A June 2003 trip
to L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue by artsnletters
Quote: A major market town renowned for its incredible Sunday farmers and antiques market and its quieter Thursday farmer’s market, this lived-in stone village near Avignon on the edge of the Vaucluse and Luberon regions features several picturesque waterwheels. It's a pleasure to visit any day of the week.
This thriving market town draws hordes of people to its Sunday antiques market, which sets up alongside the same incredible farmer’s market which springs up on Thursdays. It is worth making special effort to fit the Sunday market into your plans, during which a holiday atmosphere seems to prevail. Among the antiques I saw prints, paintings, lace and linens, books, glassware, dishes, furniture, and much more. I’m not a connoisseur of such things so I can’t comment on the quality or the value, but there is a lot to look at. This is not an intimate village market but a regional one drawing as many locals as tourists, one of the three largest and most comprehensive I saw in Provence (the others were in Arles and Vaison-la-Romaine), and one focused strongly on its regional products.
Isle-sur-la-Sorgue means "Island in the Sorgue River," and indeed the river draws its arms around the little town; it seems you are never quite out of earshot of the rushing water. The town is built on a group of islands in five branches of the Sorgue River, earning it the inevitable "Venice of Provence" nickname. The many waterwheels appear to have no current use but to grow beards of dripping moss and attract photographers’ eyes – mine included!
The town is situated at the intersection of highway N100, the main two-lane road through the Luberon Regional Nature Park between Avignon and Apt, and the D938, the primary local road through the Vaucluse wine country between the melon mecca of Cavaillon and the bustling town of Vaison-la-Romaine. As I explored the region, I found that I kept passing through town, often stopping to enjoy a simple meal at one of the abundant restaurants, charmed by the town's relaxed atmosphere and historic feel.
This atmospheric and charming town is pretty enough to be nothing more than a tourist magnet, but it has a life of its own. Plenty of locals wander its cobbled streets, and even on Sunday market day, which brings many tourists to the town, at lunch the cafes that line the river fill up primarily with French families having a casual meal before heading home with their groceries.
If you are driving in on a market day, come early! By 9am, parking gets very difficult, particularly on Sundays.
Don't worry if you will be able to find the market – it swallows the town whole! Allow at least two hours; you may want twice that long for the larger Sunday market. The market ends around 1pm.
If you will be arriving on a Saturday night, reserve a room as many people stay in town to get an early start on the Sunday market.
The little restaurants lining the river provide perfectly acceptable if unexceptional food for modest prices (€10-15), served to the tune of the rushing Sorgue. I ate at four of them and was never disappointed. If you are in town on market day, however, these restaurants are your least interesting option for lunch. Put together a picnic feast from the market stalls – the exquisite Provençal cheese, sausage, bread, fruit and vegetables can all be fashioned into a marvelous and inexpensive meal. Or buy yourself a hot lunch from one of the stalls – terrific paella and fresh rotisserie chicken are always available.
Located about 25km from Avignon, this town can be reached by train, bus, or car. Buses are more frequent than trains from Avignon, so check schedules for both if you are using public transport. If you drive, parking is usually plentiful along the river. The center of town is pedestrianized, so once in town, everything you will want to see is reachable on foot.
Hotel St. Louis is actually located about 3km from Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, but I was arriving late in the day and wanted to be sure of a home for the night and secure parking for my car, so I reserved here. The hotel is a single-story U-shaped building. Reception and the dining room are in the base of the U, the rooms are in the legs, and a large beautifully tiled pool and patio fills the space between. Chloe and Christophe offered a warm welcome and let me leave my luggage with them the next day after checking out while I went to the market.
