I have a confession to make….. It’s been over 30 years since we first visited the area, and over 5 years since buying the house here, yet I hadn’t visited the incredible Mines de Bruoux, at nearby Gargas, until last week.
I can’t explain why I’ve never been, it’s been on the list of things we have wanted to do, but for one reason or another, I’ve never actually managed it. In fact even more bizarrely (considering all the cycling we do), we’ve not even cycled past it either, which seems incredible really.
But, last week, all that changed when the local Apt Tourist Office invited me to join a small group of other local Instagrammers, for a day out, taking in some beautiful locations and activities across the area. The invitation came out of the blue, and it felt like a real treat to be invited, especially when I saw what they had planned.
The weather too, clearly decided to play its part, and it proved to be the most perfect early November day, with azure-blue skies that made the autumn colours pop, making sure the Luberon looked at its best, as we pottered in a convoy, between the locations, wanting just to stop, simply to stand and stare at its beauty.
We spent the morning in the beautiful village of Lacoste, where we were hosted by Cedric Maros, director of SCAD (the Savannah College of Art and Design), which has its incredible campus there. I will write about this in a later post as it doesn’t feel right to shoehorn it in here, as it was such an eye-opening place, but suffice to say that it was the most fascinating morning, and made me wish I had found my creative side so much earlier in life.
Then we were treated to a delicious lunch in Kosy, a delightful little restaurant on the square in Bonnieux. It was wonderfully convivial, as we chatted over the meal, ending with a rather superb chestnut cake with vanilla ice cream, which was simply delicious.
Then after lunch, we formed our little convoy again and snaked our way down, through the vineyards, to Pont Julien & on to Gargas and the Mines De Bruoux, where we were taken on a tour of this incredible site.
Normally when Ochres are mentioned, Roussillon and Rustrel tend to leap to mind, with their open-cast mines that have left vibrant coloured cliffs and wonderful footpaths to be explored. They are, without doubt spectacular places, and are always enjoyable to visit, but the first sight of the size and scale of the Mines de Bruoux almost stopped me in my tracks.
These Mines at Gargas were opened in 1848, some 60 years after Jean Astier, based at nearby Roussillon, discovered how to separate and process the precious mineral. Once opened, production continued here for 100 years, and at its height in the late 1920s, 150 miners were employed on the site and 40,000 tonnes of ochre were processed. An incredible amount to have been taken from this hillside, removed in small wagons for processing.
Whereas the Ochres generally are in flowing, open quarries, here they are underground, accessed by vast openings that have been hewn out of a vertical, golden wall rising around 25 metres above ground level. These open ‘doorways’ give access to an underground mine system, which has over 40km of tunnels, some of which are 15m high, all created by hand over many decades, to remove the valuable ochres from the ground.
We donned our hard hats, received our briefing from our incredibly knowledgable guide, and headed off into the system to explore this subterranean world.
Before we entered the galleries, we learned that originally the site had been open-cast mined, in a similar way to Roussillon and Rustrel, with the hill and its ochres having been dug out for many metres, before it was decided to change operations to tunnelling into the hillside.
The walls of ochre outside still show the thousands of pick marks, created as the sands were dug out and taken for processing, with every strike leaving its mark on the hillside, for us to see all these years later. I can’t help but wonder if those hard-working miners ever considered that over 100 years later, their quarries, which must have been a particularly challenging place to work, would be a tourist attraction, with thousands of visitors marvelling at their efforts, and commenting on their work.
Once inside, even in November, the temperature drops, as the tunnel system is at a constant temperature of 10 degrees centigrade, and we all turned to catch a last look at the vibrant blue skies through the opening, before we headed into the hillside.
The tour took us through 650m of the galleries, which were all dug by hand, by miners from 14 years old, using nothing but pick-axes, and a very simple tunneling technique. Incredibly, the galleries are almost perfectly straight, and were chiseled out slowly but surely, thanks to the use of a simple plumb-line suspended from the ceiling with the miners working (one to the left of the line, another to the right) creating a tunnel, using the light that was cast on either side of the line as a guide.
