Take the Route Napoléon north from Nice and, before you know it, you’re in the mountains, with every farmer wanting to sell you honey, garlic and lavender. A two-and-a-half-hour drive from the coast brings you to Digne-les-Bains, a town once known for its spas, but now more interested in establishing its credentials as a centre for contemporary art. More specifically, land art: art you have to put on your walking boots to find. And the British artist Andy Goldsworthy is its undisputed star.
An exhibition of his work in Digne’s Musée Gassendi, more than a decade ago, brought the artist to the town for the first time, and prompted a long-running project entitled “Refuges d’Art”. Today, the remote region of Haute-Provence is home to more Goldsworthy art than anywhere else in the world.
First came three “Sentinelles” – think 8ft dry-stone pine cones – to mark the entry points to three valleys within the protected territory of the Réserve Géologique de Haute-Provence. Then Goldsworthy had the idea of linking them into an elliptical trail. Along this route – 90 miles in length, but easy to explore in chunks – the artist has restored abandoned farmhouses, chapels and other ruins, installing in each of them a work of art. So far, he has completed six of these “Refuges d’Art” and there are three more in the pipeline. For Goldsworthy they are one piece of art with many parts. The region has become his refuge, his art has found a home – and should we require an excuse to go walking in the mountains, he has provided that as well.
As Goldsworthy adds pieces to his jigsaw, the Musée Gassendi, which oversees the project, is working with the Réserve Géologique and Digne’s Office de Tourisme to publicise the art. Its website has long provided background on the refuges, and somewhat sketchy directions for finding them, but it is now training guides and building an interactive, multilingual website with a lot more practical information to make it easier for visitors to enjoy the works.
Interest in the project is growing beyond art circles – and beyond France. After a trial run last year, the London-based company Adventures in the Alps, which specialises in outdoor holidays, has begun offering six-day guided walks for small groups connecting the refuges. The first of these was in July; there’ll be another next month – and the company is happy to arrange bespoke trips as well.
And it’s not just about visiting the refuges to look at the sculptures. In three of them you can stay the night. It’s not luxurious – you roll out a sleeping bag on a wooden bench or bunk, and there are (brilliant) outdoor, dry-compost loos – but Adventures in the Alps provides catering and all the necessary equipment to add comfort to your stay. For the nights not spent in a refuge, guests stay in attractive auberges or small hotels.
I arrived in Digne earlier this month, and upstairs at the museum found myself face to face with Goldsworthy’s “River of Earth”, a river etched in a wall of mud. Originally created as a backdrop to a piece of modern dance, it was what got Goldsworthy started in the region. I watched him talk on film about his love of rivers. Unlike a road, a river “takes you in”, he says. It’s where you begin to get a grip on life, death, decay – the flow of existence. “I like to feel I can find the river in the stone,” he continues. And immediately you see why Haute-Provence, with its extraordinary geology, its mountains lifted and twisted, washed and worn down by water, appeals to him so much.
That afternoon I met my guide Pip Line, and her friend Peter Butler, who would help with the logistics of our walk. We stocked up with bread, cheese, tomatoes, olives, wine and saucisson studded with hazelnuts – little extras for our night in a refuge and a picnic the next day. Pip had shopped for the linguine with peppers, courgettes and smoked salmon she planned to cook that night. Then we were off to the hamlet of Abros, where we would leave the car and follow the ancient, twisting beechwood path up the Vallée du Vançon to Goldsworthy’s latest creation, La Forest.
I’d deliberately not looked at photographs and wasn’t sure what to expect. The place was new to Pip and Peter too. We tiptoed in, turned right into a space that must have been a chapel and fell silent. On the far wall, a vertical, elongated-egg shaped hole in the wall glows quietly in the darkness, lit by a concealed skylight behind it. One of Goldsworthy’s aims in reviving these buildings is to restore continuity with the past – and here there are ghosts, for sure. Outside, there’s a rusted crucifix above a grave: Raymonde Auguste, we noted, had died 101 years ago to the day.
At La Forest, Goldsworthy has reversed an idea he used in 2002 for his first refuge, Chapelle Sainte-Madeleine, which we visited the next day. There, the room is lit by a skylight, while the hollow behind the egg is dark. If it lacks the mystery and downright spookiness of La Forest, Chapelle Sainte-Madeleine gives shape to the word “refuge”: this is a place to catch your breath, reflect; a place where you feel protected.
