What's in Your Palette?

Thursday, April 21, 2011 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Roussillon, Gordes, & Menerbes France. 
From our home base at Bonnieux, we explored three other nearby hill towns today in this part of Provence:  Roussillon, Gordes, and Menerbes.
Selecting a color scheme when decorating a room can be a challenging decision, but at least you have the assurance that your choices aren't going to have very far-reaching consequences.  What if you were choosing a palette for an entire town?  We had the pleasure today of visiting three charming towns-- in fact, they are both on the official list of France's most beautiful villages.  They didn't need an HGTV makeover, because each town has a unique color scheme and very distinctive appearance.   space   
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Roussillon (roo-see-yoh) is noted for the rich ocher deposits in the clay surrounding the village.  Ranging in color from yellow through orange to red, ochers were among the first pigments used by humans.  In the late 1700s, ocher powders from Roussillon were shipped around the world.  Ocher mining was the driving force in the Roussillon area economy until the development of synthetic dyes virtually shut down the industry.  But the rich colors mined from the native soil are still evident in the village.
Roussillon's range
As you wander up the spiraling streets of this hill town, you can find the entire range of 17 colors once mined in the local quarry.  This technicolor appearance keeps the memory of the former industry alive, as does the opportunity to wander on the trails of the old quarry and admire the mineral rich clay in its native environment.
A walkway for visitors has created a new use for ocher quarries.
Though the ochre is no longer pulled from the earth for selling, it is still the lifeblood of the town as its beauty draws tourists and artists who flock to the village to be inspired by the warmth of its gorgeous hues contrasted against the evergreens and azure sky. 
Roussillon hues
When you see this perched village, even from from a distance, there's no mistaking it.  Roussillon's palette gives it away.  We left the town expecting that no other village could be as picturesque as this.  We were wrong.

Driving up a winding road near the southern edge of the Plateau de Vaucluse, we suddenly noticed that the road was lined with stone walls.  "What's up with that?"  we asked each other.  The walls shared a very specific design, flat stones dry stacked horizontally and capped by vertical coping stones.  It was obvious that the homogeneity of the design was no coincidence.
Gordes stone wall
As we entered a hairpin turn and pulled over at the bélvèdere (panoramic view) sign, we discovered the stony beauty of the town of Gordes, spiraling up the limestone bluff.  Just as the stacked limestone walls along the approach road foretold, Gordes (gohrd) is a city of stone. 
In fact, the village has very strict building codes which prevent the construction of any other type of structure.  For both new construction and renovations, Gordes' urban design regulations require a cladding of horizontally laid flat stones, thus ensuring the warm beige harmonious appearance of the town.  Fences are not permitted, only stone walls, and modern utilities must be buried underground to maintain the historic feel.

Gordes has no palate for a colorful palette.
The effect is quite stunning and has inspired artists from Marc Chagall to Victor Vasarely and Pol Mara.  Cobblestone streets thread their way between tall stone houses to the medieval castle and church at the top of the village.  As with so many nearby towns, the area has been inhabited since the (especially appropriate here) Stone Age.

Menerbes became a popular destination in the 1990s after the publication of A Year in Provence.   The book relates the often humorous adventures of British expat Peter Mayle and his wife who moved near the village and renovated an old farmhouse.  The movie based on the memoir—A Good Year (2006)—was mostly filmed in Bonnieux.  Since the Mayle madness has calmed down, Menerbes has returned to its character that drew the couple there in the first place—a lovely, quiet medieval village perched on a hill above the Luberon Valley.
Chateau du Castellet in Menerbes
Like Roussillon and Gordes, Menerbes has been given official recognition as one of the most beautiful villages in France (Plus Beaux Villages de France).  Its color range is similar to that of Gordes though local construction requirements are not so strict.  Lured by the picturesque beauty of the village and the luminous light of Provence, a variety of artists have lived and worked there, including Picasso and Nicolas de Stael.

We drove to each of these towns today on a loop that began and ended in Bonnieux, where we are staying.  Incredibly, the entire drive totaled less than 30 miles.