Tours of Provence are not complete without seeing one small town: L’Isle sur la Sorgue, a medieval town located on five islands that span five branches of the Sorgue River (from which it receives its name).
Originally known simply as “Isla” in 1126, the name kept changing and evolving. After Isla came “St-Laurent,” “then L’Isle,” next “L’Isle en Venayssin,” and finally “L’Isle sur la Sorgue.” The river first provided a natural defense for the town and protected it from invaders, and later became a major source of industry. L’Isle sur la Sorgue has been nicknamed the “Venice of the Comtat.” “Venice” refers to the town’s winding canals and river branches. “Comtat“ came from “Comtat Venaissin” – in English, the County of Venaissin, the former name of what used to be the Pope’s territory within France.
The town has giant low-hanging plane trees and huge waterwheels that once powered textile and paper mills and still churn today. Its old-world charm can best be captured with a stroll through the town, where tourists can take advantage of the sights and smells of the local restaurants and shops.
L’Isle sur la Sorgue is well known for its antiques, including antique shops, markets and fairs. There is a group of 30 or so antique shops right across from the railway station, called Le Quai de la Gare. Because of the heavy concentration of antique dealers in the area, L’Isle sur la Sorgue is considered to be the antiques capital of France, second only to Paris. The town boasts more than 350 full time dealers, many crammed along the Avenue des Quatres Otages. This number doubles or triples in size twice a year: on August 15 (the annual Festival of the Sorgue) and during Easter weekend. (The first antiques fair was established on August 15, 1966 by Albert Gassier and René Légier. It was such a big success that the organizers repeated the event the following year and added an additional fair over Easter weekend.)
When touring L’Isle sur la Sorgue, start at La Maison Biehn, where you can sift through 18th and 19th century Provençal textiles. Just beyond this is a cooperative of 40 vendors, called L’Île aux Brocantes. Among the treasures found here are antique frames, mirrors, and various pieces of furniture. Another highlight is Le Village des Antiquaires de la Gare, an old industrial building that now houses about 100 shops, a treasure trove of every vintage item imaginable. Another stop you shouldn’t miss is Le Mas de Curebourg, a stone farmhouse stocked with various objects from the 18th and 19th century, from painted armoires to vintage hats and local crafts.
Certainly, you must go to the market at L’Isle sur la Sorgue. It has much more to offer than just antiques. You’ll encounter a vast spread of homegrown produce and mouthwatering food, ranging from melons to olives to freshly baked breads, massive wheels of cheese and delicious cured meats. A flea market operates there year-round on the weekends, and bookworms can enjoy the old book market on the last Sunday of each month.
L’Isle sur la Sorgue also offers a number of outdoor activities, from hiking and horseback riding to fishing and kayaking. The Parc Gautier, located just outside the center of town, is a great location for a leisurely stroll or afternoon picnic. Another must-do is a visit to La Collégiale Notre Dame des Anges, the main Catholic church in the city. It is not only an important religious symbol, but also a remarkable example of Baroque architecture. It is extravagantly decorated with gilt, faux marble, and romantic frescoes. Across the way stands La Tour d’Argent, a historical monument comprised of a tower dating from the late 12th century and various buildings ranging from the 15th to the 18th centuries.
L’Isle sur la Sorgue is an idyllic walking town that offers tourists a chance to experience the old world. The cafés and storefronts have retained their authenticity over many centuries, and the footbridges and old waterwheels enhance the quaint atmosphere. It is a city sure to enchant and delight its visitors.
Don’t just read about it, come with Coloratour on a private tour to experience “L’Isle sur la Sorgue for yourself’!”
First featured image: L’Isle sur la Sorgue Weekly Market (photo by Marianne Casamance)