Church of Dourbes is under the name of Saint-Genest, and the oldest parts are from the 12th and 13th centuries. In Villard, the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Chapel probably dates from the 17th century.

In Gaubert, the parish church of Saint-Étienne was built in Romanesque style at the end of the 16th and 17th century. Grand-Saint-Martin farm incorporates some remains of a medieval priory. The chapel of St. Sebastian is situated on the ridge east of the village.

In Sieyès, the Church of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine remains along with the Church of Saint-Véran, between the stadium and the cemetery. A more recent chapel was built next to the town hall and school.

There are also two chapels on the mountain which overlooks the ravine of Eaux-Chaudes to the north, Saint-Pons which is in ruins, and the Chapel of Saint-Pancrace. The latter dates from the 17th century and is being restored. It has the distinction of having its bells suspended in a flat metal campanile. The pilgrimage of 12 May, when the priest blessed the sources, remained into the 1950s, and has recently resumed.

Civil and military architecture
The remains of fortifications can be recognised if one pays attention to the plan of the old town around the central district, built on the heights. Some of the walls and some towers which surrounded the city from the 14th century can still be seen. These remains of ramparts are currently based in the landscape of the dwellings.
Hotel Thoron by Robine from the 17th century
The fountain from 1829, which is an historical monument
The sculptures. From 1983 to 1991, an annual international event of sculpture revealed international talent. Award-winning works, in Carrara marble, adorn roundabouts, squares and public gardens.

Surrounding villages
The Val de Durance is located in the west of Haute Provence, in this place where the mountains take on the appearance of beautiful wooded hills with their rounded slopes. At the foot of the Lure mountain, the valley is the furrow of an important hydraulic resource; crossed by the Durance and the Bléone, its tributary. In addition, the influence of the Mediterranean climate allows a fabulous diversity of flora and fauna. Between 350 and 1400 m altitude, the landscapes are full of picturesque villages with multiple heritage treasures. The Val de Durance definitely connects with the change of scenery. The motorway and rail axes connect the Marseille metropolis to the first ski resorts in the Southern Alps.

Many villages have taken their place around the lake (Château-Arnoux-Saint-Auban, L’Escale and Volonne) or on the bank of the Bléone (Malijai). Others have settled on the mountainside (Mallefougasse and Peipin) or on the threshold of the Luberon (Peyruis and Ganagobie). The village of Mées, meanwhile, is nestled at the foot of the Valensole plateau. All these villages are in fact typical of Haute Provence with their narrow streets, their fountains and old washhouses at every street corner or their elongated steps which go up to the bell towers and perched chapels.

From one village to another, all architectural styles are also present, witnesses of so many cultures at different times: from Romanesque art (St-Martin Church in Volonne) to contemporary art (St-Jean Chapel in Château-Arnoux), from the classic style (18th century Château de Malijai) to the Gothic style (17th century castle in Volonne) passing through the Renaissance style (16th century castle in Château-Arnoux) to the ruins of the 12th century feudal castle in Peyruis.

This majestic valley, in the hollow of which flows the Durance descending from the mountains, undoubtedly brings together the most generous municipalities of Haute Provence: agricultural land, farms, orchards and olive groves. In particular, olive cultivation, truly present here, counts nearly 100,000 olive trees in the commune of Les Mées alone ! (In reality, the number of olive trees is certainly more important, but the exact figure remains a well-kept secret). Cross the fields of the producing mills shows striking landscapes of wisdom where time calms down.

A nurturing valley par excellence, the Val de Durance is no less a plain which offers some of the most beautiful natural and heritage sites in the area.

Solar change of scenery
Hidden by the barrier of the Penitents of Mées, is the plateau de la Colle, which is accessed by a small hilly road behind the village. Up there, one of the largest photovoltaic farms in France was built since the 2010s. In fact, the site was chosen for these natural qualities: good level of sunshine and constant ventilation. These conditions allow an overall permanent yield much greater than the national average. Thus, the site produces more than 100 megaWatts and can satisfy the needs of a population of 250,000 inhabitants! Electricity is routed and then distributed to large cities further south. This performance makes this territory a champion in terms of sustainable development.

