Within the heart of southern France – between the provincial destinations of Arles and Avignon – a deep, dark secret awaits.
It’s not a private family estate with its own small appellation where the ruby blush of its rose wine is produced exclusively for restaurants. Nor is it the idyllic plein air dining room where those who are in the know about such things enjoy an extended brunch personally served by the Chef. It’s not even the secluded boules ring scattered with fallen leaves from the fiery autumn flame trees where Sunday regulars enjoy a laidback match. Such hidden charms really do exist – but this secret is much deeper.
It is the Carrieres de Lumieres or, directly translated, the Quarries of Lights – an underground art space in the regional commune of Les Baux-de-Provence in France’s deep south. It’s not underground in the sense of being clandestine – rather it’s physically underground – deep within the walls of a disused white limestone quarry in the Chaîne des Alpilles – a small range of mountains about 20km south of Avignon.
It was an unlikely man about town back home who recommended the Carrieres de Lumieres to my husband and me. He had recently accompanied his wife, at her insistence, and was blown away. “You can’t bloody miss it,” he said. “Just go.”
When you enter the quarry come art space it is sensory overload. The air is chilly – take a jacket. The space is dark but you can make out the edges – carved deep into the limestone reaching 14 metres high. With an eruption of noise, your ears are filled with operatic sounds and your eyes are mesmerised by a kaleidoscope of light projections all around the excavated walls. It’s a magical experience as you move through the 7,000 square metres of space – absorbed in the changing images and the rhythm of the music that is charged and emotional.
Before it became an art space, the quarry was known as the Carrieres Val d’Enfer or the ‘Valley of Hell Quarry’ thanks to its backdrop amid the craggy basin carved out by running water. The quarry was mined for stone to construct the buildings and medieval Chateau of neighbouring Baux de Provence – another worthy destination for touring historians.
Yet sadly, with the increasing economic competition from modern materials, the local quarries of the region were closed in 1935.
It was 24 years later that French filmmaker Jean Cocteau used the site and its surrounds in his film ‘The Testament of Orpheus’. However, it was the vision of Joseph Svoboda, a Czech artist and scenic designer, who imagined using the large wall spaces as a canvas for his light and sound projections. Fast-forward 30 years and the multimedia spectacles based on his original idea continue.
Each year a new projection is announced; encouraging visitors to return annually. When we visited the Carrieres de Lumieres in late 2014 we experienced ‘Klimt and Vienna: a Century of Gold and Colours’. The thousands of digitised images explored 100 years of Viennese painting including Gustav Klimt and his contemporaries. The 2015 – 2016 season, ‘Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael: Giants of the Renaissance’, commences in a few weeks on 6 March.
The Carrieres de Lumieres is open daily from 6 March 2015 – 3 January 2016.
Check the website for opening times and ticket prices. http://www.carrieres-lumieres.com