Roussillon and the Ochre Trail

Ochre path smallAt the western edge of the Luberon's ochre country, russet-red Roussillon sits on a hill 10 km / 6 miles east of Gordes and is one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France (Most Beautiful Villages of France).

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The sudden explosion of brilliant colour in the landscape - set off by green forests of pines and oaks - comes as a dramatic surprise as you drive through this area. It's caused by iron oxide deposits in the sandy soil, whose origins can be traced back millions of years, when Provence was under water.

It's still not known exactly why the geological changes should have caused these pigments precisely here and not elsewhere in the region. The Roussillon Tourist Office website gives a little more scientific detail and also suggests a fanciful alternative explanation: a legend involving a troubadour, a châtelaine and a doomed love affair!

One fact is established: it was a citizen of Roussillon, Jean-Étienne Astier, who studied the properties of ochre and began extracting it from sand on an industrial scale at the end of the 18th century.

While mining has long since ceased in the region (apart from in nearby Gargas), ochre has become the cornerstone of Roussillon's thriving tourist industry. Today it's the second most popular village in the Luberon after Gordes, beguiling visitors with its riotous colours. It gives a whole new meaning to painting the town red.

WHAT TO SEE

Even the official literature admits that the village of Roussillon itself is a bit short of heavyweight historic sights. The lower part is densely lined with cafés and shops selling pottery, art, pigments and souvenirs.

Roussillon shopsThe place de la Mairie or Town Hall square is the main hub of activity, along with the place du Pasquier on Thursday mornings when there's a weekly market and traffic gets even more congested than usual. The Roussillon Tourist Office is also in this part of the village on the place de la Poste.

Further up the hill, Roussillon is a little less spoiled, with some very pretty and photogenic alleys and corners to explore, the traditional provençal church and bell tower and 17th and 18th century houses painted in all the local ochre shades from soft gold to deep, rich red.

Walk right up to the belvedere at the top of the village for panoramic views across the surrounding countryside towards Mont Ventoux and an orientation table to help you get your bearings.

Roussillon is also well-placed for hiking trails. Apart from the very short Ochre Trail described below, it is - at the other extreme of the spectrum - on the Grande Randonnée GR6 long-distance footpath. In the immediate area this footpath also leads to such nearby attractions as Rustrel and its "provençal Colorado", Gordes and the Abbaye de Sénanque. Buy a large-scale hiking map IGN 3142 of the Roussillon areaimage!

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Roussillon archRoussillon has several exceptional literary connections. One is not less a figure than Samuel Beckett. During the Second World War, the Irish playwright fled from Paris - where he fought in the French Resistance - to go into hiding in Roussillon.

There he worked on a farm and vineyard (as well as continuing his Resistance activities) and wrote a novel, Watt. Read more about Samuel Beckett in Roussillon.

A couple of years later Beckett referred to Roussillon and the Vaucluse at some length (by this writer's usual standards, at least!) in his most famous play En Attendant Godot / Waiting for Godot.

Laurence Wylie, a distinguished authority on France and the French, also lived in Roussillon in the early 1950s and published a portrait of rural life in the village (lightly disguised as Peyrane) in 1957, illustrated with his own photographs. The book, Village in the Vaucluseimage!, remains in print today and is regarded as a classic.

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THE OCHRE TRAIL

Ochre path rock formationThe Conservatoire des Ochres, 1.7 km / 1 mile out of town on the D104 road to Apt, is warmly recommended, as are the ochre mines of Bruoux in nearby Gargas, just 7 km / 4.5 miles to the east of Roussillon.

But the main and most-visited attraction in Roussillon itself is the Sentier des Ocres, or Ochre Trail, a short and easy hiking trail through a former ochre quarry and the surrounding woods. It's sometimes also referred to as the Chaussée des Géants, or Giants' Causeway.

The route, which starts near the centre of the village, is indicated with rather small and easy-to-miss footpath signs. If you're driving, look out for the Parking des Ocres: it's right by the entrance to the Sentier (and, before you go in, check out the nice view across to the village from the parking area).

Two circuits picked out by coloured markers, are proposed: a shorter, yellow one which takes 35 minutes and a longer, red one of 50 minutes. Both run in a loop and could be comfortably completed in less than the "official" time by most walkers.

But they do involve a number of steps and - apart from a short stretch with ramps right at the beginning of the circuit - are unsuitable for wheel- or push-chairs. You should keep to the path and respect the environment by resisting the temptation to collect some earth as a souvenir (you could face a fine if you're caught in the act).

