What has 40 kilometers of underground corridors, with orange walls, and used to grow mushrooms? If you guessed the ochre mines of Bruoux, you win!
The Luberon Valley in Provence is famous for its ochre. It was mined here for centuries and a walk through the brilliantly-colored quarries of Roussillon or Rustrel is like walking through a rainbow. At Bruoux, rather than carving out the side of a mountain, the miners dug straight in, creating tall corridors hundreds of meters long.
The Underground Wonders of Bruoux
Guided tours run throughout the day at Bruoux, which is near the town of Gargas, and they are fascinating. The tours are an hour long and as you walk along, the guide explains how ochre mining was done.
This was back in pick-and-shovel days, and ochre clay is dense, so the miners would go through five or six picks a day, replacing them when their points were dulled. You can still see the marks the picks made along the walls.
The ceilings are curved, to support the mountain’s weight above them, and the width is limited to a few meters to prevent a collapse. Side corridors are carved out to the sides, perpendicular to the main halls, making the mines a kind of huge underground gallery.
The taste of ochre!
Ochre clay gets its color from iron, and the guide explained that the concentration of iron in a vein had to be above a certain level to be profitable. But way back when, there was no sophisticated analytical equipment, so how did miners decide which veins to pursue? By tasting the clay! Iron has a distinctive flavor, and specialized tasters could identify which veins had enough (visitors are discouraged from licking the walls, however.)
Ochre was used as a dye, but eventually cheaper synthetics made ochre mining uneconomical. The Bruoux mines were abandoned, but then someone had the bright idea of using them for mushroom farming! For decades, millions of mushrooms were grown in the mines until that, too, became uneconomical.
Tour groups are limited to 30 people and it’s a popular family outing – my group had about a dozen kids in it. Reservations are required, as are hardhats (provided), and be sure to bring a jacket because it’s always 10 degrees in the mines.
Here’s a short video that will give you an idea of what the tour is like (in French):
Mines de Bruoux, Open 10am to 6pm daily” www.minesdebruoux.fr
Discover Roussillon, the ochre coloured village of Provence