On The Ochre Trail
It’s only iron oxide, so why get all excited? Just a big pile of dirt, but one that’s spawned a whole industry of mining and refining color, as well as one of the most famous tourist attractions in the south of France.
How big a pile of dirt?
Consider those little spots of color at the top of the picture: those are people. And this is just one cliff along the famous Sentier des Ocres, the trail of ochre, where you can spend a splendid hour or two dawdling along, mouth open in amazement, running down your camera batteries.
Where in the south of France? In the improbably colorful town of Rousillon, which sits on the world’s largest ochre deposit. A town where everything is either red, gold, or some shade in between.
Even the birds’ nests. It’s breathtaking and overwhelming, and for once I didn’t envy the chic Parisiens getting out of their cars wearing impeccably white pants.
When you get tired of gawking at the cliffs you can go to the Conservatoire des Ocres, where there’s a museum of color and the old ochre factory. A student guide, as sweetly long-legged as a colt, explains how the ochre was mined, washed, and baked, all by hand. Or by hand to mouth, since at the time the most reliable method for assuring the fineness of the ochre powder was for the worker to put a bit in his mouth to be sure no grit crunched between his teeth.
At the conservatoire they display color in all its glory and in many forms. They also specialize in training people to work with ochre, and you can take workshops in ochre technique for your home’s plaster or whitewash.
Or you can, as we did, bring home small packets of ochre to paint with, or copy into latex house paint using modern technology. I’m betting that no computer-assisted paint mixer could capture the depth and richness of the real stuff, but we bought some anyway, just in case. Only the bright blue isn’t an ochre color, the rest are all courtesy of Mother Earth.
And of course, after such a colorful day, what would you eat but
duck in a bright red wine sauce and
a russet-glowing cheese platter. The dinner, at Les Remparts in Venasque, perfectly matched the mood of the day, and afterwards we climbed up to their very highest little room, ducked our heads to get in,
looked out at yet more red, and fell asleep wishing, just for a change, that we knew how to dream in black and white.