I am a figure on a Monet canvas, my world exists at the whim of the Master’s brush.
Beneath my feet an ocean of oil colours swirl and foam in pale lilacs and cornflower blues, shifting with tidal sways, the painted waves lapping at my feet. To my right a woman walks through a field of golden grasses, her parasol spilling its green light onto her throat while the breeze catches her pale blue scarf and swirls it in a waltz behind her. To my left lie the water lilies, their violet and sapphire hues flooding the room as the walls, floor and ceiling rush in a tide of brush strokes and crescendo to the sound of Debussy’s Clair de Lune.
I feel a sense of overwhelming joy and my eyes fill with tears as the unbearable beauty of my surroundings engulfs me.
On a hill top vantage point below which lies the town of Arles and the white horses, flamingoes and small black bulls of the Camargue, stands the picturesque village of Les Baux de Provence. Once the seat of power of the Baux family dynasty, the village’s once proud fortress was built from limestone extracted from quarries at the foothills of the village and today stands in magnificent ruins above the plateau. From its crumbling walls, streets run down the hillside like rivulets of gold; the pale faces of 16th and 17th houses and churches burnishing in the sunset.
Winding up to Les Baux, our first glimpse of the famous Carrières du Val L’Enfer took us aback. Pale pumice peaks warped against a vivid blue sky like ghosts from a Dalí canvas commissioned by the Gods. Quarried for thousands of years, the limestone rocks were used by the Romans to construct the town of Arles just 15km away and to rebuild the town of Glanum whose ruins lie outside St Remy de Provence a few kilometres north of the village.
With the discovery of a red rock rich in aluminium and named bauxite after the area, the quarry workings were extensive and continued up until 1935, creating colossal rock vaults stretching deep into the hillside in a series of chambers, said to have been the inspiration for Dante’s Divine Comedy. In 1959 the film director Jean Cocteau set the final part of his Orpheus Trilogy within them and in 1977 Albert Plécy, editor of Le Parisien, opened the Cathedral of Images in which he projected images of the world’s greatest art onto the quarry walls accompanied by state of the art surround sound.
Today that concept has been taken to even greater levels by Culturespaces who use 70 video projectors to turn 7000 square metres of stone walls, floor and ceiling into a canvas and to surround it with 3D sound. Overlapping and interlacing walls give the vaults a three dimensional quality which allows different projections to sit side by side and to interact with one another.
Despite seeing images from the Lumières before going, nothing could have prepared me for the moment when I opened the door to step inside an Impressionist canvas. For 45 minutes I was totally immersed in an ethereal world of beauty created by Monet, Renoir, Matisse, Bonnard and Chagall, set to the music of Debussy, Ravel, Luca Longobardi and Gershwin. It was one of the most emotive and simply sublime travel experiences I have ever had.
Carrières de Lumières, Route de Maillane, Les Baux-de-Provence; open every day 9.30am-7pm summer, 10am-6pm winter; admission €9.50; children (7-17yrs), unemployed, teachers & students €7.50; you can buy a dual ticket to also visit the Château des Baux-de-Provence for €16/€12.50 respectively. The show takes around 45 minutes and is on a continual loop so you can arrive any time. The temperature within the quarry is considerably cooler than outside in spring and summer so wear something warm.
Monet, Renoir… Chagall – Journeys Around The Mediterranean runs until 5th January 2014. Summer 2014 will feature Klimt and The Viennese Artists – A Century of Gold and Colours.
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is a freelance travel writer and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites. Published in The Telegraph, The Independent, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine, you can read her latest content on Google+