Cultural heritage
Digne les bains contains many treasures that can be found in the Gassendi Museum, a historical museum founded in 1885. Pierre Gassendi, who gave his name to the Museum, was a humanist and astronomer from Digne. He was the contemporary of all the learned elite of the Age of Enlightenment, including Descartes and Galileo. Under the benevolence of Gassendi, the Museum is organizing an original museography. Indeed, the public strolls along a porous border where art and science intersect, like these enigmatic hydropithecus.

Contemporary art goes far beyond the borders of the Gassendi Museum. It is rooted in the surrounding nature, the beginning of all inspirations. For example, Andy Goldsworthy designed Refuge d’Art, a flagship work that recalls mountain life that has now disappeared. Other artists, such as Herman de Vries, Richard Nonas, Joan Fontcuberta, Paul-Armand Gette, Jean-Luc Vilmouth, Trevor Gould or Stéphane Bérard, reveal in their own way the relationships that men can form with their natural environment.

Back in Digne, in the grounds of the Promenade Museum, new works can be seen in the exhibition room of CAIRN (Informal Art Center for Research on Nature). Then we will take advantage of the tranquility of the trails to discover the permanent collection installed in the open air. The stroll will end in the museum rooms dedicated to geology. the museography delivers an impressive collection of fossils.

The city is a world pioneer in the preservation and enhancement of the geological heritage. In the 1980s, it saw the birth of the first Natural Geological Reserve in France. In 1991, under the aegis of UNESCO, it became the seat of the International Declaration of the Rights of the Memory of the Earth. In 2004, it was the cradle of the very first geopark in the world !

House museum of Alexandra David-Neel
If Digne les Bains is the starting point for many explorations, it is undoubtedly because it is also a city of explorers. The most famous of all is certainly Alexandra David-Neel ! A figurehead of Orientalism in the 20th century and a committed intellectual, she was notably the first European woman to ever enter the forbidden city of Lhasa. At the end of the 1920s, she moved to Digne les Bains, “her Himalayas for Lilliputians”. Here, she will continue her remarkable work, both in terms of her standards and her commitment. Alexandra David-Neel will keep here all the objects, notes, photos and other ethnographic documents from her travels. She will baptize her house with the evocative name “Samten Dzong” (Residence of reflection).

When she disappears, the explorer will designate the city as the universal legatee of the house, copyright and the archives. An inestimable heritage! Thus, the Maison Alexandra David-Neel will continue to act as a museum and an interpretation center dedicated to the author, Himalayan and Buddhist culture. The house will be listed in the inventory of historical monuments in 1996. And in 2008, it will be recognized as a 20th century heritage by the Ministry of Culture and Communication.

Traditional celebrations
Digne celebrates lavender, a symbol of the region, in the first weekend of August, at the Corso of lavender. A funfair is installed for the occasion, and a fireworks display is organized. A parade of floats is held, including a procession consisting of a dozen floats in lavender and crepon, led by 500 musicians and dancers from various nations. The Corso draws 10–15,000 people to the town each day.

Arts festivals
In May, every year since 2002, the city has organized a festival of urban culture and music. Initiated by the Ligue de l’Enseignement des Alpes-de-Haute-Provence [League of education of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence] and the L’ADSEA. The festival is now organized by the École du sous Sol [School of the Underground] association.

The objective of this festival is to make urban culture (graffiti, slam, street basketball, hip-hop dance, skateboarding) known to a wider public along with contemporary music (rap, rock, pop, electro) through various artistic and cultural events under the program. A sports tournament closes the event. The Hip Hop dance battle and the basketball tournament are open to girls (two girls and two boys by team for the 4 vs 4 battle and at least one girl by team for the 3 vs 3 basketball tournament). An open stage is offered to amateur and semi-professional teams.

