Roussillon A Provence fantasy in ochre

Classified as ‘one of the most beautiful villages in France’, Roussillon is a stunning hilltop village of red and yellow houses on a unique site sculpted by water, wind and man, with cliffs ranging in colour from nearly white, to gold, blood red and dark purple. Set against a rich green background of pines and oaks, Roussillon is a spectacle worth a special detour.

Roussillon sits on a ridge which is one of the world’s biggest deposits of ochre pigments. The Roussillon quarries were mined for ochre up till the 1960s. Now they are a fabulous red-tinted landscape, like Mars with pine trees, and can be visited along the ochre path, the ‘Sentier des Ocres’.

Exploring Roussillon

The village itself, with its ochre-rendered houses in every shade from deep red to yellow, along with brightly painted shutters, is quite small. Take the time to explore the medieval streets and squares on foot. It’s said that there are 17 different shades of ochre in the village – Roussillon is a village for serious photography. A walk up to the top of the village rewards you with a viewpoint indicator and a marvellous panoramic view from the Luberon to the Monts de Vaucluse. On the way back down you can drop into any number of art galleries and discover work by local artists.

The centre of the village is the square with cafes and restaurants – a great place for coffee or pastis in a unique technicolour environment. There is a charming weekly market on Thursday mornings. You have to pay to park in Roussillon but it’s worth the small charge and the car park is right by the centre.

The Ochre Trail

You can explore the ochre landscape beside Roussillon on two different marked trails, one of 30 minutes and one of 60, but you can stay as long as you like. These are called the Sentier des Ocres or ochre trail, and they head off through the extraordinary landscape of the disused ochre quarries of Roussillon. Information signs along the way describe the geology, the flora and the history of the ochre deposits in the Luberon. There is a small entry charge to pay for the upkeep of the site. This is a great place to take children. Don’t wear your best shoes because they will be covered in red pigment.

Sentier des Ocres, Roussillon
Open every day from mid-February to December 31.
Entrance fee 2.50 euros, free for under-10s.

Okhra Conservatoire des Ocres

Housed in a former ochre factory, the Ochre Conservatory is a non-profit, co-operative organisation that works to transmit centuries-old skills and uses of ochre, with French-language workshops on various themes relating to ochre and pigments. It houses a visitor centre where you can learn about the mining and use of this natural pigment and a shop where you can buy ochre pigment in every shade.

Okhra – Conservatoire des Ocres et de la Couleur
Open all year from 9am to 1pm and from 2pm to 6pm.
July-August open 9am to 7pm.
Tel: +33 (0)4 90 05 66 69

Lady in red

The colours of the village and the surrounding countryside come at a price: a lady’s blood. Provençal legend recounts the tragic story of the Lady Sermonde: Once upon a time, there lived in the chateau of Roussillon a lord, Raymond d’Avignon, and his wife, the Lady Sermonde. Raymond was completely obsessed with hunting and day after day he abandoned his wife for the hunt, leaving her home alone and bored. Raymond had in his service a troubadour called Guillaume who naturally was young and handsome.

Inevitably, medieval romance ensued between the troubadour and the lady. Raymond found out about this and did not share their enthusiasm. In fact he was angry enough to remove the troubadour’s heart with his sword, and order the chef to serve it up for dinner in a nice spicy sauce. “This is delicious” said Lady Sermonde. But Raymond then spoilt the evening by telling her she had just eaten her lover’s heart. Sermonde rose to her feet and said “My lord, since you have given me such an exquisite meal, I never want to taste anything else again.” Then she threw herself off the cliffs of Roussillon. Her blood turned the countryside red all the way from Roussillon to the Colorado Provencal near Rustrel.

Literary links

Roussillon has two notable literary associations. In the 1950s an American anthropologist named Laurence Wylie settled here for a year and wrote about village life in his classic book A Village in the Vaucluse (long before Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence).

Before that, during WW2, Samuel Beckett sought refuge in Roussillon when his resistance activities in Paris were about to get him arrested. He spent two years in Roussillon, working on the grape harvest for the Bonnelly family (who continue to make wine today) and writing the novel Watt. In the original version of Waiting for Godot one of the characters reminisces about working on the vines and living in Roussillon. Beckett also connected with the local resistance fighters, called the maquis, storing explosives in his house and going out on patrol against the Germans.

Ochre near Roussillon: The Bruoux Ochre Mines

Between 1880 and 1950, over 50km/31 miles of tunnels were hacked out by hand with pickaxes through the ochre seams in the Luberon. 650m of tunnels in these unique former mines near Roussillon are open for guided visits.

During the summer, some visits are in English but you can also borrow a tablet which translates the tour. It’s a chilly 10°C/50°F (whatever the season) in the mines so remember to take a jacket.

Mines de Bruoux
Route de Croagnes, 84400 Gargas. Tel: +33 (0)4 90 06 22 59

Open every day from 15 March to 15 November, from 10am to 6pm.
July-August, open 10am to 7pm.

More ochre near Roussillon: The Colorado Provençal

12 miles (20km) away from Roussillon, at Rustrel, is an extraordinary site made up of former open-air ochre quarries on the same seam as Roussillon and Bruoux. Colours range from white (limestone), green (clay) and ochre in every shade from blood red through orange to yellow. Specialists have apparently counted between 17-25 different shades, depending on the zone.

