I went to the Fondation Blachere this weekend while I was in Apt because a friend had told me it was an interesting place, showing African art and objets.
It's actually just outside Apt, in an unprepossessing zone industrielle, and when you get there you wonder if the most you can do there is buy taps or gravel.
But inside it's really quite interesting. Blachere is a guy who owns a French lighting business. For some reason that wasn't immediately clear to me he got interested in African art and started this small gallery-cum-shop&bookshop-cum-restaurant in Provence.
The gallery this month (May 2010) was showing lively and very colourful 'naive' works depicting the history of Africa in a darkened space. Slavery, cannibalism, mineral exploitation, independence, black beauty and black talent were all presented in an attractive exhibition. The bookshop was well stocked with books on contemporary African art, classic works of literature, folk tales and works on the troubled history and politics of the continent.
The restaurant is run by a lovely woman, whose name I have forgotten but who was charming and welcoming. The Fondation Blachere is an unexpected and interesting experience in the Luberon.
Leaving the place, I went home via Roussillon and stopped off at the Conservatoire des Ochres. Now, I confess I have never been enamoured of Roussillon because whenever I've passed the place it's been absolutely heaving with tourists to the point where you can't put a foot on the ground without stepping on someone's toes. But this time I stopped at the Conservatoire and was astonished to find it was peaceful and it was possible to wonder around the old ochre factory - still with its machinery in place - completely undisturbed.
What a wonderful place. There's a bookshop and exhibition on everything to do with colour and use of colour down the ages in Europe. But, more interesting, you can meander through the many rooms of the old factory or usine and see the work and the processes that were carried out in Roussillon for decades, using the ochres that were mined, separated from sand and turned into paints and dyes for domestic and industrial use.
The exhibition rooms are typical relaxed Provence - showcases and explanations that you can explore quietly, on your own - products you can pick up and touch, pots of colour and brushes you can work with and samples of paint you can take away with you.
The Conservatoire is dedicated to preserving the trade and skills of those who worked in the ochres and experts provide training courses in plastering, painting, decor and use of colour all year round. There are courses on materials that are ecologically sound as well as attractive and most courses seem to cost around 170 euros a day.
But even if you wouldn't take a course here in a month of blue moons, this is definitely a place worth visiting while you're on holiday - it's bursting with natural history, industrial history, art history and the history of Provence. And it's a reminder, in a hi-tech world, that we humans used to look at the natural world around us and make interesting and useful products from what we saw.
Provence Style: The Art of Home Decoration
The Magic of Provence: Pleasures of Southern France