Way back when, the Romans pulled down a Gaulish wooden bridge and erected a stone one across the deluge that was the River Cavalon. These days the Cavalon is slightly more than just a trickle and I’m sure a lot of people look at the bridge and wonder why they bothered. However, if you look at the terraces either side of the stream, it’s clear that where now a mere rivulet runs once a mighty river raged.
The bridge, Pont Julien, is a masterpiece of engineering (if you ask me). It has stood now for over 2,000 years and seems to be showing no signs of stopping and all without the benefit of any mortar. The whole thing is just brilliantly carved blocks, interlocking to provide strength and stability. Okay, traffic no longer goes across but it only stopped in 2005 so it has seen its fair share of cars and trucks.
And back in the mists of time (3BC) when it was first built, Emperor Julius Caesar possibly rode across it on his way along the Via Domitia to Colonia Apta Julia (modern day Apt), a town named after him. The Via Domitia ran from Italy to here, linking Rome with Gaul so this was a pretty important road and bridge.
Nowadays the only traffic consists of tourists, pedestrians and cyclists who whizz down off the Petit Luberon having just free wheeled down from Bonnieux. Which is not something I particularly want to try.
We followed a couple down as they hurtled towards the bridge. We were doing 40kph and didn’t need to overtake them. At one point the woman of the couple pulled over (to catch her breath, I assume) but her other half just kept racing on, seeing no point in stopping his forward and downward movement. The sonic boom was not that obvious but I’m fairly sure he hit it.
While we were wandering over and under the Roman bridge the same cycling couple were doing the same. She waited obediently as he found more and more interesting places to take photographs from. He even stood on a rock in the middle of the stream. I’m not sure if he found the perfect angle but I do know how annoying he was.
As I started down the slope on the same side of the bank as they were, the woman walked her bike up the narrow path while he just felt the need to ride, wobbly and wandering all over it. I felt like giving him a little push. I’m fairly certain they were American.
Actually we heard quite a few Americans today. It seems they all like to visit the ochre shops in Rousillon. Not that I can blame them. It is a most amazing place. Though, perhaps there is not so much need for the amount of gushing they seemed to enjoy. Really, guys, you simply can’t adore everything.
The whole of Rousillon became rich on the production of ochre, the fine powder used in many things but, these days, mostly watercolour paint. The man responsible for the prosperity of the town was Jean Etienne Astier who, in 1780, found a way to turn the ochre powder into a fixed and non-toxic dye. He made his fortune and his memory was assured as quarries opened up, pockmarking the countryside around the town into a moonscape of yellow and red.
It’s an amazing place. There’s a walk around the old, abandoned quarries where the remnants of work has created a landscape just ready for weathering. Thin shards of red rock, mountains of various shades rising up, dust everywhere, it’s truly incredible.
They warn you, constantly, not to take any of the ochre dust with you because it needs to be processed before you can use it for anything. However, we did see quite a few people with yellow bottoms leaving the walk. I think they may be in trouble.
The ochre was so important to the town (and tourism is now) that the people who live there can only paint their houses in a range of shades of ochre from a limited palette of 40 shades. That’s a lot of yellowy reds and not a lot of blues.
These days, the town sits upon it’s hill of yellow and merely exists for the benefit of thousands of tourists who wander the streets, remark on the quaintness of it, have perhaps a drink then leave either weighed down by tourist tat, beautiful pottery or dust. That’s not to say it isn’t lovely and a strangely peaceful spot to wile away most of a day because that’s exactly what we did.
I realise that the above makes it sound awful but it’s far from that. It felt peaceful and was very beautiful. We visited a few shops and bought a lovely little ochre figurine as well as a bottle of red and some of the wettest goats cheese I’ve ever seen. We had to stop it running out of the shop it was so fluid.
This trip there has been a few instances where we’ve seen French tourists dangling from ridiculously dangerous spots in order to get a good photograph. Everywhere they dangle there are no signs, no barriers and no advice. For example, in the Verdon Gorge the drop was well over 100 metres straight down and definitely fatal.
