Were it not for the many antique stores l'Isle sur la Sorgue would be another one of those historic towns in the Southern Rhône valley, pleasant but without any special attraction to foreign visitors. After all, who talks about Bédarrides, Vedène, Monteaux or Velleron, equally important historic market towns in the area. What makes l'Isle sur la Sorgue special is its undisputed reputation as the place in Southern France to shop for antiquities. As an extra bonus it has one of the best Provençal markets, similar in size and variety to the famous markets in Vaison la Romaine and Carpentras. The town can be very, very busy, especially during weekends. We like the historic center between the two arms of the river Sorgue and the countryside around it, but not the newer parts of town.
L'Isle sur la Sorgue means "the Island in the Sorgue", the river Sorgue. The river flows through and around the town, in various natural beds and canals. Pretty shallow for gondolas (they have some here), but crystal clear water all year round. Its source is located in a gorge of the Plateau de Vaucluse near the village of Fontaine de Vaucluse, 7 km East of l'Isle sur la Sorgue. It is one of the largest springs on earth, a steady, strong flow of crystal clear water, 13C (55F) warm in winter or summer. Remarkable for such a short river, roughly 40km from the source to its confluence with the Ouvèze, is its strong flow: nearly 60.000 cubic feet (1.700 cubic meter) per minute. You can visit its source near Fontaine de Vaucluse, which has a pretty main square. But its prime attraction, the cave in the mountain where the River Sorgue flows from the Plateau du Vaucluse, is a real letdown. The concrete promenade along the river to its source is littered with low class curio shops and gaudy fast food establishments, all a bit rundown. The place seems to be dearly loved by many visitors, who come by the bus loads. This could be a prime spot, beautiful gorge (230 m deep!) clear river and century old trees.
The first antique fair in l'Isle sur la Sorgue was initiated by Rene Legier. At that time nobody expected it to grow and grow. Today it is probably the third most important antique center in Europe after London and Paris. Over 300 antique dealers exhibit here on a permanent basis. This number more than doubles with visiting dealers every weekend. The international antique fare is held twice a year at Easter and in August. Dealers from all over the world present an astonishing selection of antiquities. "The only thing you can't get in l'Isle sur la Sorgue is a bargain" (Peter Mayle).
The area between the Plateau de Vaucluse and the Rhône, roughly 25km by 30km, used to be impenetrable swampland. The first settlement where l'Isle sur la Sorgue stands today was probably a fishing village in the swamps. During the unruly times after the fall of the Roman Empire, many people fled into the marshes for security reasons. The small fishing village grew into a small town, originally called St.Laurent, after the saint to whom the church was dedicated. Later it was renamed Isle de Venisse (after the Comtat Venaissin - nothing to do with Venice) and later l'Isle sur la Sorgue. Fishing remained an important industry; the Sorgue and its many tributaries further downstream were the main source of fish in the Papal Territories in France. Over time the swamps were drained and the countryside surrounding l'Isle sur la Sorgue became an important center for fruit and vegetable growing.
In the next development phase the Jewish community played an important role. In the 14th century most Jews were expelled from the Kingdom of France and many took refuge in the Papal Territories. They were allowed to settle in four towns, Avignon, Cavaillon, Carpentras and l'Isle sur la Sorgue, an arrangement which lasted until the French Revolution. As in most of Europe their economic activity was severely restricted, primarily to used clothing, used goods and money lending. Only in 1720 did the Pope allow them to work in silk and wool. This is the time when l'Isle sur la Sorgue started to boom. 120 of the 200 silk works were owned by Jews. Up until the French revolution a rich Jewish cultural life bloomed in the town. Today little is left of this heritage; the synagogue was pillaged during the French revolution and the Jewish population was partially absorbed or left the country. Today only some street names (Place de la Juiverie) and the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of the town remain.
Exploring l'Isle sur la Sorgue is easy but parking is notoriously difficult from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening. A safe bet for parking if you arrive early: At the roundabout at the Eastern end of Avenue des Quatre Otages drive South on Cours René Char, you will see the parking space on the left side after the 2nd roundabout.
So let's walk the streets and alleys of the old town between the two arms of the river Sorgue. Stroll along the quays of the river Sorgue and admire the water wheels; at one point there were up to 70. A cheap source of energy for the milling, textile and paper making industry. Visit the main church, the Collégiale Notre Dame des Anges (Our Lady of the Angels), a beautiful Southern Gothic and Baroque structure. For French literature fans a visit to the Hôtel Donadei de Campredon, an elegant 18th century mansion is a must. It now houses a small museum, the Maison René Char, exhibiting memorabilia of the famous poet and resistance fighter, a native of the town, who died in 1988.
You find most of the antique stores along and in courtyards behind Avenue des Quatre Otages and Avenue de la Liberation. A group of 30 antique shops is located across from the railway station. Some antique stores are open all year, others only from April to October. Thursday afternoon to Sunday is your best bet to find all stores open.
The Provençal market takes place Thursday and Sunday mornings in the streets of the old town. The Sunday market is huge, the one on Thursdays is more manageable. A treat at every turn, fresh fruits, vegetables, sausages, ham, cheese, fish and meat; you name it you got it. Very colorful. Good place to shop for Provençal items, like pottery, tablecloth and linens. There are a couple of good Provençal stores in the old town too and some interesting art galleries.
Take it easy, soak in the Provence atmosphere and sit in one of the cafés in the old town (Café de France near the church) and along the quays of the Southern arm of the river Sorgue across from antique row.
Avoid staying in the newer parts of l'Isle sur la Sorgue, very busy. The historic center between the two river Sorgue arms is calm, mostly a pedestrian zone. Wide choice of hideaway type self-catering holiday homes, hotels and B&Bs in the surrounding countryside, but you need to make reservations very early.