Provence in the south of France is very popular worldwide for vacations. I’m lucky enough to live here year-round and while the planet has many wonderful regions, Provence (to me) has a quality that’s unsurpassable.
The Vaucluse is an area in the south-east of France which lies to the east of the medieval city of Avignon. The region is bordered by the wide river Rhone to the west and by the Durance river to the south. The famous Mont Ventoux – the Giant of Provence – is in the Vaucluse. So are the three pretty mountain ranges the Dentelles de Montmirail, Monts de Vaucluse and Luberon.
Both the natural and built environments are beautiful. You could spend months on end exploring the hills here, the tracks through herb-scented garrigue and paths alongside pretty rivers like the Sorgue. Medieval hilltop villages offer shady squares with old stone fountains and little local caf©s where you can enjoy a coffee or a pastis while you read your paper or novel in the summer heat. There are mieleries where drowsy bees make honey, vineyards that were first cultivated since by the Romans 2000 years ago and olive groves where people (me included) busy them pruning their trees, collecting the olives and making luxurious, yellow olive oil.
Towns and villages worth exploring in the Vaucluse, among others, are Avignon, Orange, Carpentras, Pernes les Fontaines, L’Isle sur la Sorgue, Cavaillon, and Apt.
My local town, L’Isle sur Sorgue, is a beautiful small market town not far from the gorgeous medieval, papal city of Avignon. L’Isle sur Sorgue is surrounded by the crystal-clear Sorgue river which parts at the partage des eaux and flows along each side of the town. L’Isle has a small medieval centre of crooked buildings, narrow alleys and low archways. Small canals from the Sorgue criss-cross the town, running under little foot bridges and turning great water wheels covered with dark green weed and moss. Ever Sunday, L’Isle is turned into an outdoor market as stallholders arrive with fruit and veg, cheese and meat, bread and olive oil and set up their stalls at the crack of dawn. If you feel adventurous you can try sea urchins, pigs’s trotters or sausages made from wild boar. (I see the boar trundling about near my home in the forest so, feeling a personal coonection, I tend not to eat the sausages!)
Pernes les Fontaines is nearby and, as the name suggests, it’s a village with dozens of old stone fountains dotted around, all attractive, each unique. There’s a pretty square with a traditional caf© where you sit outside by the river Nesque. Pernes has its outdoor market every Saturday and, as at L’Isle, you can buy anything and everything edible that you fancy from oysters to truffles and chickens to goats’ cheese.
But wondering around these wonderful places doesn’t get you under the skin of Provence or the Vaucluse, of course. The region has masses of activity going on which is highly visible to visitors – markets, street theatre festivals, kids parading about in Christmas week with lit lanterns and so on. But there’s an amazingly rich culture underlying all that too. Societies which teach you to identify edible (and toxic) mushrooms, associations for beekeepers and botanists, clubs organising chess tournaments, book clubs organising sales of second hand and antiquarian books, local chefs giving cooking classes in their wonderful restaurants, little out-of-the-way jazz clubs organising jazz nights and blues evenings (often with American musicians as guests.) You can go out wondering the hills with walking groups, ride on horseback through the forests.
There’s a massive wealth of knowledge and skill in Provence which is built largely on the region’s history. The stonemasons are often real craftsmen. People are hugely knowledgeable about the countryside, nature, wild flowers, birds and animals. Many locals, on even the most meagre budgets, cook wonderful dishes that would impress the best French chefs. And of course there’s immense skill and experience when it comes to producing goats’ and sheeps’ cheese, olive oil, fruit and vegetables of the Mediterranean, lavender products and – naturally – wine.
A week or two spent in the Vaucluse is a joy. If you can find, or get, or make the chance to visit for longer, you will find a region which never exhausts your curiosity and, to my mind, never disappoints.