October, 2015 – Our neighborhood surrounding our colorful rental house in the Provence, a few miles from Roussillon, was abuzz with activity in the jardins. Hopefully, the chainsaw wielding neighbors were not buzzed as they lopped off tree limbs, so we wouldn’t have any emergency calls for lopped-off body parts. What brought on this lively and hasty pruning? The weather report warned that high winds and heavy rain were coming our way in the next two days.
We took the news seriously and decided to stay inside the safety of the thick walls of the house which was built to keep out the winds of the Mistral, which some locals say can blow the ears off a donkey. I had read stories about the Mistral. Peter Mayle recounts, “It drove people, and animals, mad. It was an extenuating circumstance in crimes of violence. It blew for fifteen days on end, uprooting trees, overturning cars, smashing windows, tossing old ladies into the gutter, splintering telegraph poles, moaning through houses like a cold and baleful ghost, causing la grippe, domestic squabbles, absenteeism from work, toothache, migraine – every problem in Provence that couldn’t be blamed on the politicians was the fault of the sâcré vent which the Provençaux spoke about with a kind of masochistic pride.” I didn’t want to be the little old lady in the gutter, so we stayed home and only risked the domestic squabbles. Apparently, I already had la grippe since I was coughing, feverish and following instructions from the nice lady pharmacist after she recommended nasal spray, cold medicine and cough drops. All of this was less than twenty euros!
On the first day of the bad weather report we only had an average rain, nothing especially hazardous. Jim cooked and I rested with la grippe on the sofa until I decided I was tired of trying to see outside through the dirty glass doors. I muttered complaints and accusations at the previous tenants and maybe a few words against the owners. Why couldn’t they do this simple window cleaning with just a quick spray and few swipes and it would be done? I found the glass cleaner in the kitchen and went to work. The finished product was worse than the dirty version! I finally found vinegar and mixed my own cleaner for the second cleaning, this time in windblown rain for the outside glass scrubbing. Voila! The rain fell in the courtyard on the orange trumpet vine now visible through the sparkling, clean glass for my enjoyment as I coughed and went through a box of tissues.
On the second day, the rain was gone and only dark clouds hovered here and there. The neighbors were out and about. Jim and I decided to risk getting our car overturned and our ears blown away. We drove to Roussillon and paid the small admission price to Sentier des Ochres. (Admission is free up to ten years old, a good value for families.)
Despite my best efforts at travel planning, we could have totally missed this wonderful place if I had not exchanged a message with an exceptional photographer in the Google photo challenge group that accepts my amateur contributions.He recommended the ocher quarry highly while my guidebook had only the briefest description tacked on to the information for Roussillon: “Its hues come from at least 17 shades of ochre discovered in and around the village, notably in the dramatic former quarries along the Sentier des Ochres.
The quarries are to the east of the village, a 45-minute round-trip from the information office.” I had read though this and thought a former quarry didn’t sound enticing, and I noticed the picture of an entry stairway which appeared hazardous for me with my tendency to stumble over a toadstool. Truly, the stairs were not that bad. I am very thankful that I had the brief conversation. There is nothing like information from those in the know.
The cliffs and earth pillars formerly dug by shovels and picks have been sculpted by storms to present a blazing, panorama of color. The short description on the website promises a walk among a veritable labyrinth with panels explaining the formation and operation of the famous ocher quarries. We followed a group of small children as they scampered ahead of us fearlessly, while we watched cautiously every step of the way. The parents provided paper for the youngsters to create artwork. White is not a color to wear in the quarry, or you will return with new color combination. When the little ones were playing on the ground I was reminded of my own children years ago kneeling in the red clay of Alabama. Chet’s pants and Jessica’s sundresses were permanently soiled despite the powerful claims of Tide and Clorox!
If you go to Roussillon, and I do hope you can, don’t miss the Sentier des Ochres! You can buy a ticket that includes the Conservatory of Ocher which is a little further in the village where you follow the path of the ocher and its transformation into manufactured products. You can visit the old factory with its pools, workshop, furnaces, shop and library.
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