Hundreds congregate on the Sunday Market in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Renata, Carolanne, and I decided to go early and beat the crowds by being there when they opened.
Our walk from the hotel to the village was a pleasant 20 minute stroll along one of the shaded canals. Ducks swam in the cool green waters that bordered a row of expensive-looking homes decorated with pastel purple or green shutters. "Bonjour," we echoed, as scarfed women greeted us on the back road. We admired the tranquil view and nodded at fishermen casting from shore, fishing for trout.
Arriving into town, we came to a bridge overlooking small rapids. Beyond, the canal was bordered on both sides by a continuous line of two and three-story beige homes and shops. Old-fashioned lampposts hung at regular intervals along the wrought-iron fence and walkways stretching across the canal allowed easy access to the other side.
At 7:30am, the town was still sleepy. Vendors were just beginning to unload their trucks and set up their stalls. The air felt "fresh," as they say in France. Needing coffee or something hot, we walked along the canal searching for a warm sunny spot at an outdoor café. Most were in the shade–tucked under canopies. But we found a table in a sun-filled space, sipped espresso-like cafe from tiny cups and munched ginger biscuits while we watched the market's morning action.
Loud honking, French cursing, and arms waving caught our attention. A truck was stuck in the narrow street, unable to careen past a parked car, to get to his stall. Men dressed in button-down shirts and berets gathered around to take in the situation. Few offered help, other than voicing their visual assessment and shaking their heads. "Happens all the time," one of them said. It seemed logical to us that they could've simply lifted the small car out of the way. After 10 to 15 minutes, the entertainment subsided as the truck, and the pile of cars behind it, were forced to back up.
We wandered through the open stalls, watching vendors arrange French bread, ripe Provencal melon,s and wheels of cheese on tables draped in blue-yellow Provencal fabrics. One particular vendor setting up sausages at his stall posed for us numerous times, grinning widely as he held blotchy sausages next to his ruddy complexion. When we passed his way a second time, he playfully grabbed Renata, hugged her, and posed yet again. That sausage guy, what a ham!
Smells of sweet strawberries and freshly baked breads, from herbed cheese to olive loaves, wafted through the air. White stalks of asparagus and basins and basins of olives in varieties I'd never seen looked tempting. Steam rose from a black pot as a young girl lifted the lid to stir thickening boubillaise. We leaned closer to inhale and sneak a peek. Only 8am, but the delectable smells were making us hungry. The vendors would later offer samples, but, at present, were busy setting up.
Beautiful bottles of herb-infused olive oils, and cicada shaped soaps in shades of purple, emerald, rose, yellow, violet, orange, and lime drew us away. Fragrant scents of jasmine, vanilla, olive-oil, and mimosa mingled with unfamiliar scents of soaps labeled muguet, verveine, chevrefeuille, and au mile. Nearby, cashmere shawls, silky bras, and racy French lingerie were strewn on tables near potted daisies, colorful woven baskets, and unusual wrap-around dresses crafted of tie-dyed Indian cloth.
Continuing past stalls of ribboned Provencal herbs and pastries, I was delighted to find racks of reasonably priced clothing. A victim of lost luggage – and tired of wearing the same two shirts since my arrival five days ago – I was ecstatic to find a flirty black crocheted sweater with bell sleeves for 10 euro. Excellent prices on everything, so much affordable than Arles market.
But the real find was a pendant–a thick chunky trapezoid of Baltic amber on a silver choke collar. Very chic. The world's best amber, according to the jewelry designer. Hmmm. I couldn't look away. The translucent russet-flecked stone would look smashing with my new sweater. It was Mother's Day, after all. And days away from my birthday. Why not?
By the time I finished purchasing the amber pendant, earrings, and a black star pendant (okay, so I went a little crazy), my friends were nowhere to be found. When I sauntered over to the jewelry stand near the largest waterwheel, they had stopped at another stall.
At first glance, the market appears to be fairly straightforward -stalls simply lined one side of the main canal. How could anyone get lost? But soon after the largest water wheel, the route subtly turns down a street where you're suddenly faced with stalls branching out in all directions, filling a confusing labyrinth of narrow winding streets. We never saw each other at the market again.
And I barely found my way out. In time anyway. We had agreed to depart our hotel for a jaunt into St. Baux and St. Remy–and our taxi left in half an hour! I had no idea where I was, even looking at a map, and still had a 20 minute walk back. I panicked and began to run.
Lesson: never run when you don't know where you're going. I ended up in the same place I started, just took a different route to get there. I headed for the river, instead of a short cut through the city, and used the water wheels and outdoor café landmarks to find my way.
Thankfully, I didn't have cumbersome packages to haul so I could run most of the way. Fishermen gave me a puzzled look as I rushed past them on the shaded lane. I guess my sandals gave me away. Who jogs like that? I stuck out from the women and children in the quiet residential area who were leisurely walking toward the market while I was running away. In sandals no less, grasping small packages. Hey, I only look suspicious.
I ran into Renate and Carolanne at the bridge near our hotel. We hurried toward our waiting taxi and asked if we could freshen up a bit. He told us not to hurry; he was ours for the rest of the day. Once assembled and driving south, we compared purchases and impressions of the market. Outstanding, but where were the antiques?
Ironically, all of us had missed the star attraction of Provence's famous Antique Market -the antiques. And I thought I'd covered every square inch of the back streets.
Our driver wanted to know how we missed them. "They're organized into seven groups, mostly along the outer areas of the village," he said. "That's what people come here to see."
We giggled. Oh, next time then.