Welcome to Colorado, France
A few weeks ago was my birthday, and for the first time in years I was not going to celebrate it in a big city, surrounded by a group of friends. This time, I didn’t feel like having a party. I wanted to spend it somewhere I’d never been before; to make the day an adventure. I was yearning for new horizons to explore – preferably of the spectacular kind. What I had in mind looked something like this: crisp air, high ridges, wild colours, grand nature – exactly the kind of scenery you can find in the American West. Except I was sitting in Provence, France, with no plane ticket in sight.
That’s when I recalled hearing about the ancient ochre quarries: tales of an out-of-this-world landscape and of windy days turning everybody’s clothes into a bright orange mess came back to my mind. I did a little research, and stumbled upon directions to a small village called Rustrel: located in the Luberon, about an hour east of Avignon by car, it was the gateway to a place they call… the French Colorado (Colorado Provençal). I convinced my mum to come on a birthday adventure with me (it’s a well-known fact that mums are the best for late-minute birthday enterprises), filled up our water bottles, and jumped into the car. A little over an hour later, we found ourselves facing this view:
Now, how did a piece of Colorado find its way to the middle of Provence – a region better known for lavender fields, vineyards and olive trees than bright red fairy chimneys? Well, the ochre fields around Rustrel are actually a natural oddity that has been around for millenia, and the landscape that can be seen today has been sculpted by both the forces of nature and the work of Man.
Ochre is a natural pigment that has been used since Prehistoric times (you know those mammoth paintings in prehistorical caves? Yep, ochre), but the peak of ochre’s popularity was during the 20th Century: back then, the precious material was used to dye everything from makeup to cheese rinds and cigarette filters, resulting in a flourishing industry around Rustrel. However, because of the competition of synthetic dyes, the industry progressively declined, and the last Rustrel quarry closed in 1992.
Leaving from the Mille Couleurs car park, there are three hiking trails you can choose from to explore the area: a super-easy 1-hour trail favoured by families with prams (blue marking), a 2-hour trail that takes you through the most spectacular sights and provides nice shade during most of the way (brown/black marking), and a 3-hour one for those looking for a serious hike, but less shaded and not recommended in 32-degree-heat (orange marking). Entrance is free, the only expense being the car park fee. We opted for the 2-hour circuit, which actually took us 3 and a half because it’s hard not to stop every second to admire the view, and also because turning 27 has not yet gotten the habit of climbing onto everything out of me.
So, does the French Colorado live up to its name? Hell yes. The diversity of rock formations is mind-blowing: tiny canyons, sharp-as-knives cliffs (how the hell do these guys even manage to exist? Have they not heard of that thing called gravity?), fairy chimneys, soft round hills, you name it. Among the ochre sands, remains of the industrial era – metal pipes, old rails, ancient carts – create an eerie atmosphere. But the most spectacular is, of course, the colours: Rustrel displays no less than
50 (sorry) 25 shades of ochre, ranging from ivory white – in the ‘White Sahara’ – to brick-red, and including all kinds of yellow, orange and pink hues. Now add the deep green of the pine trees and the solid blue of the sky to the equation, and you’ll feel a sudden urge to quit your desk-job on the spot to become a landscape painter.
Looking back on that day in the French Colorado, I couldn’t have dreamt of a better way to spend my birthday: I got to wear hiking shoes all day, to marvel at a landscape that was entirely different from anything I’d seen before, and instead of good old birthday cake I got an ice-cream which, after 3 hours of hiking, was the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted. And when you think about it, all it took was a one-hour car ride from home. I think I now want to spend my birthday exploring somewhere new every year.
A few words of advice for those who wish to visit the French Colorado (and you should):
- Rustrel is not that well-known, but still pretty crowded in the months of July and August. Try to visit off-season, arrive early… or prepare for crowds.
- Ochre is a dye. Don’t wear white.
- This is a hike: wear appropriate shoes. Sneakers are fine, but don’t go in flip-flops – I saw a lot of people who did and visibly regretted it. If you’re after a shorter/less adventurous experience, check out The Ochre Trail in Roussillon.
- Bring lots of water, as there are no shops or stalls on the trail. A good place to pick up basic but tasty sandwiches and take-away salads to take along is Le Café des Ocres, in the village of Rustrel.
- All the trails of Provence can be subject to restrictions because of fire hazards in summer (heat + wind = danger). Which of course means you can’t smoke there, and park authorities might confiscate lighters: leave yours in the car.
All photos by Marie Colinet, except photos of me by Marie-Christine Colinet.