Apologies for struggling with your response. If ".htaccess files are ignored by default" did you mean to say "You'll also need to tell Apache to read .htaccess files and honor their content"?
I kind of mean what I said. By default, out of the box, Apache ignores .htaccess files. It doesn't look for them, it doesn't process them. This is partly a security measure (.htaccess can do all kinds of funky things) and it's partly for performance (if it doesn't have to check for .htaccess files, things move quicker).
If you want Apache to look for, and honor, .htacess files you need to tell it so.
You do this by adding AllowOverride directives to the config files - any AllowOverride (other than 'none'') tells Apache to look for a .htaccess file.
To add to the confusion, .htaccess commands fall into one of several categories, depending on what they do. You can either enable All categories, or enable/disable individual ones.
This is all covered at length in the Apache .htaccess tutorial.
Suffice to say, you'll need to do something like this in your site's (or server's) config::
before your .htaccess file will have any effect on your server. The 'FileInfo' override allows .htaccess files in the directory tree to redirect a request to a different file path.