My room, costing a mere 49 euros, was Provencal-cute, done up in vivid yellow and chalky sky-blue, spotlessly clean, and opened out directly onto the pool terrace. There is a shower-and-sink room and a separate toilet room. The bed was very comfortable, and there was a TV, although I believe this was one place that didn't get any English-language channels. The entire hotel was so beautifully maintained that I would have sworn it was brand-new, although in fact it is 12 years old. My one complaint was that there was no window! There is a louvered outer door which can only be locked from the outside, so you must close up your room for the night to be safe. There also didn't appear to be any air-conditioning, although during my visit (beginning of June) I didn't need it.
Breakfast was an additional 6 euros and a very good value. There were croissants, pain-au-chocolat, cereals, yogurt, an assortment of fruit, orange juice, coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. You can eat in the cute dining room or outside on the terrace beside the pool.
The e-mail for the Hotel St. Louis is email@example.com.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 13, 2003
Hotel St. Louis
RN 100 - Route de l'Isle sur la Sorgue
Attraction | "The Sunday Market - Food"
Refrigerated trailers for butchers and cheese sellers also abound. The cheese selection is amazing after the six varieties available in the typical American supermarket. Merchants will give you a sliver to taste if you aren’t sure of your choice. I’m a big fan of goat cheese. If you’re new to it, try Picandou. It comes in small rounds; it is firm and not too strong. You can slice it onto bread, add a chunk to your tossed salad, or just eat it plain or drizzled with a little honey for a French-style dessert.
Further delights included saucissons (French sausages), honey, foie gras (goose liver – you don’t want to know how it’s made, but try it before you swear you don’t like liver!), local spices, and olives of every color and variety. Everything is produced locally and many merchants are clearly very small operators. Often, for instance, you will find a lean, tanned and wrinkled farmer at a table selling a dozen bottles of wine and a few jars of honey, nothing more.
While the fixin’s you can find here will make avid cooks wish they had a kitchen handy, there are also food stalls selling paella and spit-roasted chicken, the smells of which will tantalize you. Don’t feel you must resist too much, as both are trés delicieux and make a wonderful lunch!
I tried some of the chiques, a sort of French lollipop. They come in a variety of flavors and colors. They look like painted marshmallows on a stick, but they are hard as rocks! Closer to a jawbreaker on a stick. They tasted good and lasted over an hour, but don’t bite them, as I thought I might break a tooth!
About 1pm the merchants pack up, folding their canopies and tables, and by 2pm, they are completely gone. Shortly thereafter, the street sweeping machine comes along and cleans all the streets. By 3pm, the town drowses, and not a trace remains of the bustling morning market!
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on November 13, 2003
Attraction | "The Sunday Market - Provençal Goods"
Any market in Provence that sees some tourists is sure to have a nice stock of local crafts for sale. Among the most common of these are table linens, soap, and lavender products, and this market is no exception.
I’m a sucker for beautiful table linens, so I really enjoyed myself in Provence. I noticed two primary varieties: prints and jacquards. Many prints echo the regional themes of olives, olive branches, lemons, and/or cigales. (Cigales look much like bees, but I asked and they are cicadas, an insect which makes a hum similar to a cricket’s – they are considered good luck in Provence.) The typical colors for Provençal linens are vivid and always found in threes or fours: lemony or bright Ticonderoga-pencil-golden yellow, bright orange, maroon, lime or forest green, and chalky sky or intense medium blue. Consequently, there is nothing subtle about these linens. However, imagine them on a cheery breakfast table or at a backyard picnic if you think they’re just too bright for you. Expect to pay between €50 and €100 for a tablecloth and napkins to match, depending on style and size. Napkins are sold separately, so you can skip them to keep costs down.
Aromatic and colorful soap bars, often artisan-made, are also very common. As you walk past a soap stall, your nostrils will quiver with delight. There will be an assortment of little plastic baskets sitting on the soap bars for you to gather your choices in. Lavender is of course the most typical of the region, but you will also find vanilla, floral, and fruit aromas with colors to match. I particularly liked "passion." I purchased six bars of various varieties, and I’m sort of sorry I didn’t get more (except that they do add a lot of weight to your load). They sure made my suitcase smell wonderful for the remainder of the trip! The price is around €1.50-2.00 per bar.
