Ochre jarsA brightly painted building nestling in yellow ochre cliffs and pine woods just outside Roussillon, the Conservatoire des ocres et de la couleur plunges you into a dazzling world of colour.

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This was once a factory where ochre pigment was produced at the height of the Luberon's ochre boom. Today it's much more than a heritage site: it's an art academy, research centre and industrial museum all rolled into one.

The Conservatoire des ocres et de la couleur is a friendly, informal place run by a non-profit-making co-operative, called, slightly pretentiously, ôkhra, after the Greek word for ochre.

The whole thing is powered by a tiny staff and a big support base of several hundred local member-investors and enthusiastic volunteers.

There's loads going on here all year round in terms of exhibitions, demonstrations, courses, workshops and research projects.

It makes for an excellent family outing, especially if your children like art, and is equally fascinating for anyone interested in social and industrial history. If you're exploring the ochre landscapes of the Luberon, it's a must-visit destination.

Conservatoire des ochres RoussillonInside, the main building is as colourful as its exterior, with displays on every wall and in every corner. As you enter the reception area, there's a little teaching area for kids, with books and toys.

Downstairs is a large shop selling more books (the huge and very good selection is mostly in French, unfortunately), brushes and a fantastic range of art material.

This includes, of course, shelves and shelves of pigments of every conceivable hue, which you can either buy loose or in a little wooden presentation box of six or twelve jars that would make a brilliant gift.

Also on the lower level is an exhibition area and spaces for classes and workshops.

And, in the grounds at the back of the building you can discover the former ochre processing plant (most of this circuit is outdoors, so try to visit when the weather is decent).

You can explore the Conservatoire on either a self-guided or a guided tour. The self-guided one would take 30-40 minutes and you're helped along the route by 15 detailed illustrated panels in English and French (leaflets are available translating the panels into other languages).

The accompanied tours (recommended) take 50-60 minutes, possibly more if you're guided by one of the volunteers, who are keen as mustard to talk about their heritage. These scheduled visits are mainly in French, but some guides speak other languages too and English tours can be pre-booked for groups.

THE CONSERVATOIRE TOUR

Back in the Golden Age of ochre in the Luberon, the Conservatoire building was the Usine Mathieu, or Mathieu Factory, named after Camille Mathieu, the former Mayor de Roussillon whose family owned it.

It operated as a working ochre factory between 1921 and 1963, when it closed down. It reopened as the Conservatoire in 1994. It's still sometimes known today as the Usine Mathieu (by a nice coincidence the present director is named Mathieu Barrois). Click here to read more about the history of ochre production in the Luberon.

The tour begins on the lower floor of the building with a series of displays about colour. As well as ochre, these look at other natural dyes important to the region, such as the garance (red madder-wort) used in les indiennes, the colourful traditional fabrics of Provence.

You then go outside to find out how the pigment was extracted from the raw sand - a process which, we were surprised to learn, takes a full year from start to finish.

Grounds of Conservatoire des ocres Roussillon

The Mathieu Factory had just ten full-time employees (plus casual workers at busy times), who would follow the ochre on its journey around the circuit. The tour retraces their steps.

The sandy rock from the quarries contained between 5% and 20% ochre. At the beginning of the annual cycle these rocks would be tipped into a giant mixer and crushed with a large volume of water.

The heavy sand sunk to the bottom and the water and ochre dust were pumped out along a long trough and left to dry in the sun over the summer.

 

 

Once solidified, the ochre would be milled and some of the yellow powder would be baked to turn it deep red-brown. Then, at the end of the year, the yellow and red pigments would be blended in different proportions to produce a wide spectrum of colours. This factory produced 1,000 tonnes / 1,100 US tons of ochre a year.

Ochre processing machinery RoussillonIt's poignant to see all the disused yet rather beautiful machinery (it all had to be brought in from elsewhere as the factory was an empty shell when the Conservatoire moved in).

Everything is thickly caked in coloured dust. Health and safety weren't big concerns back then, and the workers just wore handkerchiefs over their mouths to stop inhaling the powder.

Many developed silicosis and other fatal lung diseases. Élie Icard, a former ochre worker who was an advisor on the Conservatoire project, lived to a ripe old age only because, as the foreman, he didn't spend all day in the machinery rooms.

