Not only is Roussillion picturesque, quaint, picture-perfect and all other adjectives that describe hilltop villages in southern France, it also has something extra. something really wonderful: an over abundance of red ochre. You can hike up and down the narrow cobble-stone alleys, peer into churches, admire the vistas from the uppermost reaches of the place, eat a crepe au sucre near the car park, and generally take in the provencal flavor of the place. And if you're an archaeologist, artist, or devote(e) of bright colors and astonishing sights, you have the ochre. The village seems to seated atop of a mountain of the stuff, although I caught glimpses of bedrock, soil, and trees stunted by the mistral winds leaning vicariously over the edge of the steeper slopes.

There are 27 shades of ochre. Colors vary from yellowish brown to orange to bright red. Visions of Lascaux and Chauvet caves instantly stimulate the senses. You imagine an artist 30,000 years ago carefully putting the final touches on a horse or bison, or blowing the powder through a tube so that his or her hand is outlined on the wall. You recall from your undergraduate courses in world prehistory and art history the incredible movement of the animals in the flicker of an ancient fire. There must have been a trade network, you think, but, how far? This is the largest deposit of ochre in the country, perhaps western Europe. Roussillion was known long before it was given its name. The core word, of course, derives from "rouge," the French word for red.  

Was Roussillion's ochre lost to time and then rediscovered by later artists? Hard to say. I CAN say that the same paths I wandered and the same brilliant ochre I saw were known to Van Gogh and Cezanne. Imagine Cezanne's amazement when he first saw the sight in the 19th century. Lured there by stories of  friends and colleagues, he walked up the steep hill or came up by horse astonished by what he saw. After a glass of Pastis, perhaps, he would have debated whether to mine a particular hue, risking life and limb. Imagine his relief when he saw that every imaginable shade was already available at the local shop without having to lift a finger. Another Pastis, then back down the hill, laden with as much pigment as possible. Which landscape would he paint next? He would think about this while making his way back to the studio.