Antique Hunting In Provence

The Vaucluse and L'Isle sur la Sorgue.

NUVO Summer 2002: Antique Hunting in Provence

Deep in the heart of Provence is a region known as the Vaucluse. Saturated sunshine and fields of lavender cutting linear swaths of purple into the horizon. These constitute the staple images of the area. We imagine Van Gogh’s sunflowers, ruddy faced locals armed with baguettes, and the traditional bright blue and yellow textiles for which Souliedo has justly become famous. Deep in the heart of the Vaucluse though, you can discover a green jewel of a small city known as L’Isle sur la Sorgue. This charming petite ville of 18,000 inhabitants is affectionately called the little Venice of France, for it was built on wetlands in the 12th century and is magically laced throughout with canals of the Sorgue river. Over the last 30 years antique dealers have been claiming this setting as their domain, providing here the second highest density of antiques in all of France, outside Paris.

The wide flowing river is flanked on either side in the town centre with poetic streets boasting elegant and inspiring home furnishing and antique boutiques. The river itself holds an ethereal countenance. Long verdant water plants undulate beneath the clear surface, dappled with shade from the tall trees that have taken root there. Large waterwheels still turn in the shallow water today, remnants of the textiles and paper industry for which they provided a source of energy. Little shops and markets that would make any treasure hunter’s pulse race are tucked away in a labyrinth of tiny streets webbed by smaller canals. Welcoming courtyards and a sprawling old abandoned train station allow for an atmosphere of leisurely discovery amidst ancient architectural elements, objets d’art and enticing cafés.

Located 25 km south east of Avignon, L’Isle sur la Sorge is quaint yet sophisticated, small enough you could spend a day there and feel you had captured its spirit, varied enough you could spend a week and still hunger for more. The Office of Tourism is set up to accommodate treasure hunters, with maps, guides and calendars for all the market sites.

Every weekend the central area surges with people who have come for the open air à la brocante and fresh market; twice a year, at Easter and in mid-August, the entire city swells, hosting an enormous antique fair that has great international momentum. Designers and dealers spanning the globe from New York to London aggressively jostle each other for bargains or items that are just too magnificent to pass up regardless of price. For those who do not prefer crowds, avoid these dates. There is still so much to find in quieter times.

There are antiques for all tastes and budgets here, a genuine plethora of garden ornaments, rustic Provençal earthenware, textiles, silverware, art, and fine formal furnishings. A nearby street may be lined with only chic little shops of impeccable style. You may stumble upon a courtyard of locals, drinking wine and playing cards with lazy dogs sleeping in the shade of their feet. Proprietors will let you rummage for yourself through their collections of all things musty, worn, and to the true antique lover, precious. There is room to haggle, and it is wise to clarify when negotiating a purchase that you are Canadian. The strength of the US dollar has eager Americans shopping breezily and buying in abundance, which in turn raises prices. A respectful nature, some hard-earned knowledge, and an attempt to speak French will always help the bargaining process.

Rummage for yourself through their collections of all things musty, worn, and to the true antique lover, precious.

Your scouring eyes may grow weary, but your senses will yet again be delighted and overwhelmed by a selection of bustling bistros and fine restaurants. Some stores even have their own little dining spots, where wait staff and chefs alike hustle amidst an eclectic atmosphere of old world charm. Locals and tourists alike refresh themselves sipping dark creamy espresso or savouring a tart icy sorbet while taking in some live jazz music outside. You may choose from the aromatic local fare at the boulangeries, pâtisseries and fromageries that abound, or peruse the expansive artisanal market which sets up early every Sunday and Tuesday. Vendors display the intoxicating flavours and textures of Provence here with an abundance of olives, fresh fruit and herbs, breads, pungent cheeses, and charcuterie. The melon liqueur from the neighbouring town of Cavaillon is beyond description. Highly coveted Provençal soaps made with olive oil are available in a multitude of colours and essences such as mint, anise, lemon or pear are impossible to pass by without reaching out to smell and touch. Traditional crafts such as embroidered linens, panier baskets, lavender sachets, and stunning flower bouquets are just as irresistible.

Mid-week is a good time to venture beyond L’Isle sur la Sorgue, as many of the dealers and shops are closed at this time. Upscale resort style hotels and bed and breakfasts tend to adorn the countryside, with five star dining and alluring swimming pools to relax in after a long day of exploring. Not far east is the 12th century Abbaye de Senanque, situated in a field of lavender. Turn a corner a bit further on, and rising out of the sky is the medieval hilltop village of Gordes. This walled village is built entirely with indigenous stone.

A short car ride from Gordes is the village of Roussillon. The wine world is taking a renewed, vivid interest in this area. There are more than grapes and wineries on offer, however. You will be in awe to discover the great old ochre mines that have been cut deep into the earth. Breathtakingly beautiful cliffs layered in every intense hue of ochre and terra cotta are dramatically framed by tall dark pine and oak trees. The homes in this hilltop town are all created from a palette of rosy reds and honey gold shades. Plan to stay past dusk in Roussillon. The low setting sun will still reach the ochre cliffs, glittering off their jagged shapes, further intensifying the vivid colours.

As the sky turns azure in the dusk, it is the perfect time for contemplation. In the tiny area of the Vaucluse, the hills, and your senses, are alive. The treasures, the ripe tastes, the aroma of lavender, and the mistral winds create a lasting impression. L’Isle sur la Sorgue, the essence of Provence.

Photo by Salva Barbera via Flickr.