I visited Provence, for the first time, in April. My boyfriend and I stayed in Mnerbes, one of a handful of exquisite medieval villages overlooking the Luberon valley. A long, thin village, Mnerbes, it is said, seems to rise from a sea of cherry orchards and vineyards like an anchored ship.
The sea, in April, is not in full froth. The vines and cherry trees at this time of year are woody and unbudded, waiting patiently in perfect rows for the season to turn. To see Provence in its full splendour, with blooming lavender, sunflowers and Czanne sunshine, visit in high summer. We came to the region not for colour, but for quiet. We found its beauty, though undiminished, more subdued.
Yet there is one village in this valley that shimmers brilliantly even when all others are pale. Roussillon. It's a village whose name seems to set it apart from its neighbours among them Gordes, Bonnieux and Oppde. The vowels in Roussillon' should be pushed and the consonants curled to create a sound unutterable, almost, by the English. On arriving in Roussillon, the rich tones of its name take on the colour of its very bricks and mortar.
Our days spent climbing the cobbled streets of Bonnieux, studying faded murals on creamy limestone and walking through cedar woods; even the purple lavender that lingered in our consciousness despite its absence none prepared us for Roussillon's cracking ochres. Here, with its pink, gold and orange buildings was a version of Provence that was bold, more primitive, less genteel.
Ochre! The village appears hewn out of the ochre ridge on which it stands an uprising of clay striped like a multi-fruit lolly. On every surface is a thin layer, at least, of bright dust. In a pottery shop are piles of uneven cookware glazed in shades of ochre russet, deep brown and burnt sienna; so different to the primrose-coloured, olive-decorated ceramics sold all over. We bought a simple, oval, slipware platter. It brought to mind a slab of poured, refrigerated cocoa.
In other shops in Roussillon you can pick up pots of powdery ochre pigment that can be mixed to make watercolours, oils or gouache. Included in some paint sets are not only the pigments found in the village's open-pit quarries, but mineral greys, blues, mauves and greens: the colours of Provence.
On our shoes, though, were the colours of pre-history. At the cemetery end of the village was the beginning of The Ochre Trail a route through the clay hills where ochre was once mined intensely. We took the longer of two trails through the former quarry an easy 50-minute hike. Clutching our paper shopping bags, we trampled the powdery earth resembling cinnamon and turmeric. We learnt along the way that the ochre underfoot was caused by iron oxide deposits, whose origins go back millions of years, when Provence was underwater.
In the 18th century, thanks to the textile industry's demand for ochre pigment, Roussillon exported ochre to the likes of Constantinople, Valparaiso and Casablanca. The little village became exotic for its association as well as its colour. Today, we try and capture it on our phones.
Words by Caroline Davidson.
A handful of ochre pieces in the TOAST collection.