If you are into antiques, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is the place to go. It is considered the third most important antiques market in Europe, outside of Paris and London. Located only 25 km east of Avignon on the river Sorgue, this Provençal village is home to some 350 dealers.
The dealers group themselves into ‘villages’, either in communal premises or individual shops, located mainly along the Avenue de la Libération. Opening hours vary with most open only on Friday-to-Sunday, but a few are open every day.
Two international antique fairs are held each year, one over the Easter weekend and the second one on August 15th, and attract over 800 exhibitors. The August fair coincides with the Floating Market on the Sorgue (first Sunday in August), Water Jousts on the Sorgue (August 15) and the Fééries Nautiques (a parade of colourful floats on the Sorgue).
However, our primary purpose in visiting L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue was not for the antiques, but for the town’s central location and easy access to several hilltop villages and major city centres.
In the four weeks that we stayed at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, we managed day trips by car to such iconic villages as Gordes, Gault, Roussillon, Menerbes, Bonnieux, Lourmarin, Oppède and Vaison-la-Romaine. Also, Nimes, Aix-en-Provence and Saint-Remy-de-Provence were within easy reach.
The rail link between Marseille, Avignon and Orange passes through L’Isle, and provided us with easy access to these bustling centres.
Travelling through Provence without seeing a lavender farm must surely be considered a crime. Thus, the obligatory drive (30 minutes) to Abbaye Notre Dame de Senanque.
After flying into Marseille and picking up a car, we were ‘on the Island’ within an hour and in Le Loft des Antiquaires, our home for the next four weeks. Enclosed in an old 16th Century convent, Le Loft is the only rental apartment on L’Isle. It proved a delightful haven for our vacation in Provence.
Being in the centre of the old town, the aroma of freshly baked croissants, baguettes and pastries greeted us each morning. All the amenities of a typical French village were just outside our door, including around sixty different places to eat or snack. Sitting at an outdoor terrace along the river Sorgue on a balmy evening with a glass of chilled wine does not come any better.
L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is not an island at all. The ‘island’ was created in the 18th Century when the River Sorgue was split into canals so water wheels could provide power to the textile and paper mills. The fourteen, moss-covered water wheels are now mainly decorative, but the river still flows from the large, natural spring at Fontaine de Vaucluse, and where the traditional method of paper making can still be seen in one of the old paper mills with its working water wheel.
The River Sorgue was also a source of food with an abundance of fish. The fishermen are long gone, but they left their mark on many of the street names — rue de la Loutre (otter), rue de l’Anguille (eel), rue de l’Ecrivisse (crayfish).
Locals can still be seen throwing a line into the Sorgue near a water wheel. Sometimes, you will see children playing in the traditional flat boats called ‘Négo-Chin’, paddling down the canals, ducking as they skim under a low pedestrian bridge, and making their way down to Le Partage des Eaux, a popular swimming hole.
The religious influence, best seen in the thick stone architecture of the village, dates back to the moving of the Popes to Avignon, in the 14th Century. L’Isle became part of the Papal territory and remained so until the Revolution, eventually returning to France in 1797. Much of the stone is in decay, and it is a never-ending battle to maintain the cultural heritage of these old villages.
Collegiate Notre Dame des Anges, a 13th Century basilica, dominates the Town Square. It is here, each Sunday, in La Place de Liberté, that one of the largest open-air markets in France takes place, spreading its influence along the keys and narrow side streets with its many stalls of typical Provençal fare.
The Sunday market fun starts around 8 am, although the locals like to make an early start about 6 am. The scene is crowded and hectic, and tourists need to learn to queue. Parking on the L’Isle is impossible at the best of time, but it is banned on market days. Several surrounding parking lots provide access to L’Isle via narrow pedestrian bridges.
A second market occurs on Thursday, so when the Sunday mob gets too much, you have an alternative.
One of the advantages of staying in the centre of a traditional French village is that in the early morning and late evening, the streets are almost deserted, apart from the street cleaners and garbage collectors.
But the town has a thriving local community, so doesn’t die in the winter like many French tourist attractions.
Also, a sense of grittiness or realism exists that makes you feel like a local. Opposite our front door was a tiny office with a very narrow entrance around which the local Arab population would congregate late evening. What initially seemed rather seedy turned out to be a general office business providing an internet, telephone and photocopying service for the locals. Typically, the group was male, which made Ruth a little uncomfortable when we had need of its services. A reminder of just how much France has become multicultural.
I am not sure that the locals would call L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue the ‘Venice of Provence’, but after a month in this typical French village, it is still a fitting name from our perspective.
Maison de Tourisme de L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue
Place de la Liberté 84800 Isle-sur-la Sorgue (next to the church)
+33 4 90 38 04 78
+33 4 90 38 35 43
Apr 1-Sept 30: 9.00am to 12:30pm and 2.30pm to 6.00pm; Sundays: 9.00am to 12:30pm; Oct 1- March 31: 9.00am to 12.30pm and 2.00pm to 5.30pm; Sundays: 9.00am to 12:30pm
Road: A7: exit 25 Cavaillon (from Marseille, Nice or Italy); A7: exit 24 Avignon SUD (from Valence, Lyon or Paris); A9: exit 23 Remoulins (from Montpellier, Perpignan and Spain)
Train: TGV: CDG, Paris to Avignon then TER Direct Line No. 9 to L’Isle – Fontaine de Vaucluse (connects Avignon to Marseille)
Maison de Tourisme de L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue