Marble used to be a way of life in the village of Caunes-Minervois, until not that long ago. The marble quarries at Caunes were first exploited in Roman times, and have been in use more or less ever since. Until the mechanisation of the extraction and finishing, many of the inhabitants of the village were involved with marble in one way or another, be it physically working in the quarries, producing or repairing tools, or laboriously polishing the marble by hand. The polishing was usually done by women and children, whose lives were often cut short by the side effects of inhaling the marble dust.
In the middle ages the quarries were owned by the powerful Benedictine abbey in Caunes. After the French revolution, ownership of the quarries passed to the state. Today the Terralbes quarry is exploited by one of the companies who exploit the quarries at Carrara in Italy, with most of the post-extraction processing carried out in Italy. Over the centuries, the marble from Caunes-Minervois has been used to decorate such illustrious buildings as the Louvre in Paris, the Grand Trianon in Versailles, the Opera house in Paris and St Peter’s in Rome, to name but a few. Its distinctive red colour can be found in many private houses in the village too!
Caunes-Minervois celebrates its heritage each year with a Fete de la sculpture et du marbre, a two-day event in June. The guided visits of the marble quarries are fascinating, for their historic and geological insights.
From Caunes, the little train took us up into the hills behind the village, and to the entrance of the quarries. There our group split into two, with one half (including myself) going to visit the Terralbes quarry, and the other half going off to see the historic “Carriere du Roy”.
The Terralbes quarry, which is still being exploited, is impressive – if only for the sheer size of it! If you want to find out more about marble itself, have a look at this article about marble, on Wikipedia.
Modern extraction methods mean that very few workers are required to get the huge blocks of marble cut. To start with, holes are drilled into the rock vertically, and then a steel cable, which is studded with diamond cutters at intervals, is used to cut around the blocks.
Once all the cuts are made, the blocks are dropped; we didn’t see this done, but below you’ll find a video of it, which is pretty spectacular! (Note: e-mail subscribers please visit the website to watch the video) The reason the blocks are dropped rather than lifted, is that any faults within the stone will make it crack and break, rather than appear later during the processing and finishing. Generally only perfect blocks are sold, so there is a large amount of waste.
The broken marble is however not altogether wasted. Twice a year a stone crushing machine is brought on-site, and the waste is transformed into marble chippings, which can be used as hardcore and building material.
The historic “Carriere du Roy” is on the other side of the hill from the Terralbes quarry, and I had some spectacular views of the valley of the Cros stream on the way there.
The sheer drops and steep sides make this valley an ideal spot for rock climbing, and I observed several climbers on the opposite side.
The “Carriere du Roy” was a quarry specially set aside by King Louis XIV in 1700 for his own use. Exploitation at this quarry ceased some time ago, probably during the first half of the 20th century, and today the quarry is a protected heritage site. Our guide explained how columns were quarried in the old days, with the stone masons cutting most of the column in situ, then lifting it from the stone by using wooden wedges, which would be soaked and by swelling would lift the stone clear of the support. There was always a danger that the column might break during the process, and one such example is still there for us to see today.
Where the marble is directly exposed to the elements, it will eventually change colour, and age to the point of not really being recognizable as marble to the untrained eye. The “Carriere du Roy” is on a marked walk which you can find on the IGN map at http://www.geoportail.gouv.fr/accueil. If you find yourself in Caunes and have the time, I would suggest you try the walk, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!
Back in the village there were many distractions, including food and entertainment.
In the abbey church there are some beautiful examples of red marble and the Abbey itself is well worth a visit.
So, mark your diary, and look out for an update on http://www.lesmarbrieresdecaunes.fr/ for dates of any future events in Caunes-Minervois.