Every spring, each year, the René-Char cultural centre receives cinema personalities and projects art and test films at the Festival les Rencontres cinématographiques de Digne. Its president is Jean-Pierre Castagna.

Lavender festival
Digne les bains is a town where celebrations are traditionally popular. The summer months are the high point of all celebrations and lavender is the star. Indeed, the “ blue strand ” is omnipresent in Provencal culture. The Lavender Museum faithfully describes the historical importance of the plant in Haute Provence. The most famous of the festivals is undoubtedly the Corso de la Lavender. Since 1939, this institution has been held the first weekend of August. The city then puts on its garment of light and draws visitors and Dignois to the rhythm of parades of floats, brass bands and other marching bands. The big funfair is in full swing.

As for the Lavender Fair, it occupies the main square of Digne les Bains at the end of August. You can find all the products from lavender cultivation there: lavender essence, soaps, honey… Like the Corso, the fair is also an institution, organized since the 1920s. At the time, it then ended the cutting period. The challenge was then to promote the essence of lavender in order to make its different properties known to the greatest perfumers.

Sports competitions
Each year since 2004, the Raid des Terres Noires [Raid of the Black Lands] mountain biking event brings together more than a thousand participants. From 2013, the VTT Rando 04 club organizes the Enduro of the Black Lands, Enduro event.

Created in 1999 by The Athletic Club of Digne, the Half-marathon of the Ammonites connects the village of Barles with the prefecture at the beginning of September, each year until 2002. Its rolling course, measured at 21.1 kilometres (13.1 mi) according to the protocols of the French Athletics Federation, goes through the most spectacular sites of the Haute-Provence Geological Reserve, some of which are world-renowned. Examples of these include the clues of Barles and Péouré, the Vélodrome d’Esclangon [Velodrome of Escanglon], Voile de Facibelle [Veil of Facibelle], the Demoiselles coiffées, the Ichthyosaur, and the Dalle à ammonites.

Its quality organization has been awarded two borders by the guide Le Bipède [The Biped], and placed among the 100 most beautiful French foot races. It welcomed more than 1,550 runners in 4 editions. This sporting event has had a 5th edition in 2013 on the 100th anniversary of the Barles road and in favour of the National League Against Cancer, in memory of Cyril Gues, the first winner of this competition, who died in 2012.

Initiated in 2005 by the Athletic Club of Digne (one edition), the Trail of Cousson was resumed in 2008 by the Athletics Association. The race walking event offers numerous courses in the heart of the Haute-Provence geological Reserve through robines (the famous “muck”), pre-Alpine forests, villages and ascents of the bar of the Dourbes and Cousson. Free racing and animations for children as well as heritage walks are also organized parallel to sports competitions. The event also fits into an exemplary sustainable development policy which gives it national recognition.

Natural heritage

The UNESCO Geopark of Haute Provence
Geoparks are territories labeled by UNESCO, for their geological heritage but also their remarkable cultural, natural and intangible heritage. There are about a hundred of them around the world. The Haute Provence one was the first to be created, in 2000. The Haute Provence Geopark offers you a journey through 300 million years of Earth history. From the Carboniferous rainforest, seas populated by strange creatures from the Secondary and Tertiary eras, to traces of Quaternary glaciations, these different periods have shaped today’s landscapes.

Of the 60 communes of the Alpes de Haute Provence on which the Geopark extends, the diversity is striking. The different types of rocks, inherited from the geological past of the region, give characteristic colors to the landscapes of Haute Provence: the robines formed by the erosion of the black marl, the clues formed by the limestone rocks of the Jurassic, the red traces left by gypsum deposits…

The Geopark also lists many fossil sites, such as the Dalle aux Ammonites, concentrating 1,500 ammonite, nautilus or pentacrine fossils over 320 m² at the exit of Digne les Bains (towards Barles): unique in the world and envied by the Japanese to such an extent that a cast is exhibited in the city of Kamaïshi. Among the must- sees, the Ichthyosaurs of La Robine and Chanolles are accessible by equipped hiking trails. These marine reptiles aged 90 and 107 million years respectively are exhibited and protected by site museums.

