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Roussillon and the Lubéron

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Picture of Bonnieux, Provence Picture of Gordes, Provence Photograph of Gordes, Provence Hay bales near Gordes, Provence

“The Lubéron” includes three mountain ranges (les monts de Vaucluse) between the Alps and the Mediterranean in the Vaucluse region of Provence. The green hills and valleys make the Lubéron especially picturesque. Much of the area is a national park. Hilltops are dotted with villages-perchés— “perched villages” of stone buildings and narrow cobblestoned streets clustered around a castle or church— that maintain much of their medieval appearance. It’s easy to imagine what feudal Europe must have looked like the 13th century, with insular (and easily-defended) villages overlooking plains surrounded by farmland.

Before 1989, the Lubéron was a destination reserved for a few of the British upper crust who spent summers there. Then the British advertising executive and writer Peter Mayle published A Year in Provence. He charmingly described his experiences as a British expatriate living in and fixing up an old farmhouse near the Lubéron village of Ménerbes. The book and its various sequels have turned the Lubéron into “Peter Mayle country” for legions of tourists from around the world.

Gordes is the best known, most visited, most photographed, and perhaps most “typical” of the Lubéron’s perched villages. It’s on the registry of “the most beautiful villages in France.” (Gordes has no connection with the Spanish gordo, “fat.” It actually comes from the Gaulish Celtic Worda or Wordense, which became Gordenses and then Gordes. That language change also transformed the 11th-century Norman French warranty into guarantee, the same word later re-borrowed from Modern French.)

The popularity of Gordes makes it a place perhaps best appreciated from a distance. Various locations near the village offer views that show no evidence of the 21st century— if you’re patient enough to wait until the cars and tour buses are out of the picture.

Roussillon village overview Picture of Roussillon ocher cliffs

Roussillon is a similarly “typical” (and, unfortunately, similarly touristy) Lubéron village. Roussillon is built on strikingly colorful cliffs that contain the the world’s largest ochre deposits. Ochre is soil mixed with iron oxides. Its color varies with the proportions of iron, oxygen, and water, along with the size of the particles in the mixture. Think of it as rust with artistic ambitions. The Romans used the multicolored earth for pottery glazes; later artists used the ochre for paint pigments.

Roussillon was synonymous with ochre for centuries. The village’s name derives from russus, the Latin word for the reddish-orange color of ochre. Mining of the cliffs ended after World War II, when cheaper synthetic pigments largely supplanted ochre. Roussillon became a protected historic village, where no modern development is allowed (although its houses sport television antennas and satellite dishes).

Buildings in Roussillon are made from colorful local stone, or are painted in ochre colors. That’s mainly to make the village distinctive for tourists, as other Lubéron villages are built from unpainted white or pale yellow stones. But even with the tourist hordes, the colorful palette makes Roussillon a fascinating place to explore with a camera and has earned it a place on the list of “the most beautiful villages in France.” For visitors whose inclinations are more athletic than photographic, there are also hiking trails around the ochre cliffs and beyond.

A Roussillon Gallery

Picture of Pont Julien

Pont Julien is a Roman bridge over the Calavon River near Bonnieux. As the name suggests, it was built on the orders of Julius Caesar in the the 1st century CE as part of the Via Domitia, the main road from Italy to Gaul and Hispania. Not only is the bridge fully intact, but for much of of the 20th century it carried cars and trucks to the highway between Apt and Cavaillon.

Photograph of Pont Julien Under the arch at Pont Julien

It’s surely a testament to the skills of Roman engineers that this bridge has not only survived for 2,000 years, but remains sturdy enough for a steady parade of vehicles heavier than anything its designers could have even imagined. That said, Pont Julien is the only one of many similar bridges on the Via Domitia that has survived. Over such a long period, sheer luck— or perhaps the capricious favor of Janus, the two-headed Roman deity of doorways and bridges— might ultimately matter as much as solid engineering. Moustiers Sainte Marie Picture of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie

The local government finally opened a new bridge designed for modern motor vehicles in 2005. Visitors to Pont Julien can now walk or ride a bicycle on the bridge without fear of hazardous encounters with traffic.

The village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is set on a rocky ledge 100 meters up a limestone cliff. Moustiers is a time-polished version of the Latin monasterium, reflecting the village’s origin as the site of a monastery founded in 434. Another one of the “most beautiful villages in France,” Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is in the Haute-Provence region between the Lubéron and the Mediterranean.

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