Easy hike, with one hill
Past the cemetery, walking away from the central parking lot, Roussillon
Roussillon is built on one of the finest deposits of ochre in the world. If you can spare an hour, there is no more dramatic walk in the Luberon than that along the Sentier des Ocres, the Ochre Path, among the ochre cliffs, made all the more striking due to the contrast with the dark green pine trees. From the parking lot in the middle of town, walk past the cemetery and you’ll come to the entrance to the path. During the day, it will cost you €2 to pass through the turnstile; after hours, you can just duck under or step over and visit for free (I’m guilty as charged!). If you take this walk after hours, you’ll only be sharing the path with a few other scofflaws, and I found an almost mysterious aura in the slanting sunlight striking the red earth through the evergreens.
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.
Less romantically, of course, there is a geological story regarding the ochre. 230 million years ago, Provence sat on the floor of a prehistoric sea. As the continents formed, sediments settled to the bottom of this sea which would later become the limestone so characteristic of the region, later overlaid with clay. As the floor of the sea rose and the waters began to recede, greensands settled on the clay. 100 million years ago Provence was lifted out of the water and enjoyed a spell as a tropical climate. The heavy tropical rains dissolved the elements of the greensand, leaving only the enduring sand particles. The minerals kaolinite and goethite filled the spaces between the grains of sands. Continuous "scrubbing" of the sands evacuated the iron oxides, the compound which colors the ochre. Limonite (iron oxide) colors the ochre yellow, while hematite (iron oxide) colors the ochre red.
You may not care much about any of this as you descend the Ochre Path. Winds, rain, and harvesting of the ochre have left many dramatic ruddy formations in place, including spires and ridges. Admittedly, some of the best of these are visible from the top of the path, which begins almost as a quarry, treeless and dusty. If you venture further in, you’ll see horizontal seams of gold ochre streaking through the primarily red and orange cliffs. Eventually, red paths lead into evergreen forests. Especially in the early evening light, the red and gold of the ochre against the dark green of the pines make for some very attractive photos.
One very important detail: If you will be walking the path, don’t wear light colors, especially white. The ochre dust is vivid and omnipresent!