I am part of a larger-than-life Impressionist painting. Beneath my feet is a carpet of soft lilacs and sunshine yellow cornflowers and on all sides I am surrounded by water lilies in brilliant hues of purple and pink. The evocative, haunting strains of music by Debussy envelop me from all sides. Images swirl all around me and overwhelm me—it’s one of those magical ‘once in a lifetime’ moments when the sheer beauty of my surroundings brings tears to my eyes. I am standing below the windswept village of Les Baux de Provence, near Avignon in Southern France, perched on a massive promontory. It once commanded the surrounding flatlands with its dramatic geography. Today it’s just a vast ruin of mighty bastions, broken windows and dangerous staircases, looking down at a patchwork tapestry of wheat fields, cypresses, olive groves and vines.
In the Middle Ages, Les Baux was home to ruthless feudal lords who controlled most of the villages in this area. Later it was abandoned for many years. It was in 1998 that this abandoned village was promoted to the elite category of ‘The Most Beautiful Villages of France’. Here, red rock rich in aluminum was first discovered and named ‘bauxite’ after the the village. The quarries were excavated and later abandoned. In 1959, legendary film director Jean Cocteau saw its possibilities as an art venue and filmed the final part of his Orpheus Trilogy within the abandoned quarries. In 1977, the editor of Le Parisien started the project ‘Cathedral of Images’ here.
An old quarry with 66-foot-high stone walls is today the venue of an extraordinary son et lumiere show named the Carrieres de Lumieres, covering the high-ceilinged, 4,000 sq m space with a kaleidoscopic riot of colour and art.
Each year, a new production is shown here. The current show is called Monet, Renoir...Chagall: Journeys Around the Mediterranean. It takes place in a gargantuan space named the Dante Room that has huge columns left behind by quarry workers to hold up the “roof”. These act like projection screens. From the bright white light of the Provencal countryside, I enter the cavernous space, and as my eyes get used to the darkness, I suddenly find myself submerged in light, art, and music in an extraordinary audio-visual experience that draws carpets of images on the cavernous, chalky walls of the quarry. I am dazzled by the works of Monet, Renoir, Matisse, Bonnard and Chagall, set to the music of Debussy, Ravel and Luca among others. I am enchanted by the flowers, figures and landscapes that I see projected on blocks of the quarry followed by a modern presentation of high rise buildings and underwater scenes. This is a cutting-edge show that exploits modern technology to the hilt: it uses 70 projectors with fibre optic cables. Two million euros have been invested in making it, and Gianfranco Iannuzzi, the brilliant son et lumiere magician, creates an atmosphere that is remarkable. Projectors casting vivid, ever-changing images on 6,000 sqm of wall, ceilings and floors make it an extraordinary visual feast. I watch as the walls come alive with images of a woman with a parasol, vast fields of wildflowers, and let the waves of music and colour wash all over me. I am part of the picture which is three-dimensional and dynamic. There is no seating space, so I keep moving around; sometimes huddling behind a rock for warmth, sometimes standing in the middle of the room and watching the changing landscapes from different vantage points, giving me different perspectives. Some images explode on the ceiling, some crawl on the floor, and others flash onto small niches in the rock. The audience cast their reflections on the pillars giving it another interesting dimension. Lost in impressionism and fauvism masterpieces, I dance with Parisians from the 19th century accompanied by stirring classical music. I walk through vast sunflower fields. I prance under a starry night and even race down modern blocks of
skyscrapers. When leaving the darkened gallery, my guide walks me through a portion of the quarry that has been left virtually unchanged with its raw stone finish. It helps me see what inspired the early artists to use this venue.
I recover from the altered state of consciousness with a gourmet meal at La Cabro D’Or, in the Relaix and Chateau hotel with a Michelin star restaurant. The name is derived from a local legend of a golden goat that is seen on a nearby hilltop, at the edge of a spring or just vanishing behind a tree. It is said that if you catch the animal, it would lead you to hidden treasure. Les Baux de Provence, I had already found it in the cinematic glory of imagination.