More town than village, with tall plane trees and green streams, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is ‘the island on the Sorgue’ a few kilometres from the river’s source at Fontaine de Vaucluse.
Where the Sorgue splits into two streams, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue sprang up. Over the last 40 years L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue has become famous as the antiques capital of Provence, indeed of France, if you don’t count Paris.
There are many permanent antique shops, art galleries and interior décor shops here, grouped in several ‘villages’.
On Sunday morning the place becomes an orgy of antiques and bric-a-brac stalls, about 300 in all. This is the time to visit, when the streets are thronging with colour and life – not too many bargains it must be said – and grab a table for lunch when things wind down at 12.30.
There are all sorts of places to eat in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue – cafes, brasseries, pizzerias and quality restaurants.
This is the current face of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, but it doesn’t tell you anything about how the town came about. That is all down to the crystal-clear, emerald water that flows through it, shallow and calm enough that you can see the trout lazing in the sun, but powerful enough to have brought industry, wealth, and the accumulations of architecture and populace that come with wealth.
The water wheels you see around town are testimony to the textile and paper-making industries that thrived in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, and the grand mansions dotted around town were the homes of the rich merchants that benefited from the power of the river.
L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue actually has the nickname ‘The Provencal Venice’ – this is overstating the abundance of waterways, but the various parts of the Sorgue are never far away. And no matter what time of year you dip your toe into the river, it will always be 13 degrees C (55 degrees F), which is the temperature it shoots out of the earth at in nearby Fontaine de Vaucluse.
L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is a pleasant walking town. There are a few modern eyesores clumped together, but the bars and cafes retain their authenticity, little footbridges take you over the water, and narrow, winding streets tunnel into the old centre of town, and the courtyards lined with antiquaires.
Right in the middle of the old town is a rather overly gilded church, dare I say gaudy – Notre-Dame-des-Anges – but it’s a good venue for classical concerts on summer evenings, which you can combine with an al fresco dinner in the square.