The Dazzling Colors of the Colorado Provencal
Have you heard of the Colorado Provencal? The Wild West in Provence? Imagine the stunning colors of Arizona’s Grand Canyon at dusk, and you will have an idea of the beauty awaiting you. Sands in infinite shades of red, orange, yellow, and even creamy white glow under the bright golden Provencal sun contrasted against brilliant bright blue skies. A site created through the fantastic joint efforts of Mother Nature and Man.
History – The Formation of Ochre
Eons ago (about 230 million), a deep ocean completely covered the area. Over the centuries, a very thick (about 30 meters) sandy aquatic sediment naturally came to settle. If you have ever visited places like Les Baux de Provence and wondered about the shell incrusted stone walls, this might make quite a bit of sense to you.
As a few more million years passed, the movement of the earth caused mountains to be formed and oceans to recede revealing sandy clay sediments rich in iron from its aquatic origins. This area in the Vaucluse now known as the Colorado Provencal, its perched hilltops, the nearby Mont Ventoux, the Sainte Victoire in Aix-en-Provence, the Gorges du Verdon, the Calanques of Marseille were all formed in this same manner.The exposed sediment is what eventually forms into both the harder white limestone used in buildings throughout Provence, and the softer sandy colored ochre. The oxidation of iron minerals in the ochre sands are what create the beautiful natural colors used to color the homes of Provence.
What you see today Mother Nature first created. Then Man transformed, and then abandoned. Now Mother Nature is back, transforming again through wind and rain…
Mining and Transforming the Ochre
Ochre was first used back in prehistoric times, as evidenced in multiple cave paintings throughout the world. But it was in 1780 in the village of Rousillon that Jean Astier discovered how to transform ochre into a stable colorant. The ochre mines in this area and around those of Mormoiron (60km NW) are said to be the richest ochre mines in the world with veins up to 15 meters thick. Mines are located in Roussillon, Gignac, Villars, Gargas and Rustrel in the Vaucluse region of Provence.
The transformation from sand into ochre is a four step process:
- The ochre is washed to separate it from the heavier sand
- The wet ochre is left to dry in the sun
- The ochre is pulverized into tiny particles
- The ochre is heated to obtain a variety of colors
In 1900 there were 17 subterranean mines and 32 open air mines producing 14 tons of ochre per year that were transported on the backs of mules for delivery to Marseille. The mines fell into decline starting with the recession in 1929. The World Wars added further speed to the decline. The invention of synthetic dyes in the 1950’s ended almost all of the little mining that remained. Today only one small producer (800 tons per year), the “Société des Ocres de France”, is still mining out of the Ochre Mines de Bruoux in Gargas (visits possible) .
Visiting the Colorado Provencal
Hiking, biking, and riding your way around the Colorado Provencal…
There are many ways to discover the area, by car – bike – horseback – or my preferred way by foot. Just don’t forget to paint your face like a warrior with some ochre somewhere along the way regardless of your choice of transportation…
Driving – The Fastest and Easiest Way
Does a leisurely drive through multi colored scenery and tiny villages sound appealing to you? There’s nothing better than a Sunday drive any day of the week! This particular route links all the main villages of the Colorado Provencal. The driving loop is only 25km, but allow at least half a day if you want to make stops and visit villages.
You can print out driving map, or just follow these directions:
- From Apt, take D22 in direction of Rustrel (visit village or take one of the many hikes)
- From Rustrel, take D179 towards Saint Saturnin
- After +-2k, take D214 direction Villars (visit abandoned mine Ochre de la Bruyère)
- From Villars, take D11(1) and D83 towards Gargas (visit Ochre Mines de Bruoux)
- From Gargas, take D101 and D227 towards Roussillon (visit village)
- Return back to Apt via D104, D201, and then D900.
Biking – Provence à Vélo
If you are like many bike lovers across the world, you probably already know what a fantastic place France is for cyclist. There is no doubt that the best way to see the sights and sounds of the Colorado Provencal is on a bike. Whiz down curvy roads, pedal by panoramic views, speed through colorful ochre mines, and climb up gentle hills to perched villages.
If your biking skills go back to grammar school, an enjoyable and nice compromise are electric bikes. This allows you to mix bicyclists of all levels, and the bikes are more widely available than ever before and at very reasonable rates.
To get you started with some itinerary ideas, here are some great options:
- Les Ocres en Vélo – 51km total includes 2 color coded itineraries (yellow and green) going through the villages of the Colorado Provencal (Apt, Gargas, Rustrel, Roussillon and Villars). Look for the yellow and green color coded signs and information panels along the route.