As Goldsworthy nudges Refuges d’Art forward, he sometimes adds to pieces he created earlier. That’s the case at Col de l’Escuichière. Having completed one room in 2004, he has recently added another. Its stone walls are almost black, and one of them sports a large white cross, in the manner of the Scottish flag. It looks like Goldsworthy has chalked it on. Step closer, however, and you realise your mistake: the white lines are deposits of calcite, occurring naturally in the limestone. The artist has painstakingly located the stones, lined them up and, as he puts it, “used geology to draw”. What’s even more amazing is that, at the centre of the cross, the two lines of calcite intersect in a single piece of rock.
My first and last night were spent in refuges; the second at La Bannette, an auberge near the village of Thoard, run by la famille Wisner. As we sat on the terrace beneath an ancient plum tree, Madame brought kirs, followed by one delicious dish after another: slices of pissaladière, stuffed peppers, veal stew, soupe de melon with peaches and a lethal homemade cognac. For breakfast, there was café au lait in bowls, and fresh-pressed pear juice, pancakes, and homemade bread and jams. Her husband armed us with a picnic as we departed.
On the final day, after a steep scramble to the ridge top, we descended through oak woods, crossed meadows alive with butterflies, and climbed once more, past grazing Charolais cattle, to arrive at Le Vieil Esclangon. The refuge sits beneath spectacular purply-pink and yellow crags – “Altogether too garish!” declared Peter. Inside the house, a sculpted ribbon of red clay meanders up the wall, echoing the colour and shape of the path outside. A shaft of late-afternoon sunlight lit up the cracks in its once-smooth surface, but as I’d learnt, cracks don’t matter to Goldsworthy. They’re part of the cycle of life, death and decay.
As darkness fell, we sat outside, counting stars and sipping a fine Rhône red, having polished off a risotto flavoured with aromatic savory we found beside the path. Around midnight, the moon must have made it up over those garish crags – a spectacular sight, no doubt. It was a shame that none of us could stay awake to witness it.
More walks of art: Sculptured landscapes
Südtirol Sculpture Path, Lana, Italy
Thirty sculptures by international artists decorate a five-mile walk around Lana, in the autonomous Südtirol region of northern Italy. The path navigates differing landscapes, from a wooded river gorge to an industrial area, which are reflected by the artworks that range from chainsaw-cut porphyry to dramatic tangles of straight steel rods. www.lana-art.it
Kielder Forest Park, Northumberland, UK
Since 1995 sculptures have been appearing in the forest surrounding Kielder Water, Europe’s biggest man-made lake. There are now more than 20 pieces, set across an area of 16 sq miles, some of which blur the line between sculpture and architecture. The Belvedere is a shelter built in stainless steel to reflect the changing light and forest scenery; the Skyspace is a circular stone building with a central oculus for viewing the clouds above. www.kielderartandarchitecture.com
Sculpture by the Sea, Sydney, Australia
Now in its 16th year, the annual Sculpture by the Sea event sees a temporary mile-and-a-half-long sculpture trail set up between Bondi and Tamarama beaches in Sydney. One hundred pieces from Australian and international artists are displayed on the beaches and clifftop parkland. Previous exhibits have included a vast tap that appeared to fill the ocean and a whitewashed house built into a cleft in the cliffs. This year’s event runs from October 18 to November 4. www.sculpturebythesea.com
Storm King, New York, US
A sculpture park rather than a trail, Storm King nevertheless provides ample scope for long walks interspersed with artistic contemplation. The park covers 500 acres in the lower Hudson Valley, an hour’s drive north of New York City. More than 100 works are on display, including a sinuous dry-stone wall by Andy Goldsworthy. www.stormkingartcenter.org
Waiheke Island, New Zealand
A 35-minute ferry ride from Auckland, Waiheke Island is a popular escape from the city. Every two years it hosts Headland Sculpture on the Gulf, an exhibition of 30 new large-scale works set along a mile-and-a-half-long coastal walkway. From January 25 to February 17 2013. www.sculptureonthegulf.co.nz
Jane Ure-Smith was a guest of Adventures in the Alps, which offers a week’s Andy Goldsworthy walking tour from £849.