Ochre Trail, Roussillon, Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur, France

The sudden explosion of brilliant colour in the landscape – set off by green forests of pines and oaks – comes as a dramatic surprise as you drive through this area. It’s caused by iron oxide deposits in the sandy soil, whose origins can be traced back millions of years, when Provence was under water.

It’s still not known exactly why the geological changes should have caused these pigments precisely here and not elsewhere in the region. The Roussillon Tourist Office website gives a little more scientific detail and also suggests a fanciful alternative explanation: a legend involving a troubadour, a châtelaine and a doomed love affair!

One fact is established: it was a citizen of Roussillon, Jean-Étienne Astier, who studied the properties of ochre and began extracting it from sand on an industrial scale at the end of the 18th century.

While mining has long since ceased in the region (apart from in nearby Gargas), ochre has become the cornerstone of Roussillon’s thriving tourist industry. Today it’s the second most popular village in the Luberon after Gordes, beguiling visitors with its riotous colours. It gives a whole new meaning to painting the town red.

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