By Thibault Paquin, Celebrating Life
In France, Provence is showing a new face with two new inspiring attractions. I took advantage of a beautiful summer day on the Côte d’Azur to visit two new attractions everybody is talking about: Rocher Mistral and Luma Arles. The two are located in Provence, a region they both celebrate in different ways.
I started with Rocher Mistral, a cultural theme park inspired by Puy du Fou. This is built around a castle, La Barben, that dates back to the 13th century. The 30 million euro project just opened in June 2021. It is home to a mix of walk-through attractions, video mapping and live theatre.
After my morning immersed in the rich history of Provence, I spent my afternoon in what might become the new face of Provence, the much-anticipated Frank Gehry-designed Luma Arles. This ambitious 175 million euro project is the apotheosis of the remarkable work done by Maja Hoffman to renovate the city of Arles and put it on the world map of arts.
I thought I would share with you some of my impressions and draw a little comparison between these two attractions. They may seem very different at first but might, in fact, have a lot in common.
Luma Arles & Rocher Mistral both open despite challenges
The first thing that comes to mind is the same level of determination to open in time for the summer season, despite the many delays and difficulties caused by the pandemic. Both attractions said they would open in June this year and they did.
In view of the excellent performance of some attractions during the summer of 2020 due to the increase in domestic tourism, it was probably the right thing to do. Rocher Mistral was not as busy as I thought it would be when I visited in the morning. However, Luma Arles and its park were heaving in the afternoon.
Second, I find it interesting that both attractions take from very successful and proven propositions. These are Puy du Fou, in the case of Rocher Mistral, and Frank Gehry architecture, in the case of Luma Arles. Frank Gehry’s style has shown its appeal for museums around the globe, with examples such as Fondation Louis Vuitton and Guggenheim Bilbao to name a few.
One more thing that brings them together is that both projects are led by unapologetic entrepreneurs. These people may have made a few enemies along the way. But they have also achieved what many thought to be impossible.
Celebrating the region and its culture
Maja Hoffman is an art collector, documentary producer and heir of the Hoffman-La Roche pharmaceutical empire. She was born in the French Camargues region and is dedicated to bringing the city of Arles back to its former glory as the little Rome of France.
Since 2008, she has been buying and renovating hotels, alongside a Michelin-star restaurant and a clinic. She also made a deal with the mayor for the site where she built Luma Arles. However, some local residents fear she is buying up the city and its people, and bringing unwanted intelligentsia to this former communist stronghold.
Meanwhile, Vianney d’Alençon, a 35-year old Catholic entrepreneur, is on a mission to celebrate with pride the heritage of a castle, a region and a religion that played an important role in the history of France.
In less than 18 months and following the success of another castle he took over in 2016, he renovated the castle La Barben, which was falling into decrepitude. He gathered 650 volunteers and produced seven shows (some of which he wrote himself) using some of the latest technologies.
A sense of purpose
I am convinced it is the same sense of purpose driving these two visionaries and strongly anchored in the local heritage of Provence that makes these attractions so unique and relevant for audiences increasingly in the search for meaning. It is exciting for a region like Provence to count two very inspiring attractions, both equipped for the visitors of tomorrow.
Luma Arles wants to attract 500,000 visitors a year while Rocher Mistral is aiming for 300,000. But their audiences will be very different. It was already the case when I visited.
At Rocher Mistral, I was surrounded by groups of retirees, families with bigger kids visiting the area and a few local families. At Luma Arles, it felt like I was in Paris for the opening of a blockbuster exhibition. There were art lovers and curious people of all ages, and the audience was quite international.
Let me share with you a few highlights of my visits.
Starting with Rocher Mistral, I was impressed with the two walk-through attractions. These are La Révolte des Cascavèu and Forbin, Le Chevalier de la Royale. They made great use of technology and special effects (water, video mapping, binaural sound, LED screens, animatronics, artificial smell) within the old rooms of the castle to tell truly immersive stories.
The live theatre play inspired by the work of Marcel Pagnol was very well acted. It was also cleverly integrated into the outdoor dining area. This means guests feel as if they were on a small village square watching a little funny scene.
On the downside, the visitor flow needs more work, with more back-of-the-house for the cast, to keep the magic alive.
At Luma Arles, I was impressed with the quality of the F&B offering. This seemed well priced and well appreciated by the visitors. The park was also very pleasant, with well-executed pathways, signage and landscape.
With the tower and three additional galleries in the park, the site can present several exhibitions at the same time. This makes it a good half-day experience. For those who like contemporary art, the current exhibitions – Pierre Huyghe’s After UUmwelt and Prelude, a group show presenting the works of Sophia Al Maria, Kapwani Kiwanga, P.Staff, and Jakob Kudsk Steensen – are a treat.
Rocher Mistral is located near Salon-de-Provence. A ticket costs €28 on the door or €25 online. Luma Arles is located in the former railway yard of Arles. Access to the tower and the park is free but you will need to book online before visiting. Whether you just pick one or splurge with both, get ready for a truly transformative experience. In Vianney d’Alançon’s words, it is “Provence like you’ve never seen it”.