Beyond its remarkable geological heritage, the Geopark of Haute Provence invites you to discover its natural and human history and its traditions. The Provençal language, customs and even local products are part of the Geopark’s heritage, as well as contemporary art. A land of inspiration, the Geopark was chosen by artists like Andy Goldsworthy to create original works in connection with nature.

In the Eaux-Chaudes Valley, there is one cold and eight hot springs used for hydrotherapy. The town is also crossed by the Bléone and the Mardaric rivers.

Haute Provence has always been a land marked by water. Millions of years ago, the sea completely covered our region and the numerous fossils of marine animals unearthed bear witness to this! Today the lagoons have disappeared but water is still present: torrents, lakes and rivers shape our landscapes. It is not uncommon to discover gorges or majestic clues at the bend of a road or a path. Over time, the water has carved out its bed and drawn the features of a region strong in character. In the heart of Haute Provence, Digne les Bains is crossed by three rivers! The city is located at the confluence of three valleys: Bléone, Mardaric and Eaux Chaudes. It is from this last valley that a famous thermal spring springs up since Antiquity.

Nowadays, the thermal baths are continuously supplied by the Ophélia borehole, with a depth of 870 meters. Chlorinated, sulphated, sulphurous, sodic and calcic, these waters with multiple virtues are the subject of three-week cures in rheumatology, respiratory tract and ENT as well as mini preventive cures. A “well-being” area also allows you to enjoy the benefits of this water.

Downstream from the Gorges du Verdon, the Lac de Sainte Croix bears witness to the importance and essential nature of water in the area. Its hydroelectric dam retains 767 million cubic meters of water and forms the second artificial lake in France by area.

Many canyons and ravines are equipped for canyoning or aqua hiking. From the clues of Barles in the North for a swim in fresh water, passing by the water of Ferréols in Digne les Bains and the summer swimming pool of Saint-Auban to the lake of Sainte Croix in the South, sensations, change of scenery and splashes. With its neighbor, Lake Serre Ponçon, further north beyond the Blanche valley, these two bodies of water have made possible an infinite variety of sports and water sports: pedal boats, sailing, paddle boards, electric boats. … There is plenty of choice!

Thermal baths
The spa treats respiratory diseases and rheumatism. They use a hot spring at 50 °C and 110,000 overnight stays are made through this activity. The station is given financial autonomy to hire 76 employees in the high season (September–October). The establishment has a Zen Space and Fitness offering massages of the face and the body, and swimming in thermal water at 33 °C.

Outdoor activities
Generous nature conducive to the development of the body, Haute Provence invites you both to discover its landscapes but also to give free rein to your desires: golf, fishing, climbing… From the summit of Estrop at an altitude of 2961m in Haute Bléone to the softer reliefs of Verdon, or the Val de Durance, Haute-Provence is crisscrossed by an infinity of marked paths traversing splendid and preserved spaces. Hiking is a way of life here, practiced by everyone and all year round.

By bike, hiking is available with or without electric assistance, with the family, a pretext for discovering remarkable natural sites such as the Clues de Barles or the lavender fields. Mountain biking takes on the air of adventure in the “black earth” spot known worldwide by insiders and the EVO Bike Park in Digne les Bains is the ideal spot for sustained training! Roaming is king on the major signposted crossings that are the Alpes-Provence, the Transverdon and the Chemins du Soleil.

The Train of Pignes
The route of the Train des Pignes which crosses exceptional landscapes, from Haute Provence and the Asse Valley to the Nice hinterland, passing through the Verdon and the Var Valley. Choice between multiple stops to visit the villages on the route. To adapt to the steep terrain, the engineers opted for a track gauge of one meter, instead of the usual 1.40 m. This ingenious remedy as well as a hard and long work, made it possible to build a railway line on a particularly difficult course of 150 km. 25 tunnels, 16 viaducts and 15 metal bridges are built.