If you were to stick a pin randomly into a map of Provence, there’s a reasonable chance you’d stick it into one of the seemingly endless supply of historic and picturesque villages that are scattered across the hills and valleys of this extraordinary region. Roussillon and Bonnieux are two villages unlike each other in almost every possible way – atmosphere, architecture, popularity – but both are well worth a visit.
Roussillon is understandably the more famous and visited of the two. Its buildings are awash with vibrant reds, oranges, yellows and pinks that come from the village’s famous ochre quarries that were worked from the end of the 18th century until the 1930s. It sits on a hilltop that looks down over a verdant landscape punctuated by luminous ochre cliffs. Under a bright autumn sun, it almost glows.
We arrived in Roussillon in time for a late lunch – always a risk in rural Europe that most places will be closed – and were happy to snag a table on the balcony of a restaurant with views over the valley below. The staff didn’t seem in a rush so we had a long lunch with beautiful views. By the time we ventured out to explore the village, most people seemed to have left and it felt quiet for such a touristy place.
We started at the pretty main square where the Marie is located, and walked uphill through a Renaissance-era clock tower and gateway. The narrow street goes steeply up past the attractive Eglise Saint Michel to the very top of the village and a lookout point that offers panoramic views over the surrounding countryside. Roussillon is a tiny place, but we still managed to get lost taking a different route back down.
No surprises that Roussillon has been home to a plethora of famous artists and writers – there’s a well-known Cezanne painting of the ochre quarries. No surprises except that I had no idea the Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, lived here during the Second World War. Beckett hid out here after the French Resistance group of which he was a member was betrayed. He wrote most of his novel, Watt, in Roussillon and even references the village in Waiting for Godot.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise, there is a near surreal feeling to Roussillon. Before we left the village we went for a walk to the village’s cemetery which, ironically, has perhaps the best view over the village. It also sits just above the ochre cliffs. Back on the road, we set off on the short trip to Bonnieux through a landscape of vineyards and pine trees.
Bonnieux is an historic place that has been inhabited for millennia thanks to its strategic location on a steep hill overlooking the surrounding countryside. A hint of its significance for the Romans can be seen just outside the village, at the well preserved Roman bridge, Pont Julien. Bonnieux was a significant Roman settlement. We first headed – straight up – to the Église haute, perched dramatically above the village.
It’s a very steep climb up to this 12th century church, but the views of the surrounding area are vast. From this high point, the village seems to tumble in layers down the hillside, every steep descent brings you to another layer of the village. There are small squares, nice-looking cafes and restaurants, and attractive, centuries-old town houses lining the narrow streets.
It was late afternoon when we arrived and the streets were mostly deserted. For a few hours it felt like tourism had mostly left Bonnieux untouched. That though would be misleading, Bonnieux may not pull the day trippers that Roussillon can command, but this is a popular base for tourists. We mooched around for a while, and then headed back to Avignon. In the morning we’d start our journey back north.