Roussillon is one of many hilltop villages in the Vaucluse area of Provence, but what separates it from all the others is its colour. The whole village is a beautiful reddish-orange colour, the buildings mirroring the rocks and landscape of the area in which they stand. And in the autumn sunshine, it glowed warm and bright.
The town was striking and was full of art at every turn. There were picture postcard views down streets and alleyways, art galleries with work hung up outside to entice you to enter, painted doorways, a drainpipe transformed by delicate brushwork and an interesting piece of public art near the church with mirrors that reflected the nearby buildings and landscape. It was a joy to walk around.
The first thing to catch our eye was an old olive mill that had been restored and was open for people to look around. This area of Provence is famous for its olive oil and at one time every family would’ve had their own olive trees and would’ve brought their harvest to a mill like this one to extract the oil to sell or to use over the forthcoming year. This mill was used to press the olives of the village right up until 1956 when a harsh winter frost apparently killed all of the olive trees in Provence. Everywhere we have been around here we have seen olive trees laden with fruit ready to be picked. The main harvest time is in November and the oil of this region is highly prized.
After this we wandered around the village for a while, exploring down interesting alleyways and admiring picturesque squares and taking in the wonderful views of the surrounding countryside that you get from the top.
Les Sentier des Ochres
Next we decscended from the village and headed towards the entrance for the Sentier des Ochres (ochre footpath), which takes you through an other-worldly landscape left after the mining of ochre for hundreds of years. This was a magical place with strange rock formations and a striking landscape and it was made even more so by the dreamy and engaging descriptions on the information boards along the walk. They started by encouraging us to “Close your eyes and imagine the world 110 million years ago – when Provence was covered by the sea…” A sand rich in iron was deposited on the sea bed at that time and then 100 million years ago the sea withdrew and a new continent emerged, exposing the sand to the air. Heavy rains leached the sandy soil and the minerals that were left crystallised into clay, kaolinite and iron oxides. It is these iron oxides that give ochre its characteristic colours, which range from pale yellow (from goethite) to violet red (from hematite).
The path around the site was very good and there were lovely benches at intervals so that you could have a rest or just sit and admire the colours. There was a long flight of steps to get into and out of the site and other sections on the walk had steep steps too so it wouldn’t be somewhere to bring a buggy, but otherwise it was an easy walk. We took the long walk, which took about 50 minutes, or there was a shorter, 35 minute, walk.
When it is removed from the ground, ochre is made of 80% sand and 20% ochre: before it can be used, most of the sand must be removed. The extraction procedure was invented by a man from Rousillion called Jean-Etienne Astier at the end of the 18th century. It had to be wetted, mixed, washed and washed again, before being dried and ground. Sometimes it was heated in special kilns to achieve a specific colour.
Until the 1800s, the village of Rousillion relied upon agriculture and ochre was mined on a small scale by the local farmers. Then during the industrial revolution in the 19th century, quarries and factories quickly grew, thanks to the arrival of the railway in nearby Apt in 1880. Barrels and sacks of ochre were then distributed around the world. “Imagine the workers in the Vaucluse using stamps or stencils and black ink every day to mark packages with their far-off destinations: Bamako, Mexico City, Valparaiso, Kiev, Odessa and so on,” we read. “Barrels and then sacks of ochre left for all parts of the world, leaving the local memory brimming with exoticism.” On the Van Gogh trail in Arles recently we had learnt that around this same time (1888 – 1890), Van Gogh was living and painting in nearby Arles and St Remy de Provence. It was interesting to speculate that he may well have used ochre from here in Roussillon in his work. Production declined in the 1930s with competition from chemical colours and today there is only one ochre extraction quarry left here, in Gargas just east of Roussillon.
We learnt that the specific minerals in the soil mean that vegetation grows here that is not typical for the region as a whole, such as heathers, chestnuts, pine, laurel and broom. We also learnt that ochre was one of the first pigments to be used by humans, being used in prehistoric cave paintings around the world. Much later, the Romans used ochre to produce pottery glazes.
A hymn to slowness…
The walk and exploration of the ochre landscape ended with a reminder that tomorrow’s environment depends on our behaviour today. We were encouraged to enjoy the area, whilst also respecting it and not destroying it because “this colourful world belongs to the generations to come.” My favourite quote from the whole walk though encouraged us to think of it as “A hymn to slowness, to discovery, to time devoted to emotion.” Maybe it resonated with me because in a way, I feel that our trip is a hymn to slowness and discovery. We are trying to live more simply, to take our time and really experience the different areas we are visiting. Some days we achieve it, others we don’t, but the intention is always there.
- Roussillon is in the Luberon region of Provence, about 100km north of Marseille.
- The Sentier des Ochres is located just south of the town of Roussillon, only about 5 minutes walk from the tourist information office.
- There are two circular walks around the site, the shorter one takes about 35 minutes; the longer one takes about 50 minutes
- There are steep steps to get into and out of the site, so don’t bring a buggy, but otherwise it is a fairly gentle walk
- It is a great way to see the ochre up close and admire this magical landscape
- Entry is 2 euros 50, and children under 10 years old are free
- Website: Sentier des Ochres