Lavender is one of the typical products of Provence, and it turns up everywhere: lavender sachets, lavender garlands, lavender soap, lavender honey, and so forth. Prices run from next to nothing to quite a bit, depending on what you choose. Lavender sachets are wonderful wherever you keep or store clothing – at least for women!
If you find yourself hauling too many goodies around, consider a modest investment of €8 or so and buy one of the colorful collapsible straw baskets. These can hold a lot of stuff while you’re at the market and make carrying your acquisitions along on your trip easy. At one of my last stops, Arles, I stopped at a Monoprix (a discount food and sundries store) and picked up an inexpensive duffel to carry my extra stuff on the plane. My collapsible basket went right into the duffel and now does duty as a shopping, beach, and baseball-game basket at home.
I discovered this oddity during my first pass through the market early in the morning. There wasn’t much to look at yet, as most of the merchants were still busily engaged setting up their stalls and goods. Near where the D938 road meets the N100 (as the N100 turns away from the river), there’s a footbridge that crosses the Sorgue. Looking down from the bridge, I noticed a large rock in the river that resembled . . . well, an ear. Perhaps it’s an actual ear off a statue--it certainly looks like it could be, if the statue were made of granite. It would have to be quite a large statue, though, as the stone appeared to be about four feet across. But there it was, rim, lobe, ear canal. I thought it was interesting, admired it for a bit, and passed on by.
Coming back by this same spot later in the day, when the market crowds had arrived, I noticed an excited group standing by The Ear. As I watched them, it became clear that they were engaged in a game – trying to toss coins into the fast-flowing Sorgue so that they would fall into the deepest recesses of The Ear. The river really rips along, as the plants along the bottom are bent horizontal, so almost all the coins missed. It was clearly considered an achievement to get a coin even to rest on The Ear. I saw a couple people manage to get coins all the way into The Ear, and as the coin vanished into the ear canal, the audience of a dozen or so cheered.
Surprisingly, this activity hadn’t occurred to me when I passed in the morning, in part because no coins were in evidence. Returning to this same spot later in the afternoon, after the market had ended, I saw why. A handful of lively youngsters were splashing in the river, collecting up the scattered change! I imagine their parents don’t need to give them much in the way of an allowance!
If you have a car and a late afternoon to kill around Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, consider a short side-trip to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. In my opinion, this tiny town, perhaps a 20-minute drive from Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, is much more popular than it warrants, but it’s worth a quick stop, especially in the late afternoon when the tourist buses have rolled bravely onward. The town itself is clearly geared entirely to the tourist’s convenience, with every variety of cheap and tacky souvenir and low-cost-low-thrills eateries lining its center. Spring for a couple euros to park in one of the lots (unfortunately unavoidable) and just keep your face toward the river, walking upstream – trust me, you’re missing nothing.
This is the most uncommonly gorgeous emerald-green river I’ve ever seen, tumbling over rocks and sliding over an artificial falls. Your walk upstream won’t last long; shortly after you pass the town on your left, you will find the spring, which is the source of the Sorgue River. In bright daylight, this appears to be a bottomless pool of bright green (my visit, on an overcast afternoon, found it dull gray, but I’ve seen pictures . . . ). It was here that the poet Petrarch mooned over his lost love Laura, and certainly he picked a scenic place
As you walk back from the spring, consider a quick walk through the paper mill/museum. This is free, and you can see the actual waterwheel-driven paper mill beating rags into paper before you pass into the inevitable shop where you can buy some of the lovely, although expensive, products of the mill. In the underground mall you will find exiting downstream from the paper mill/store, you will also find the public bathrooms, guarded by gloomy attendants – barely clean, somewhat smelly, and costing you €0.50. It’s the only toilet I paid for in a two and a half week visit to France.
You will probably have a half mile or so to stroll back to your car, so if you like spring for an ice cream cone from one of the ubiquitous stands to keep you company on your way.