In Rousillon, however, right at the top, beyond the church and hope from the heavens, there is a sign though mostly for the children. Adults, I guess, should know better.
Now, we’d spent a lovely day in the yellow/red town and we about to go back to the house we’re staying in when calamity almost struck. The car park (there’s only one) had only a single machine to take our money. The car park cost €3 regardless of how long you’d been there and you just had to feed the machine your parking ticket then the money, either by cash or card.
I reached the machine at the same time as a French couple but it said that it was out of service. To all of us. We wandered around aimlessly wondering what we should do.
A Brief Interlude
While I’m mentioning money, the oddest thing happened in the shop where we bought the goats cheese and wine. The woman in the shop started totting up the various items as Mirinda kept adding things to the ever growing pile. The first total was €45. I was happily about to give her a €50. Then Mirinda added a bar of 98% cocoa bean chocolate. She added this to the total and came up with €33. We all stared in disbelief. She allowed herself a slight smile as she started adding everything together again.
Her third total was €33 again so I was happy to pay that as well but then Mirinda asked if she’d included the bar of chocolate. The woman shrugged and started the process once more, tapping at the tiny keys of her calculator. This time it totalled €29! It was getting quite insane and I wondered how long it would be before she had to start paying us. She claimed it was “…chocolat magique!”
She tried it again and the €33 came up so we all decided it must be the correct total. We paid quickly and left. Very odd but a lot of fun. She was an extremely jolly lady.
Meanwhile back in the car park…eventually an engineer showed up and he set to work (having pushed through the thousands of now chattering drivers wanting to pay) trying to fix the ticket machine. He said something gruffly in French.
My limited command of the language could only manage bits of what he said but I thought it was something about credit cards using the barriers. As people started wandering off, for some reason satisfied, he suddenly yelled in English that people using credit cards could pay at the barriers.
This satisfied me (and made me quite happy that I’d managed to translate what he’d said) so I went back to a happily waiting Mirinda in the car. She remained happy almost the whole way back to base. Her happiness vanished like a duck in a shooting gallery when she met the fruit picker we (almost) ran into on the way down to the B&B.
The thing is, the driveway is about 2km long and gradually gets worse the further you go. Mirinda doesn’t like it at all and has wondered what would happen if we met someone on the way up as we were coming down. As an idea, here’s what the road down is like:
Things started to get ugly after we both stopped so I turned off the video.
They were driving in an old beat up four wheel drive Landrover and we were in a brand new (almost) BMW series 2 convertible – they were on a road they knew really well while we were but visitors here for a few days. I could go on forever but right was clearly on our side. They didn’t see it that way.
They were fruit pickers, finishing work for the day and obviously eager to get home. Obviously Mirinda’s immovable stance and the fact that she turned Cecile’s engine off and started reading her book, made them realise they should reverse into a very handy little ramp off the main track. This didn’t stop one of the pickers (a woman who, I think, was Italian) coming up to the car and saying we should have reversed.
There ensued a very strange conversation between this woman and Mirinda which I’m not going to go into because it’s just too painful. I say ‘painful’ because it just keeps coming back to haunt me as Mirinda refuses to let it go. I reckon she’ll be discussing the unfairness of the woman until I die. At least then I shall get some peace…about this woman, I mean.
Anyway, they backed up and we drove through…it was all very much a storm in a teacup where the teacup had been broken and all that was left was the handle.
Finally back at the B&B we had some nibbles at the end of the long table overlooking the sunset. All was blissful and beautiful until I spilled a glass of wine over everything. This didn’t go down well. Actually the wine went down a little bit too well and drenched the table, the olives and Mirinda’s ebook.
All of this stuff is far too painful so I’m going to cut it short.
After a brief rest we went to a nearby village for a delicious dinner – the second best so far – before driving home to the accompaniment of Mirinda singing selected songs from various musicals.
At least the night ended very well!