Raised in the south, I’m no stranger to good old red clay. But outside of mud pies and bricks, I never really considered that ruby dirt might have a higher purpose until I made a day trip to Rousillon in Provence. The village, with a whopping population of 1280, sits charmingly atop the cliffs of old ochre quarries, their reds and peaches and yellows mingling in a landscape that looks handpainted. In a sense, it could have been, since the very earth itself was mined to create pigments for the dying of cloth.
A trip to the top of the town and then down into the quarry takes me far, far away from my usual days in France — those hours I like to spend sipping in cafes, strolling cobblestones and scouring tiny antique shops. The earth is scooped out like a bowl, but her sides rise in wavering walls sculpted by the scraping of tools and of rain, leaving behind a landscape that could rival any vision of another world. Note the scale in relation to the people standing near the center bottom of the photo at left.
And of course it’s no surprise then, that the homes and shops, the studios and restaurants of Rousillon are similarly rouged. After all, while the ochres may have brought big money for 150 years (in 1929 a record 40,000 tons were mined here), enough remained to color the town whose inhabitant discovered the formula for turning a dye used since prehistoric times into a fade-resistant and non-toxic coloring agent. Still, walking among the many buildings that so clearly and fancifully echo their humble beginnings in the landscape makes for a singularly whimsical excursion.
They say the glorious colors of the earth in Rousillon were created by the receding sea that covered the area millions of years ago, combined with rains pouring against limestone, as well as a mineral called goethite. The endless shades, though, are harder to explain. What I do know is that spending a day in the ochres is a lot more fun than sliding around in the red dirt of home, and staining my white shorts with a little bit of France feels a bit like bringing home some holy water. And hey, in Rousillon, you can bring home all kinds of holy — pigments for the soul.