Promised Provence. Or 30 Minutes on Mars

The town of Roussillon and the adjacent Ochre Trail were one of the biggest surprises I had on our trip to Provence. A spectacular landscape painted by the nature with the help of an incredibly generous palette of colours: the blues, the greens, the ochre reds. And even if its comparison to Mars is predictable and even banal, it still remains the most precise one.

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Roussillon itself, situated in the department of Vaucluse on the territory of the Regional Park of Luberon, seems to be a picture of a charming medieval village form a forgotten fairytale. It grew up from a castle built on top of the hill at the end of the 10th century and still overlooks the surrounding territories.

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The neighbouring ochre quarries gave the town its characteristic color and a curious legend. According to what the local rumor claims, there lived once a certain Lady Sirmonde who was married to a certain Lord Raymond of Avignon. Their marriage wasn’t of the happiest: the Lord was always very busy and never at home. The Lady felt very lonely and neglected. To fight her overwhelming sadness, she fell in love with a certain Guillaume de Cabestan who consequently became the Lady’s lover. But it was not possible to hide the truth from Lord Raymond for a long time. When he disguised his wife’s affair, he killed her lover and ordered to cook his heart for his Lady for dinner. The latter felt so broken to … and here the legend offers us two possible and not at all happy endings: according to one version, the Lady tried to escape her furious husband and accidentally lost her life falling from the cliffs of Roussillon, according to the other version, after losing her beloved she decided to commit a suicide jumping off the same cliffs. Whatever happened, if it ever happened at all, the legend is sure of one thing – the blood of the unhappy wife coloured the lands surrounding Roussillon giving birth to its ochres.

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Even if all ancient legends are always mysterious and somewhat charming, the scientists never seem to agree. In fact, according to the geological research by Professor Jean-Marie Triat politely provided by the site of the Ochre Trail to its visitors, the Roussillon ochre was born of close contact between the soil and the sea.

Some 110 millions years ago the territory of the modern Provence was covered by the sea. Its sand contained a number of minerals such as quartz, limestone and glauconite, which is a combination of clay minerals rich in iron. When 100 million years ago the sea withdrew, its green sand got exposed to the air. The climate of the period was hot and wet and favoured numerous heavy rains. Those rains managed to dissolve the glauconite. Some minerals resisted, though, and crystallised as siliceous clay, kaolinite and iron oxidesyellow goethite and red hematite. The latter concentrated on surface and formed a crust that protected the cliffs from erosion.

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Do you still remember the kaolinite mentioned above? It is curious to discover that when it is pure it remains white, while natural random quantities of iron oxide can give it a range of colours from pale yellow to violet red. So, ochre is actually a mixture of kaolin, that prevails, and iron seasoned with some quartz.

Apart from recalling the martian landscape, the ochre deposits so typical of Luberon take us to many places on our own planet, such as, for example, the red Mountain in the Sinai, the Colorado red rocks or the giant Uluru rocks in Australia. Some of them derive from sand, others are related to alumina or limestone, but this amazing richness is possible thanks to the presence of various minerals. The peculiarity of the ochres of Vaucluse is that they mostly emerge on the surface, defining the spectacular and characteristic Luberon landscape.

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The ochre hills of Provence have very particular composition. Their sandy, ferrous and acid soil allows vegetation unusual for the region. It is surprising to know that the Luberon ochres stimulate a large number of very rare plants and orchids. That is one of the reasons for which the park was granted the status of the natural biosphere reserve.

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Moreover, the ground rich in ochre provided its sand to construct the town of Roussillon decorating the walls of its houses and public buildings with the colours so typical of the territory and representing its most characteristic peculiarity.

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Ochre was also humankind’s first pigment to fix its earliest history on the cave rocks and decorate one’s body. It still has numerous uses one of which is that being a base for some paints.

Some practical information and advice:

  • The Ochre Trail of Roussillon has two itineraries: the duration of the shorter one is around 30 minutes, that of the longer one – approximately 1 hour. The map of the site is provided at the ticket office.
  • The site’s entrance fee is of 5 euro per person.
  • Beware that ochre is amazing but the red dust of the trail sticks to everything – skin, clothes and especially shoes. So, I recommend to wear the shoes you can easily wash (for example, plastic flip- flops), or you have long wanted to throw away. No white shoes or clothes, no new shoes or clothes, no anything you would regret to have ruined!
  • Bring some wet wipes and water with you, both will be useful to get rid of some ochre dust you will find your legs covered in after the visit.
  • There is a public bathroom not far from the entrance of the site and several pay parkings at the entrance to the town from where it is easy to reach the trail and the historical centre of Roussillon on foot. The parkings in question are very busy in summer, so take good care to start your visit early enough to find a vacant lot for your car.
  • Roussillon is a tiny village, the Ochre Trail doesn’t require much time even for a thorough visit. If you have more time to spend in the area, you could visit the town of Gordes with its Village des Bories and the iconic Senanque Abbey in the proximity, or head towards Sault and Mont Ventoux to discover the lavender fields of Vaucluse (obviously, when lavender meadows are in blossom). I will return to both itineraries later on this blog.

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After your Ochre Trail experience, don’t skip that of a walk through Roussillon. This enchanting village climbs the hill, so will you. But the reward if its amazing colours will be waiting for you on top, together with a refreshing drink in one of its cute cafès and a stunning view of the surroundings.

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Photos credit: Machs Gut (c)

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