Roussillon, Gordes & Abbaye de Senanque

From the 18th century until the end of WW2, Roussillon was the world center for production of ochre, that gorgeous terra cotta pigment used in paints and textiles. Improved technology has made large scale mining of lower grade (and easier to access) ochre more profitable than working Roussillon’s deposits, so the village lives on tourism today.

The village is located within one of France’s national reserves, the Parc Naturel RĂ©gional du Luberon. The old ochre quarry has been developed into a nature walk (le Sentier des Ochres de Roussillon) and playground for the local kids.

Like all Provencal villages, Roussillon also used to produce its own olive oil. One the old buildings has been converted into a small museum illustrating the traditional process.

Gordes’ dramatic setting is its main tourist draw. During WW2, it served as a base for the French resistance and was accordingly punished by the Nazis. The village deteriorated until it was discovered by artists (including Marc Chagall). Today, Gordes is an enclave for artists and the wealthy.

The village has had a chateau on site since the 11th century, although the castle has been ruined and destroyed several times. The chateau’s latest incarnation dates to the 1950s-60s, when a totally obsessed family bought the ruin and restored it, virtually by hand. The only part of the castle what was open on our visit was the exhibit space, containing dozens of modern grotesques. (No, the artist didn’t call them grotesques but really…)

One unique feature for this castle is the opportunity to tour the cellars. Like all villages perched on a ridge, there isn’t a lot of room for people to live, work and house their livestock. So these folks carved workshop rooms, storage spaces and stables into the living rock.

Tools used in the 20th century to restore the cellars.

The Abbaye de Senanque lies a few kilometers down the road from Roussillon. It is an active monastery, founded in 1148 and inhabited by Cistercian monks more or less continually since that time (absent an ~ 100 year hiatus following the French revolution).

The monks’ primary crop is lavender, which – sadly – is not yet in bloom. During the summer this sea of green is a sea of purple.

The old portions of the monastery can be visited as a guided tour – in French. We tagged along anyway, missing out on much of the commentary on Cistercian religious life, but able to appreciate the abbey’s peaceful beauty.


The warming room. In medieval times, this was the only room with heat.

The Cistercian order is an offshoot of the Benedictines, established by St. Bernard of Clairvaux as a reform against the ungodly worldliness of his religious brethren. The monks’ lives are centered around manual work and prayer. They live in silence except for services and one hour each day when they gather to hear readings from The Rule and discuss any issues that arise.

In keeping with their ascetic philosophy, the abbey’s cloister is simple and austere.


There is, however,  one lovely demon head, prominently positioned where the monks can see it during their daily tete-a-tete.

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