The French sienna town
Roussillon, with its cluster of red-roofed houses, reminds one of an eccentric artist’s palette of earthy colours
Kalpana Sunder

The hilltop village of Gordes
The hilltop village of Gordes

An ochre-daubed building
An ochre-daubed building

The medieval period town hall built on an ancient castrum
The medieval period town hall built on an ancient castrum

A medieval fountain in Gordes
A medieval fountain in Gordes

As we wind our way through miles of vineyards, suddenly the colour of the earth changes to a deep orange, like the fiery flames of a fire and the deep red cliffs of Roussillon, come into view. It reminds one of an eccentric artist’s palette of earthy colours or of the exotic spices like nutmeg and cinnamon. Roussillon, with its cluster of houses with red roofs and hand-cut slopes called the ‘red town’, is a famous town in Provence, France, from where the famous pigments of ochre used in the paint industry were extracted. Prehistoric man used ochre to paint images on the walls of caves. History whispers from every corner of the village, which has been the site of religious wars, famines and epidemics. It was an ancient Roman settlement. The main square with the town hall today is built on an ancient castrum. During the 17th and 18th century, 17 different shades of dyes were produced here. The Vaucluse region where Roussillon is located was home to the French resistance during German occupation; this is where writer Samuel Beckett, who participated in the Resistance, lived for two years.

In ancient churches and monasteries it was ochre that was used in the magnificent frescoes of artists to bring Biblical scenes alive. Roussillon today is a tourist heaven with more than eight art galleries and ceramic shops lining the streets. A local, Melody Raynaud, explains the simple process to extract the dyes: extraction, washing to separate the sand from the ochre, setting it to dry, and then crushing it to fine powder and burning it to get the deep colour. "The synthetic dyes in the 1950s sounded the death knell for these dyes," she explains.

As we walk through the village, we see a zillion shades of ochre daubed on the walls, offset by coloured doors and windows – the reds, yellows and pinks offering a vibrant technicolor experience — burnt sienna, wheat, tangerine. One can’t stop admiring the different shades on offer.

Hand-painted garage doors depict an 18th century garden and the 9th century clock and bell tower, topped by a wrought-iron belfry, loom above you. A walk along the Sentier des ocres (the ochre footpath) at the edge of town leads one to the disused quarries. It’s a Martian landscape of cliffs, steeples and ridges with the last rays of the sun, casting a deep peach glow.

Until the 1960s the dye was extracted from these quarries, leaving behind great canyons of reds, oranges and yellows. The deep colour is cause by the mineral goethite — named after the famous author Goethe who people say was a keen mineralogist! But a local legend has a different story. A damsel called Sermonds was married to the Lord of Roussillon, Raymond. Raymond spent a lot of his time hunting neglecting Sermonde who then fell in love with a local troubadour. When Raymond heard of her affair, he killed the troubadour, pulled out his heart and served it at dinner without her knowledge. When she came to know, the distraught lover jumped off the cliffs of Roussillon, and even today the cliffs turn red with her blood!

Today Roussillon is on the list of Les Plus Beaux des Villages of France or the Beautiful villages — a place can only qualify if it has less than 2000 inhabitants and at least two historical sites with well-preserved architecture and traditions.

Gordes is another perched village near Roussillon. It has steep defensive walls, serpentine streets and jewel box churches. The 8,000-year-old town sits on the rim of the Plateau de Vaucluse, facing the Luberon Mountains across a fertile valley. Godres has endured numerous invasions, religious wars, the plague, two earthquakes and bombing during the wars and still clings defiantly to the hill side. Stone is the integral part of the town’s identity. The Castle of Gordes has dominated the hill top town for over a thousand years with the village winding around it. It was controlled by the powerful Simiane family in the 12th century. It was strengthened with ramparts and fortifications over the centuries. It has beautiful Renaissance interiors with a large fireplace: part of it is a Museum and the other part of it is used by the Tourist Office.

The castle has been used as a garrison, a prison, a boys’ school, a post office and even as a laundry. "Even today the Salle De Chemine is used for local weddings," points out the guide. The small town hides a glorious past. Gordes used to be famous for its industries — growing madder for dyes, producing olive oil and being the queen of leather with more than 14 tanneries at one point. In the 1960s it became a ghost town of derelict buildings. Wealthy Parisians and rich foreigners as well as artists like Chagall and Belgian artist Pol Maria discovered it and the rest is history!

The elite crowd of Paris owns summer homes in this town; film directors love its medieval charm for cinematic backdrops. Small medieval lanes of the town called calades lead to panoramic views over the countryside with vines and wheat fields. Not far from Gordes is the stone village of Bories where limestone blocks were used by people in the Middle Ages to build bee-hive shaped homes, bread ovens, and wine vats.

As one drives into an orange sunset, one can’t help thinking that towns like Roussillon and Gordes owe it to tourists for reviving their economies and bringing them out of their slumber — like Sleeping Beauty being kissed to life by the handsome Prince.

Fact file

How to get there: Fly Air France to Paris and connect to Marseille. From there take the TGV train to Avignon. Gordes and Roussillon are convenient day trips from there.

Best time to visit: May- July or September-October.

Where to stay: Hotel La Mirande in Avignon housed in an old Cardinal’s home is a luxury hotel A medium budget option is Le Mas de Romarins in Gordes,

Another option is Boutique hotel Le Clos de la Glycine in Roussillon with typical Provencal d`E9cor.

What to eat: Marinated olives, Languedoc cheeses, beef stew and local duck. Drink local Pastis, an anise liqueur. For more information visit