One of the most unusual attractions in Luberon's ochre country is a tour of the Bruoux Mines, in Gargas, a disused underground quarry converted into an imposing cathedral of colour.
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A THUMBNAIL HISTORY
It's still something of a mystery why later geological changes should have left these pigments in the Luberon and not elsewhere in Provence, such as in the Gorges du Verdon, which were also submerged in water.
However it is known that ochre was first used as a pigment in 1785 by Jean-Étienne Astier, in the nearby village of Roussillon. Mining on a small scale began in Gargas in 1845, using farm implements and donkeys to transport the ochre to Marseille.
When the railway arrived in the area in 1877, the industry took off. By 1929 over 40,000 metric tonnes / 44,100 US tons of ochre were being extracted a year in the region's hundred-plus underground mines and open-air quarries.
Most of it was exported to the four corners of the globe to be used for everything from painting houses to colouring latex.
The Depression, the Second World War and the invention of alternative, synthetic colourants dealt the industry a near-fatal blow and Bruoux closed down in 1950.
Today a single working ochre quarry remains in France, also in Gargas (you can visit this nearby, open-air facility by prior arrangement with the local town hall).
Bruoux' humid, dark conditions proved ideal for growing mushrooms (not in the sand, of course, but in bags of horse manure). This was done until 2007 until finally competition from Northern Europe put an end to that activity too.
But it still wasn't over for Bruoux even then. The mines got a third lease of life when the municipality bought them in 2007 and they opened to the public two years later as a tourist attraction.
THE GUIDED TOUR
They're super safety-conscious at the Mines of Bruoux. Before starting the tour you fill out a short form with your name, gender, age and nationality (for quick reference in case of emergency) and get a numbered tag to wear round your neck as well as an elasticated cap to cover your hair and a hard hat to wear over that.
The gates to the mines, set in the brilliant orange rock face pictured above, remain locked to stop people wandering in.
Your guide telephones ahead to announce the group's entrance and exit (it goes without saying that all mine visits must be accompanied). It adds a delightful mild thrill of adventure to the experience.
Having said this, there's nothing at all dangerous or physically demanding about the tour. If you had visions of plunging down mine shafts and crawling through low, narrow tunnels on your hands and knees, think again.
The "mines" are carved into the hillside: you don't descend significantly to enter them. Up to 15 metres / 49 feet high, the soaring, vaulted chambers inside are more like the nave of a cathedral.
In fact we're told that, at the beginning of the last century, newly-wed couples would go on a ceremonial walk there to celebrate their marriage.
The tunnels are also very long and straight (plumb-lines, or plumb-bobs, were used to guide the excavations, as a compass wouldn't work inside the mine).
The entire circuit is about 1,200 metres / 1,300 yards and easy to walk along; it's also totally wheel- and push-chair accessible. It takes around 50 minutes.
The atmosphere is too damp for the dust to be an issue, either for you or for the original miners who, unlike their unluckier comrades over at the Mathieu ochre factory in Roussillon, did not suffer from fatal respiratory diseases.
But there are good reasons for all the safety precautions. The tour covers just a tiny portion of the network, which comprises over 40 km / 25 miles of galleries. It would be easy to get lost if you became separated from the group.
The visit is open to children (those under six get in free) and kids would find it highly enjoyable, but you will need to keep a close eye on them.
To discourage people from lingering or wandering off, photography is not allowed and in any case the light levels are too low for most cameras to do the brooding galleries any kind of justice.
Pigeons flutter around as you pass through (there are bats and foxes too in the mine, apparently, but they keep a low profile). Voices echo, a little eerily.
The acoustics are impressive, though the galleries can't be used for concerts, again for safety reasons. However there's a little open-air performance space in front of the entrance which hosts shows in summer.
At first farm workers carved out the tunnels in rough and ready fashion, but it soon became clear that experienced miners were needed. They used a sophisticated technique to create the tunnels, which your guide will explain to you with a fund of anecdotes.
A worker could get through as many as seven pickaxes a day (the broken axes didn't go to waste: the metal was melted down and recycled), and left-handed miners were paid extra for their relative rarity value.
There was a bit of a gold rush on at the height of the ochre boom and you may be taken into the tunnel of a neighbouring, rival mine or shown little "listening niches" carved in the wall, where miners eavesdropped on their competitors to make sure they stayed ahead of the race. Pictured: a group of old-timers from the early days.
You'll enjoy the visit most if you like hearing these intriguing stories: the galleries themselves are certainly imposing but they don't vary hugely in the course of the circuit.
There's only one English-language tour a day. If the timing doesn't suit you, you can borrow an iPod (free) with an English commentary at the reception area and tag along with one of the other tours in French, German or Dutch.
The elaborate security measures and the fact that groups are limited to 25 mean that this visit is a bit on the pricey side but it's possible to keep down the cost with a family ticket: check the Mines de Bruoux website for current prices.
If you have already purchased a discount ticket couplé (combination ticket) to visit the Conservatoire des ocres et de la couleur and the Ochre Trail in Roussillon you can also get a reduction at the Mines by presenting it there.
It can be cool inside the galleries (about 10 degrees Celsius / 50 degrees Fahrenheit), so bring a light sweater - or buy a branded Bruoux fleece at the reception, to wear on the tour and keep as a souvenir.
The little shop also sells children's colouring books and other gifts, snacks and drinks and there's space outside, dotted with pines, if you want to bring your own picnic.
Where: Mines of Bruoux, route de Croagnes, 84400 Gargas. Tel: (+33) 4 90 06 22 59. Website for the Mines of Bruoux
The official regional website Vaucluse Tourism in Provence includes information on the Mines of Bruoux and other attractions in the area.
How to get there:
By bus: Take bus no. 15 (Avignon-Apt) and get out at Le Chêne (the last stop before Apt). The mines are 4.3 km / 2.5 miles from this bus-stop.
By car or bicycle: The Mines of Bruoux are 7 km / 4.5 miles east of Roussillon, 5 km / 3 miles north-west of Apt and 52 km / 52 miles south-east of Avignon.
There's a small parking area at the mines, but be mindful that cars at many tourist sights in Provence are vulnerable to break-ins and do not leave valuables in your vehicle.
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Photo credits (from top): © Alain Hocquel for CDT Vaucluse (two images), Arcano (two images).