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Why Roussillon is “Red”: Fact and Fable

The Barefoot Blogger – as seen in France Today. 

Why is Roussillon red? The French commune of Roussillon is located in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, roughly midway between Avignon and Aix-en-Provence. It is in the heart of one of the world’s most significant ochre deposits, extending from Apt to Roussillon via Gargas and Rustrel.

Ochre deposits lend a natural reddish-brown hue to the village of Roussillon, giving the entire area the nickname “Colorado Provençal.” In Roussillon, the ochre facades of the houses vary from light yellow to dark red. Set off by the brightly painted shutters and doors, these houses contrast sharply against lush green pine trees. To many, Roussillon is one of the most beautiful villages in France.

The History of Ochre

Millions of years ago, Roussillon was covered by the sea. The area was left with ochre-bearing limestone hills when the waters dried up. Like Today, stone formations were stained with colored clays in every conceivable iron oxide pigment from yellow to purple. Ochres, the colored clays found as a soft deposit, were intermingled with harder crystalline iron ore pockets in fairly even horizontal layers of variable thicknesses.images-2

Fast-forward to 300,000 years ago. Man discovered ochre. The natural pigment with indelible color was used to embellish the caves that man inhabited. Since then, ochre has been a coloration for everything from cave paintings to pottery, body paint, and tattoos. Proof lies in some French burial sites from 200,000 years ago. They have red ochre floors that are eight inches thick. Also, skeletons are found sprinkled with red powder at the sites, making researchers wonder if the powder was remnants of tattoos, applied for funeral rites, or used to mask the odor of death. In any case, only skeletons and red ochre pigments are left in these burial sites.

Ochre quarries

Around the French Revolution, the demand for ochre was at an all-time high, primarily due to the textile industry. The industrial process for making ochre pigment was developed by the French scientist Jean-Étienne Astier from Roussillon. He invented a way to produce pigment on a large scale.

Mining ochre in Roussillon intensified. As many as seventeen shades of dye were manufactured from the local rock. By the end of the 19th century, ochre from Roussillon was exported worldwide. It was used for artists’ and house paints and became an essential ingredient for the early rubber, linoleum, paper, and cardboard industries.

Ochre supported the economic base of Roussillon until shortly after World War II, even though mining stopped in the 1930s to protect the sites from degradation or even complete destruction. The economic crisis of 1929 didn’t help business either. Foreign markets closed down one by one. The industry suffered another hit in the 1950s. The introduction of synthetic pigments sent the industry into a downward spiral. Ochre production finally stopped mass production in the village in 1958. 

605-4e36c075efe6d-642x330-7Ochre is enjoying a much-deserved revival, although only one company in the area still operates. Fortunately for tourists, in Roussillon, you can walk along the Sentier des Ocres’ footpath and appreciate the ochre cliffs’ beauty. The Conservatoire des Ocres et des Pigments Appliqués is located in one of the factories that fell into disuse over 50 years ago. Inside, tours and lectures are offered to help preserve the critical history of ochre and the region. 

Why Roussillon is Red. The Fable

For those who want to know the real story ...

...embellished by the Barefoot Blogger

MSMS6-119.53647Once upon a time, there was a lovely young damsel named Sermonde. She was married to the Lord of Roussillon, Raymond d’Avignon. Like many Medieval lords, Raymond loved to hunt. He’d spend weeks with his male friends, killing wild animals for sport and trophies. He was absent from the château so much, in fact, that Lady Sermonde grew sad and lonely.

She began going out to the local nightspots with her Lady friends. 

One night out in town, Sermonde met a handsome young troubadour named Guillaume. They fell in love instantly. Soon, the Lady and her Troubadour were involved in a torrid affair.images

Everyone in the village knew the tryst between the Lady and the troubadour. They also knew that Lord Raymond would make the couple pay early when he found out.

Sooner than later, Lord Raymond learned of his wife’s dastardly deception.

Lord Raymond suggested Sermonde invite her new friend, Guillaume, over for a drink rather than confront her. Pretending to enjoy Guillaume’s company, Lord Raymond asked the troubadour to join him on a hunt the next day.

Thinking the Lord knew nothing of his Lady’s affair, Guillaume graciously accepted the invitation. The two men left the following day, guns in hand. 

In the early afternoon, Lord Raymond returned to the Chateau. Alone.

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“Where is Guillame, the troubadour?” Lady Sermonde said, greeting her husband at the door.

“Why … he’s been delayed a bit,” Lord Raymond replied. “He’ll join us later,” he added. “… for dinner.”

With that, Lord Raymond turned around and headed for the kitchen. He often prepared meals that featured the spoils of his hunts.

When day turned to dusk, Lady Sermonde left her boudoir and walked downstairs to the dining room. Expecting to see her lover, Guillaume, she was surprised to see only her husband, Lord Raymond, waiting for her.

“You were expecting your friend, Guillaume?” the Lord asked slyly? “He’ll be here any moment,” he said. “Let’s be seated. I’m certain he won’t be upset if we start.”

Lord Raymond led Sermonde to her place at the table politely. He returned to his seat opposite hers and began carving the main course.

He proudly presented his wife with a plate filled with his day’s bounty. “Here,” he proclaimed. “Enjoy!”

Lady Sermonde took a bite of her dinner, then another. Realizing that the “meat” served to her had an unusual taste and texture, she remarked: “This, my dear Lord Raymond, is a most uncommon creature, is it not? Have you found a new type beast to bring to our table,” she asked.

“Yes, indeed,” said the Lord gleefully; “I hope you like it, my dear.”

“It is a pity our friend Guillaume could not be here to enjoy this delightful meal with us,” stated Lady Sermonde.

“Au contraire,” Lord Raymond chirped. “He is here, “he chimed. “Guillaume is the main attraction, the main course.”

Lady Sermonde dropped her fork. Her mouth flew wide open. She screamed. Her screams filled the room, the château, and soon, the village. Before the Lord or servants could catch her, Sermonde ran to the top of the château’s highest tower; she threw open the window and jumped.

Down her blood flowed, onto the hills, into the valley below. Lady Sermonde’s blood colored the earth around Roussillon. Forever and Today.


For more about Roussillon:

Samuel Beckett in Roussillon, France

Fall … In Love With Provence

Lost in the Luberon: Gordes, Goult and Menerbes



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