Roussillon, Vaucluse, France
June 15, 2019
There was truth in tourist advertising that touted Roussillon as one of the most beautiful villages of France. From a distance, the hilltop town bloomed like a rose in the verdant vineyards of Luberon under the deep blue sky of the Mediterranean. What set it apart from all the postcard-pretty Provençal communes was its perch on a rock as red as blood and as orange as a flame. The rouge of Roussillon jazzed up her small-town charm.
An information board welcomed us to “a village for tourism and intellectual life.” Such combination could be an oxymoron. Judging from the parking occupancy at the outskirts of town, waves of visitors ebbed and flowed all day long. I wondered how present-day artists could have a moment’s peace to be inspired. I had no data more current than in the 1940s Occupation when playwright Samuel Beckett retreated to this then “unknown,” perhaps sleepy, village. In this era of tour groups, Roussillon remained as the best place to be Waiting for Godot as when Beckett name-checked it in his best-known work.
How did the town get its rouge on? Our party of three trudged down a trail to get to the bottom of it. We soon found ourselves walking on virtual Martian landscape. Iron oxide had painted the soil around Roussillon with bright yellow to deep red pigmentation to produce ochre. In the late 18th century, the town’s scientist, Jean-Étienne Astier, developed the industrial processing of the pigmented rock and exported it as coloring agent. Mining here continued for well over a century until the industry buckled in the advent of synthetic alternatives.
Access to the quarries of old had been repurposed into marked hiking paths called Sentier des Ocres – the Ochre Trail – through the world’s largest ochre deposit. Faced with a fork at the footpath, we took the shorter route good for a half-an-hour hike. In any case, the jagged and sanguine landscape was spectacularly otherworldly. The towering lopped-off cliffs and tooth-like columns carved by erosion and excavation was once the seabed in a geologic past that left its colorful mark.
Christmas trees and less lush pine varieties adorned steep slopes and clifftops as did the leafy cover of oak along the trail. One of the information boards schooled us on vegetation not usually found in the region but thrived on its ferrous, sandy soil. The former quarry had been reclaimed by the aforementioned trees and extremely rare plants and flowers that, sadly, we had no time to look for and pick out. Nevertheless, it was reassuring to see how nature carried on when disruptive human activity ceased. The present-day conservation area could be a geological and botanical marvel to those so inclined.
We turned back to explore the town that flourished in mining and presently sustained by tourism. The red tint of the landscape bled into the village painted in its entirety in harmony with the surrounding natural palette of pastels. Every wall, door, window in each narrow street and small square begged to be ‘Grammed. A visit warranted a whole day, at least, but the town was just a stop in our DIY tour of Provence.
All cobbled streets led to the pinnacle of Roussillon – the belfry in the town’s fortified heart called the Castrum. From this vantage point, we took in the view of the village, the valley of Vaucluse, and Mont Ventoux beyond. It was from this elevation, too, that the legend of a heart-broken lady who hurled herself down the cliff could be visualized. A tragic tale of adultery, jealousy, murder, and suicide turned stomach-churning with a bit of cannibalism thrown in. The shock value seemed out of character for this enchantingly candy-colored portion of Provence. Regardless, the blood of the lady of the chateau who had unwittingly eaten her lover’s heart drenched the hills, thus acquiring the color.
If limited time could allow only one building to visit, it would be Saint Michael Church within the ramparts of the Castrum. The church had clearly undergone renovations since the 11th century, but the façade and religious items therein went back to the 17th and 18th centuries. It stood as a testament to the town’s history as distinct from the geologic age that created the rocks it was built on.
There was so much art to see in the streets and in galleries, and some to read in the works of writers inspired by its natural beauty. Nature and art rendered Roussillon as a rose in the sun-drenched scrublands of the South of France. Indeed, ochre had painted the town red in more ways than one.