You have to pay to park the car but you’ll be given a map showing the different hiking trails you can follow. It’s a great place for a picnic: bright blue sky, green pines and red, orange and yellow sand. Ochre is a strong dye so wear suitable clothes and we suggest you don’t wear white!

What we like

  • Roussillon is a very rewarding village for snapping photos, whether you are into architectural shots or just selfies.
  • The ochre trail (sentier des ocres) through the old quarry is great for kids and grown-ups alike.

Things to note

  • Roussillon is unique and therefore a big tourist draw – to offset this, in summer it is best to visit either early or later in the day, when there are fewer people around.
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Maison Saint Antoine: 43.941989, 5.068946
Roussillon: 43.902293, 5.292936
Avalon: 43.903628, 5.210137
Villa Roussillon: 43.890362, 5.299208
Les Vignes: 43.840439, 5.213013
La Rourette: 43.943627, 5.247753
The Lourmarin Cottage: 43.763342, 5.364171
Maison de Gordes: 43.915482, 5.208474
Les Coudelieres: 43.933545, 4.974167
The Ansouis House: 43.737360, 5.464647
Maison de Bonnieux: 43.822572, 5.309476
St Hilaire: 43.829442, 5.256647
Villa Lioux: 43.944654, 5.286570
Les Petitons: 43.832236, 5.165591
Les Madeleines: 43.898511, 5.076885
Moustier de Menerbes 1: 43.829105, 5.209177
Moustier de Menerbes 2: 43.828788, 5.209821
Les Ocres: 43.900737, 5.286419
Bastide des Oliviers: 43.858513, 5.103021
Mas des Oliviers: 43.859364, 5.102184
Domaine de Gordes: 43.915022, 5.209435
La Roubine: 43.915022, 5.209435
Mas de Joucas: 43.910775, 5.255365
Les Heyrauds: 43.845751, 5.220469
Villa Lavande: 43.861221, 5.315881
Villa Ansouis: 43.752575, 5.448521
Provence Pines: 43.869575, 5.414806
La Beaume: 44.115329, 5.054162
Mas de Menerbes: 43.851458, 5.190225
Grambois Manor: 43.762230, 5.588865
Menerbes Vista: 43.833362, 5.205084
Grand Fontvert: 43.864195, 5.516108
Fontvert: 43.864149, 5.515775
Domaine de l\'Oratoire: 43.857430, 5.291762
Capucine: 43.857276, 5.291290
Marquis: 43.857430, 5.291977
Libertine: 43.856997, 5.290947
Calavon: 43.856626, 5.290689
Senanque: 43.856842, 5.290132
Villa Lacoste: 43.827933, 5.247452
Mas d\'Oppede: 43.828569, 5.173143
Les Vignes: 43.826748, 5.251497
Le Paradesque: 43.845384, 5.167018
Mas du Thor: 43.956835, 4.974704
La Fontaine Basse: 43.892450, 5.569725
Mas Les Tours Ouest: 43.858849, 5.250644
Maison Oppede: 43.839449, 5.166171
Mas de Murs: 43.958362, 5.217971
La Grand Bastide Menerbes: 43.839559, 5.204869
Villa Menerbes: 43.830619, 5.210597
Mas d\'Apt: 43.868679, 5.388484
Maison Oppede: 43.828977, 5.161384
Villa Dumaines, Cabrieres: 43.892444, 5.152480
Villa les Oliviers, Oppede : 43.834379, 5.176289
Villa Castelas, Bonnieux: 43.823622, 5.311986
Villa Détente : 43.846982, 5.167645
Mas de Ruby, Maubec: 43.851597, 5.135625
Maison Lacoste: 43.833044, 5.273545
Mas du Chateau, Lagnes: 43.894793, 5.115951
Maison Briand: 43.823430, 5.306400
Maison Saint Andre: 43.762078, 5.369018
Villa de la Petit Etang: 43.928318, 5.381581
Mas Les Sauvestres, Gordes: 43.907180, 5.226460
Maison Lagnes: 43.894091, 5.113870
Maison Les Emiyeux: 43.913120, 5.413900
Mazet du Hameau, Gordes: 43.873568, 5.183056
Maison Saint Saturnin: 43.928468, 5.382581
Maison du Vallon: 43.842899, 5.192467
Les Blayons, Bonnieux: 43.823976, 5.312148
Mas de Royere: 43.856193, 5.161600
Villa Parisot, Cabrieres: 43.888486, 5.143130
Domaine des Pradelles: 43.926375, 5.375794
Bastide d\'Oppede: 43.842159, 5.177173
Mas de la Lone: 43.903436, 5.085105
Villa du Petite Bois: 43.846621, 5.167432
Villa Belle Roche, Menerbes: 43.830659, 5.207299
Le Clos des Hauts d’Oppede : 43.834397, 5.164938
Villa Puyvert: 43.758508, 5.340124
Mas des Vergiers: 43.845916, 5.012564
Villa Perreal, Saint Saturnin: 43.926255, 5.372998
Maison Pervenches, Viens: 43.891736, 5.563072
Clos de Colette: 43.846380, 5.112680