- Le Luberon à Vélo – 236km traveling throughout the Luberon regrouping itineraries from many resources (Les Ochres en Vélo, Vallée du Cavalon, and Pays de Forcalquier). Look for the blue color coded signs and information panels along the route.
- Vélo Route de la Vallée du Calavon – The 37km from Cavaillon to Saint-Martin-de-Castillon follows a retired railroad track and a green space trail. It touches just a small part of the Colorado Provencal.
- Mountain Biking the Luberon – Rustrel is the birthplace of VTT in France, famous for its colorful dusty trails through mini canyons with towering rock formations. For more ideas try the VTT Vaucluse Guide Book or www.experiencefrancebybike.com
For general information on bicycling in the Luberon (both in French and English):
Horseback Riding – An Equestrian Oasis
- The French Colorado Ride – Depending on what you’re looking for, a relaxed horseback ride through the beautiful scenery of the Colorado Provencal may be just the perfect way to discover the area. One day or multi-day treks available through local sources.
Hiking – An Intimate Exploration
John Muir was onto something when he said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” Hiking is always my favorite way to explore… It’s easy, stimulating, and good for you benefiting both body and mind. What’s not to love???
Here’s a preview of what you might see hiking in the Colorado Provencal (in French):
The hikes in the Colorado Provencal almost all start in Rustrel and depart from the ACR (Association Colorado Rustrel) parking lot off the intersection of D22 (direction Banon) and D30A (about 10km NE of Apt). There is a small restaurant/buvette called “Mille Couleurs” located at Chemin de Saint-Joseph, 84400 Rustrel if you need an address for your GPS. There are also ochre washing demonstrations for those interested, call ahead for reservations.
The 5€ fee for parking gets you a brochure describing the three itineraries, and the fee is the main income for the upkeep and development of trails. Please do not park anywhere else but in the official parking lot, and keep in mind that the majority of the trails are on private land. Be considerate and grateful for the opportunity to visit this beautiful site…
WARNING: The signage can be a bit confusing! Make sure to bring a detailed map of the area (IGN 3242 Top 25 N°: 3242 OT Apt) for backup to the provided brochure.
There are three official itineraries:
- Circuit n°1 ORANGE – Cirque de Barriès (Colorado Blanc) – 5km (about 3 hours)
- Circuit n°2 BLACK – Les Cheminées des Fées – 3km (about 2 hours)
- Circuit n°3 BLUE – Aqueduct – 2km (about 1.25 hours)
Alternative Hikes – A through G
Here’s where it gets a little confusing. Disputes between private owners and the French local authorities have caused large areas of the Colorado Provencal to be officially out-of-bounds, although actually still accessible and open to the public. There are numerous additional hikes within these areas, but little information is available except from dated sources on the internet. To add further confusion, the GR 6, 9, and 97 also comes through the area with its own particular signage (red and white stripes). You potentially may come across old signage and get confused, and with the old orange trail at 16km vs the new orange trail at only 5km you may not be prepared… Avoid that unfortunate surprise and bring a map!
If you are interested in trying out these non-official hikes at your own risk (itineraries A-G), be especially careful and respectful of the environment and fire hazards, and don’t forget to bring that map! The hikes depart not from the main ACR parking lot, but from either Istrane (off D30 from Rustrel), the City Hall parking lot in Bouvène, or Camping Le Colorado (Quartier Notre Dame des Anges, Rustrel).
Itineraries A through G are accessible and open to the public, traveling through both public and private land. They are marked by yellow, blue and red markings (in theory at least).
- A : Sentier Morenas : departing Camping Le Colorado. 5,5 Km (2 h)
- B : Sentier des Blaces : departing Camping Le Colorado. 11,5 Km (3 h 30)
- C : Sentier des Crêtes : departing Istrane. 13 Km (4 h)
- D : Sentier de la Combe Étroite : departing parking Bouvène. 3,4 Km (I h 30)
- E : Sentier des Maîtres de Forges : departing Camping Le Colorado. 2,2 Km (1 h30)
- F : Sentier des Cheminées de Fées : departing parking Bouvène. 1 Km (30 min)
- G : Sentier du Sahara : departing parking Bouvène. 1,5 Km (45 min)
Two maps no longer available on the internet:
The GR6 and GR97 (Grande Randonée) also run right through these hikes connecting several of the above itineraries (look for red and white stripes). Guide Book “Le Parc naturel régional du Luberon… à pied“, available on Amazon.com and on www.ffrandonnee.fr.
