Market day: Thursday
Roussillon is one of the most-visited villages in the Luberon, and certainly its appearance sets it strikingly apart. While other Luberon villages are built of the creamy white and tan limestone found in the region, Roussillon is colored entirely in brilliant shades of ochre, ranging from yellow to pink to deep red. This is only natural, since the town is built on one of the largest and finest deposits of ochre in the world. Ochre is a natural mineral composed of silica and clay which is used to create red, yellow, and brown pigments for paints such as those used to bathe the buildings of Roussillon. It is no surprise that the village is a magnet for painters wanting to play with the warm colors on their palettes. Despite its popularity, Roussillon doesn’t disappoint.
According to Provençal legend, the brilliant colors of the ochre are the result of a doomed love affair. During the middle ages, Sermonde, wife of evil Lord Raimond of Roussillon, fell in love with the young troubadour Guilhelm de Cabestang. When the lord learned of his wife’s passion for another, he killed the troubadour, cut out his heart, and had it cooked and served to his wife. Sermonde ate the dish, but when she discovered what Raimond had done, she threw herself from the cliffs of Roussillon, staining the earth with her blood. It would have taken a massacre, however, to stain this much earth this red.
Clinging to a ridge of hills, this town of only 1,200 residents has been restored within an inch of its life. The remnants of the former castle, presumed home of evil Lord Raimond, have been incorporated into the houses and shops, while the simple church perches above it all. Blocky buildings, their vivid colors set off by brightly painted shutters and doors, are packed tightly against one another, separated only by narrow and twisting roads and walkways. Roussillon’s appeal to tourists is evidenced by the abundance of art studios and galleries, as well as the inevitable tourist gift shops. Because the town is so small, it can be swamped when the tour buses arrive. I’d recommend either coming on Thursday morning for the weekly farmer’s market, when you can comfort yourself that it would be a busy place anyway, or else coming after 3pm, when the tour buses are gone and the town relaxes into its peaceful native personality.
There are a couple small roads winding through town, but if you want to stop, you’ll have to find a space in one of the three parking lots. When the attendant is on duty, this will cost you €2, but if you come at the end of the day, as I highly recommend, you may well be able to park for free.
For a short but unforgettable hike which starts practically in the middle of town, walk the Sentier des Ocres through the ochre cliffs, especially magical in the late afternoon light (see entry!).