It appeared that here, left-handed miners were incredibly sought after, with them even being paid more than their right-handed counterparts, as they could easily work on the left hand side of the plumb, creating these amazing golden tunnels we see today. I must admit that as a right-hander, I can’t imagine having to do anything left-handed, although I understand some miners re-trained themselves to work efficiently with their ‘wrong hand’ so they could benefit from the extra pay ….Andy on the other hand (literally) would have been very happy, as he often gets frustrated at the lack of provision made for left-handers, so would have happily taken the extra money available.
As we were taken further into the galleries, the sheer size and scale of the mines became more and more apparent. The central passage had other side-tunnels too, which led again to yet more routes that have been hewn through this ochre-laden hill, and it soon became very easy to see how there could be 40kms of underground burrows opened up here.
We started in tunnels that had been built by one family, which in fact, ran parallel to a totally different network that had belonged to another family. Each team were working very close to each-other and there was evidence of very early industrial espionage taking place, where an alcove had been built into the rock adjacent to the neighbouring excavations. It was said by an old miner, that this was used as a listening post, so that they could hear how far their neighbours were managing to tunnel, which sounds wonderful, but I also wondered whether it may have been a little niche to hold a statue of Saint Barbara, the Patron Saint of Miners, who must have been very dear to the hearts of all those working in this place.
The route we took was not only quite remarkable in its size and scale, but also quite beautiful too. At one point the floor of a side-tunnel sits below the water table and it has become a clear, still pool, undisturbed by even the lightest of breezes. In fact you only really become aware of it, when a stone is thrown in, creating ripples that reflect and bounce off the ochre walls, giving a light display that wouldn’t look out of place in the Carrieres de Lumieres at Les Baux.
This hive of industry stopped production in the 1940s, when ochre stopped being as widely prized as it had been, facing stiff competition from newly developed, and much cheaper colourants. Until this time it had been widely used as a way of adding colour to paints, cements, and proved a crucial element used in the early production of rubber too, but the new technology took over and the demand for Ochre started to wane.
Once ochre production had stopped here, the tunnels were put to different uses, at one time being used as a mushroom farm, the darkness, humidity and constant temperature providing the perfect conditions for them to be grown on a truly industrial scale. But in 2009 the Mines were re-opened as a cultural site and have been maintained as such since.
The impact the mining had on our local landscape though was quite startling, with the waves of colour becoming synonymous with this little corner of Provence. As we emerged from the tunnels into a hidden valley, we found ourselves screwing our eyes up against the bright afternoon sun, and were able to enjoy another result of the mining process, which had seen the sandy hillsides planted with Pine Trees.
In previous centuries, not only had the wind eroded the valuable hillsides, but the silica-based sands that had been blown on the Mistral and other Provencal winds, had been linked with chest-infections and lung diseases as far away as Aix. The planting of the Pines, which had been specially selected for their wide, shallow root-base, helped reduce the impact of the wind damage, on both the landscape and local people.
Now these Pines seem a natural part of the landscape, standing high above the Holm Oaks and other trees, still doing their job of stabilising the sandy hills. They have grown now to provide much-needed, cooling shade in the summer, and are always filled with the screaming of Cicadas, which seem to love these trees more than any others.
Although wide-scale Ochre production has finished here, there is still one mine in operation, owned by the Societe Des Ocres, which opened in 1901, which is now the only working Ochre mine in Europe. Based just behind the Mines de Bruoux, it produces approximately 800 tonnes each year, which are used as pigments for paints and building products, and are sold from its base in Apt.
It was the most fascinating place to visit, and I was almost sad to have to move on to our next activity, but as it was a late-afternoon Horse Drawn Carriage ride through the surrounding area, I was rather excited, especially when we met the team, waiting for us just outside the entrance….
It turned out to be the perfect end to a rather wonderful day…..But that is for next time…
If you would like to explore the Mines de Bruoux, it is closed now for the winter, but will open again in mid March 2022 and more information can be found on their Website