In one of the sheds, an installation by the artist Helga Brunner, with limp, multicoloured cloths, evokes the deadly effect of the dust on the workers' lungs (obviously, your own exposure on the tour is minimal).

ART COURSES AND WORKSHOPS

Throughout the year the Conservatoire offers over 40 courses on everything from trompe l'oeil frescos and mosaics to paper-making, vegetable dyes and early photography techniques using a camera obscura.

They are held in studios off the exhibition corridor and the open veranda, or even outdoors in summer. It's a simple but idyllic setting. Each course is led by a specialist, takes place once or twice a year and lasts between a day and two weeks.

They are in French, but check if the teacher speaks English; many do. It may be possible to arrange bespoke courses in English for larger groups. Enquiries to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

There are also shorter, two-hour workshops during the week for visitors of all ages from four upwards. These are available in a variety of languages, parents must accompany younger kids and you must reserve in advance.

Workshop at the Conservatoire des ocresIf you want to do something on a more casual basis, you can watch 20-minute demonstrations of various techniques at weekends and during school holidays.

At any time during your visit you're likely to come across people practising these on the walls of the outbuildings in the grounds.

We observed a small group, pictured, learning how to create trompe l'oeil brink and textured wall effects using nothing but pigment.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Where: The Conservatoire des Ocres et de la couleur, Usine Mathieu, 84220 Roussillon. Tel: (+33) 4 90 05 66 69 Website for the Conservatoire des ocres et de la couleur

The official regional website Vaucluse Tourism in Provence has more information on this and other attractions in the area.

 

How to get there:

By car: Take the D104 from Roussillon in the direction of Apt. The Conservatoire is on the right about 1.7 km / 1 mile out of the village. There's a small free car-park close to the Conservatoire but, as at many popular tourist destinations in Provence, non-local cars are vulnerable to break-ins, so do not leave valuables in your vehicle.

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By public transport: Like most villages in Provence, Roussillon is not easy to get to by public transport. The nearest train station is in Cavaillon, 27 km / 17 miles to the south-west.

From there, Roussillon and the Conservatoire are served by a single bus route, no.17 from Cavaillon via Coustellet and Gordes. Click here for the current timetable (look for the link marked "horaires des lignes", then choose the relevant timetable from the list).

The Conservatoire is open all year round except in early January. Opening times vary slightly, depending on the season: check the website for details. Children under ten are admitted free.

Insider tip for the Conservatoire des ocres RoussillonOthers can make savings if intending to visit both the Conservatoire and the Ochre Trail in Roussillon by buying a ticket couplé or combination ticket.

Stencils Conservatoire RoussillonAnd if you want to complete the ochre trail with trips to the Mines of Bruoux in Gargas (which is run by a subsidiary of ôkhra) and to the Musée de l'aventure Industrielle in Apt, you get a reduction to those venues too if you show your ticket couplé.

It also gets you a discount to a handful of other attractions in the region, including the Château de Lourmarin the Abbaye de Silvacane in La Roque d'Anthéron and the Fondation Vasarely in Aix en Provence, another superb destination for anyone interested in colour and art.

Pictured: a colourful board of stencils at the Conservatoire recalls the era when Luberon ochres were exported to faraway places, from Moscow and Oslo to Boston and Valparaiso.

Unlike the Ochre Path in Roussilon, most of the circuit at the Conservatoire is fully accessible for wheel- and push-chairs, apart from a very short stretch at the end (which you can see anyway from a raised viewing platform).

The Conservatoire sells drinks and ice-creams but no food, so bring your own if you want to eat there. There isn't a designated picnic area, but you will find plenty of spaces both inside and out to sit.

When this was a working factory, the trees in the area were all cleared to enable the ochre to dry out more quickly.

But the pines have since been allowed to grow back and there are now lots of nice, shady spots in the large 5 hectare / 12 acre grounds. Watch out for artefacts created and left behind by visiting artists in the woodlands as you wander around.

Photo credits (from top): © RWS for Marvellous Provence, Véronique Pagnier for Wikimedia Commons, Alain Hocquel for CDT Vaucluse, RWS for Marvellous Provence (two images), Alain Hocquel for CDT Vaucluse

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