Looking out of the window, as I am sitting at the table writing, I can hardly see the Mourre Nègre opposite. It’s a grey, cloudy, and even misty day and the colours look so flat, but I know that if I am in need of a splash of colour, then it isn’t too far away.
The Luberon has a beautiful band of ochre running through its heart, from Roussillon to the far side of Rustrel, with the earth taking on warm orange, yellow and red tones … A far cry from the normal dirt-brown we see elsewhere.
Here the ground is rich in iron oxide, which in the sandy earth, creates these vibrant pigments that bring so much colour to the area. It’s a natural source of colour, that has been used since prehistoric times, and can still be seen in the cave paintings and drawings here now, especially in the caves of the Dordogne, such as Lascaux and Pech Merle.
The ochre was mined, here in Provence, by the Romans, but it was only in the late 18th century that a local entrepreneur considered opening industrial mines, in order to produce high quality pigments for use in paints and dyes, for the textile indusrty. Jean Etienne Astier opened his first mine at Roussillon in 1780, which became the first of many that subsequently opened across the area.
It’s hard to think of this beautiful little village, now considered to be one of the most beautiful villages in France, as being at the heart of an industrial zone, but it clearly was and the signs are still there to be seen.
There are numerous open quarries based around Roussillon and across to Rustrel too, and in 1929 40,000 tonnes were extracted from the ground and refined to make the pigments that were shipped across the world. A significant industry that has changed the landscape, but has created an incredible site too.
There are wonderful old workings behind the Conservatoire des Ocres, which was the old ‘Usine Mathieu’, an ocre processing factory that operated between 1921 and 1963.
The factory is now a museum and is a good place to visit to find out more about the process that was used to extract the vibrant pigments from the sands that were taken from the ground. The museum gives you an incredible sense of the work that went into producing the colours, and a stark reminder of the impact that the constant dust must have had on the workers’ lungs, as they only used handkerchiefs to cover their mouths and noses, whilst at work.
Walking into the old quarries, I always find the colours so beautiful. A marbled bed of yellows, oranges and reds, creating a strange landscape in the heart of the Luberon.
In places, when we walk through, we can see the old ruts, formed in the stone bed, from the ancient carts and trucks that would have been used to take the stone and sand away from the quarry. It is the little details like this, that I just enjoy seeing.
All around the village though are wonderful cliffs of colour, from the dramatic stripes just in front of the salle des fetes….
To the more golden pillars of rock, at the site of the old Ferme des Madons, towards Goult, where there were old tunnels, used extensively by the Resistance, to hide supplies, during the second world war…..
In places they take on a pink tinge too and always bring a splash of colour to even the dullest day. Of course there is sound, scientific geological reasoning for the colours in the ochres here, but if you prefer the mythology and legend behind it, then the story is here https://vauclusedreamer.com/2017/10/06/the-legend-of-roussillon-a-tale-of-illicit-love-and-a-tragic-end/
You can also walk along the Sentier Des Ocres, two footpaths that weave their way between pillars of colour and bright cliffs, that have been eroded by nature over thousands of years. The one piece of advice I would give, if you head off to walk this trail, is not to wear white shoes, as they will never be the same again!
Roussillon wasn’t the only place in the Luberon, to develop ochre mines, with nearby Gargas being home to the incredible Mines de Broux, where the mining created a dramatic network of underground galleries, some of which are 40m long and up to 15m high, so different to the open works at Roussillon and Rustrel.
At Rustrel, the old quarries, which first opened in 1871, are now known as the Colorado Provencal. They finally closed in 1993, when the last load of rock was washed to extract its pigment. The site is now owned by the local Mairie and over 100 landowners, who are the heirs to the original ocriers.
The area is open to the public and is a great place to visit, walk in and to explore, with the huge cliffs and vibrant pillars, testament to the work done by the ocriers, who worked in the quarries.
If you fancy a walk on the wild side, there is even a high-ropes course, not for me (with my fear of heights), but certainly a way of getting a different perspective on the area.
I do love the ochres, I never cease to be amazed at the incredible range of colours that can be produced from this unusual, quirk of geology in the heart of the Luberon. The colours are not just the shades of red, yellow, orange and pink, that you may expect, but greens, blues and violets too, in fact colours from across the spectrum.
I would have been fascinated to have seen it at its height, although I have a sense that it would be unrecognisable from what we see today, but I still love to explore the old workings, imagining what it would have been like with the noise and activity of the ocriers at work….
And of course, it goes without saying, that I love the colours that now are indelibly linked with this little part of Provence.