The ochre of the Luberon fascinates. From Roussillon to Gignac, by way of Villars, Gargas and Rustrel, the former ochre quarries of the Apt valley (Vaucluse) surge from the past, hiking trails have been blazed, panoramic viewpoints opened up, signs of bygone days brought up to date and car parks can be found.
1929 and the economic depression had nevertheless tolled the bells for industrial production of ochre. The craft industry production declined more slowly to still remain residual today. A silent death, yet still better accepted then the settling in of the military and their families on the Albion plateau in the 1960's.
Sculpted by storms, these former ochre deposiis today present an enchanting scenery which hybridize the intentions of Man and the wishes of Nature. Cliffs, earth pillars, ochre-coloured sand hillocks, after being dug out by shovels and picks, are henceforth shaped by the will of the winds and rain.
Proudly perched on a hilltop, Roussillon overlooks the first quarries carved out over two centuries ago. The red of the cliff faces, to which respond like an echo the red of the buildings' façades, certainely explains the attraction of this village which is the only one located in the heart itself of the ochre deposits. Father to the east, south of Rustrel, the "Provençal Colorado" is the most spectacularof the ochre sites. A small stream which flows from Gignac to Apt and which, with the rains, swells and sweeps along yellow waters rich in ochre, the Doa has over the centuries worked away at the earth's layers, exposing the white limestone, green clays and banks of ochre sands, which here take on a tormented form rarely seen elsewhere.
Discreet, Gargas distinguishes itself by the cliff faces on which have been carved galleries in the form of arches. Endless red mazes, which go down in to the heart of the hill itself. They are not (yet) open to the public. Some of them act as mushroom beds; the darkness and moisture are in effect favorable for cultivating mushrooms...
Banks of silica lost in the ocean of white limestone of Provence, "ochre" is composed of 90% sand (silica) and 10% clay and goethite (a pigment which gives its colour). Georges Guende, who has studied the flora of the Luberon Natural Regional Park for nearly twenty years, has brought to light the specificity of the flora found in the ochre mountains.
If holm oak, white oak, Scotch pines, rosemary, thyme and boxwood grow indifferently in chalky or siliceous soil, there are other plants which are characteristic of ochre earth. Parasol pines have invaded these areas, following the deforestation that accompanied the opening of the quarries. More rare, the chestnut tree flourishes in the coolness at the bottom of the valleys. The undergrowth is made up of broom heather, which we used in olden days to make brooms, and the common heather produces, in Autumn, long, magnificent bunches of bright pink flowers in the form of small bells. In an open field, the heather takes over the soil, forming a dense tangle of shrub. Testifying to the air's purity but also the ambient humidity, the lichens attach themselves to the bark of trees on the most eastern hills. The aesthetes will particularly like the diversity of wild orchids; some twenty six varieties thrive here, some of them extremely rare. Nature lovers will be keen to admire and photograph them, without touching. The large number of visitors to these areas does, in effect, put these plants in danger of dying off.