Staying in the area for awhile? Need more things to do?
Well, there’s a whole lot more to explore in the area…
What to do in Apt :
- Musée de l’aventure industrielle (industrial museum of the region of Apt) – Retraces the local economic history via the industries of pottery, candied fruit, and ochre. Place du Postel – 84400 Apt – Tél. 04 90 74 95 30 www.apt.fr/Le-Musee-de-l-Aventure
- Société des Ocres de France boutique and showroom – Dating from 1901, visit the showroom (ochre mines in Gargas), watch a demonstration, or make a purchase in the boutique. Chemin des Ocriers, 84400 – APT www.ocres-de-france.com
- The Chauvin boutique and showroom (open Monday through Friday only) – Family business in existence since 1890, the company has expanded to provide a wide range of paint products. 487, avenue de Viton – 84400 Apt – Tél. 04 90 74 21 www.ocreschauvin.fr
What to do in Gargas :
- Gargas Village – Visit the charming little village of Gargas and the remains of the castle and 17th church. Gargas is the last village in Europe to still mining ochre. The GR6 hiking route passes through the village on its way to Roussillon and Gordes. There is also a lovely marked trail starting at the Quartier des Tamisisers, stopping at a panoramic view of the hills, and continuing up to the pilgrimage site Saint Radegonde Chapel built in 1551. There are also vestiges of a Gaul oppidum (about 2 hours).
- The Ochre Mines de Bruoux (Gargas) – This is the only ochre mine still in production today. These are the subterranean mines dug out of the hillside by The” Société des Ocres de France” dating back to 1901. The 40km labyrinth of galleries can reach heights of up to 15 meters (50 feet). There is a handful of other mines scattered around the region in various states of disrepair, but this is the only one officially open to the public. As soon as you are inside the mine, you will quickly get a feel for what the workers must have endured in that sandy dusty environment. An impressive site with a mysterious atmosphere. The guided 1 hour itinerary (in French with an Ipad for English speakers) covers just a small section of the mines galleries while relaying the harsh lives of the mine workers.
Make sure to bring warm clothing and good shoes as it is a chilly 10°C even in the summer. Tours to both this site and that of ôkhra (L’usine Matthieu) are run by the one and same company. Entrance fee 8€ per adult, children under 6 years old are free. Mines d’ocre de Bruoux, Route de Croagne, 84400 Gargas. www.minesdebruoux.fr
What to do in Villars :
- Village Villars – The tiny village of Villars is worth a quick wander. The hiking trails GR6 and GR9 also traverse the village.
- Les Ocres de la Bruyère hike (Villars) – The now abandonned mines of Bruyère were exploited by the first by the Malavard family in 1887, and later on by the « Compagnie des Ocres Françaises » who shut production down for good in 1967. There is a splendid hike with a few variations (9-17km) that takes you through the ochre fields and abandoned mines.
- The hike is much less frequented than those of the ACR (Association Colorado Rustrel) but just as striking, maybe even more. The hike begins in the vacation village known as « Jean-Jean » in the commune of Villars. Make sure to bring a map (IGN 3242OT) as the signage (yellow) can be confusing. Much of the hike go through private lands, so please be respectful as this trail is at risk of closing as there has been vandalism issues in the past. Make sure to take a quick detour at the “Trou des Américain” – what was once a mining excavation is now a watering hole for local wildlife. After that, continue to follow the yellow signage towards “Les Bruyères, Rustrel”
What to do in Rousillon :
- Village Roussillon – see previous post “Roussillon – A Very Colorful Day in Provence” for more information
- Le Sentier des Ocres (Roussillon) – see previous post “Roussillon – A Very Colorful Day in Provence” for more information
- Okhra/Conservatoire des Ocres (Usine Matthieu) –There are many activities on this large wooded property including self or guided visits to the factory, art classes, library, and expositions. D 104 – 84220 Roussillon – Tél. 04 90 05 66 69 www.okhra.com
What to do in Rustrel :
- Village Rustrel – This quaint little village dominated by its 16th castle is typical of the Colorado Provencal and the Luberon area. In the heart of the village you can visit the Olive Oil Museum, a 15th century church, or take stroll following the “Promenade de l’eau et découverte du Village” itinerary past multiple fountains and typical Provencal architecture. The GR6 passes through the village providing many more hiking opportunities in addition to the magnificent Colorado Provencal hikes.
Happy (Colorful) Travels,
-Girl Gone Gallic
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