The Sentier des Ochres is a fun outing for families, especially since children under 10 get in free, but don't get them dressed up in their best light-coloured clothes and shoes (and don't get dressed up yourself)!

At intervals along the way, panels in French and English provide some basic information about the history of ochre production as well as the local geology, flora and fauna. Roussillon's sandy soil is acidic, unlike the alkaline limestone in most of Provence, and so its vegetation is quite distinctive.

You'll spot green and white oaks, chestnut and white poplar trees as well as pines and possibly also heather and fern and even wild orchids. Keep an eye out too for animals (badgers, foxes and deer have been seen on the trail).

This said, the Sentier des Ochres attracts a thousand-plus visitors a day in the main season, and your main wildlife sightings in summer are likely to be of other tourists. Go early - or late - to avoid the crowds and heat, and bring some water. It's generally felt that the colours are at their most intense at sunset.

Ochre path belevedereIn spring, though, the trail can be just as imposing and entirely deserted, as on our visit in early April - and it's beautiful even in overcast weather.

While most publicity images of the ochre show the landscapes in brilliant sunlight, we've posted some photos (right and top left) which were taken on a grey, cloudy morning, when the yellow and red pigments showed up in sharp relief.

Do beware on days of high wind, when dust swirls around, and if it's raining, when the path can be slippery (the site may be closed in very wet weather). Note, too, that the Ochre Trail shuts down for about six weeks in January and early February: check the Roussillon Tourist Office website for the exact dates and opening times, which vary over the year.

Insider tip for the Sentier des ocres RoussillonYou can make savings if you are intending to visit both the Sentier des Ocres and the Conservatoire des ocres et de la couleur in Roussillon by buying a ticket couplé or combination ticket.

And if you want to complete the ochre trail with trips to the Mines of Bruoux in Gargas and to the Musée de l'aventure Industrielle in Apt, you get a reduction to those venues too if you show your ticket couplé. It also gets you a discount to a handful of other attractions in the region, including the Fondation Vasarely, another superb destination for anyone interested in colour.

HOW TO GET TO AND FROM ROUSSILLON

Roussillon in distanceBy car: Roussillon is 47 km / 29 miles east of Avignon, 25 km / 15.5 miles north-east of Cavaillon and 10 km / 6 miles north-west of Apt.

It's right in the middle of a small pocket of six Most Beautiful Villages of France, the other five being Ansouis, Lourmarin, Ménerbes, Gordes and Venasque. If you were short of time, you could drive this entire circuit in under two hours.

According to the tourist material, the central car-parks are free outside the main season. Apparently Roussillon starts its season early, however: a charge (a flat rate for the day) was already being levied when we visited well before Easter.

If you want to save money (or if you are driving a camper van or caravan, which are prohibited from the centre of Roussillon), there's a free car-park 800 metres / 870 yards to the north of the village. As at many popular tourist destinations in Provence, car-parks are vulnerable to break-ins, so do not leave valuables in your vehicle.

If you are renting a car, do consider our affiliate partner, carrentals, a comparison search engine for all grades of hire car from Smarts to 4x4s and limousines.

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By bike: Cycling is a popular option here (if you don't mind the hills!) and plenty of companies, such as Cyclomundo, offer guided and self-guided itineraries. If you want to make your own way around, you can plan a route with the help of the Vaucluse Tourist Office's excellent guide to cycling in the region and rent a cycle or electric bike with one of the local bike hire companies.

Click here for some suggestions (at the bottom of the page) and our own general introduction to cycling in Provence.

By public transport: Like most villages in Provence, Roussillon is not easy to get to by public transport. The nearest train station is in Cavaillon, 27 km / 17 miles to the south-west. From there, Roussillon is served by a single bus route, no. 15.3 from Cavaillon via Coustellet and Gordes.

In theory this bus also connects with route no. 7 (Avignon-Cavaillon) and with route no, 15.1 (Avignon-Coustellet-Apt). In practice buses are too infrequent to be of much use for a day trip.

If you are spending longer in the area, you might look into the system of Transport à la Demande (Transport on Demand), which involves telephoning ahead to reserve a place on a public bus. Further details on the website for the region of Vaucluse.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

The Roussillon Tourist Office is on the place de la Poste, 84220 Roussillon. Tel: (+33) 4 90 05 60 25

The official regional website Vaucluse Tourism in Provence includes a guide to Roussillon and other attractions in the area.

Photo credits (from top): © SJ for Marvellous Provence, Nadine Tardieu for CDT Vaucluse, SJ for Marvellous Provence, Thorsten Brönner for CDT Vaucluse, SJ for Marvellous Provence, Nikata for Wikimedia Commons.

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