November 2 – 7
We awoke the next morning having had a rough night’s sleep. Something outside of our room made a loud banging noise, almost like metal on metal and the continual racket woke us without cease. As we prepared to hit the road the next morning, we stopped at the front desk to ask about the noise and were advised that we could switch rooms, as they seemed to know what might be causing the sound.
Glad to have resolved the matter so easily and with another full day planned, we started with a walking tour of town that would be followed by a drive out into the countryside to explore this famous region, the Luberon. Just 30 miles east of Avignon, it contains some of France’s most captivating hill towns and sensuous landscapes. At the recommendation of St. Steves, we both read Peter Mayle’s best-selling book A Year in Provence, which marked its 25th anniversary in 2015. It describes the local culture from an Englishman’s perspective as he buys a stone farmhouse, fixes it up, and adopts the region as his new home.
The Luberon terrain in general (much of which is a French regional natural park) is full of vineyards and wind-sculpted trees. Mountains of limestone bend along vast ridges, while colorful hot-air balloons survey the scene from above. The wind is an integral part of life here; the infamous mistral wind, finishing its long ride in from Siberia, hits like a hammer, which we would experience that morning as we did our walking tour, the cold breeze biting at any bit of exposed skin.
The town has crystal-clear water babbling under pedestrian bridges and crossing its many outlets. Its nine waterwheels, which, while still turning, power only memories of the town’s wool and silk industries. We started the tour at Notre-Dame des Anges, the town’s 12th-century church with its festive Baroque interior.
Outside the church, the buildings nearby feature faded facades that recall their previous lives (fabrique de chaussures was a shoemaker; meubles means furniture; 3 étages d’exposition means 3 showroom floors).
Isle-sur-la-Sorgue retains a connection to its past uncommon in this renovation-happy region. We left the center and walked a couple of short blocks over to the Three Waterwheels, operating since the 1200s when they were first used for grinding flour.
Paper, textile, silk, and woolen mills would later find their power from this river and at its peak, Isle-sur-la-Sorgue had 70 waterwheels; in the 1800s, the town competed with Avignon as Provence’s cloth-dyeing and textile center.
Those stylish Provençal fabrics and patterns you see for sale everywhere were made possible by this river.
We walked out of the center of town to Le Bassin (pond) where the Sorgue River crashes into the town and separates into many branches. Fishing was the town’s main industry until the waterwheels took over.
With its source (a spring) a mere five miles away, the Sorgue River never floods and has a constant flow and temperature in all seasons.
We returned to the hotel and picking up the car, drove out to the small town of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, home to the springs that feed the River Sorgue. The fountain, or spring, of Vaucluse, situated at the feet of a steep limestone cliff 752 feet high, is the biggest spring in France and the fifth largest in the world with a flow of 456 million gallons per day. The spring is the only exit point of a subterranean basin that collects water from Mount Ventoux, and the Vaucluse and Lure mountains.
It was a gorgeous day and after walking up to the mouth of the source, otherwise known as the Chasm, we returned to the car, stopping to grab a bite to eat at one of the few stands still open this late in the season.
We opted for a Croque Monsieur (grilled ham and cheese) and something to drink. After eating we made the 40-minute drive to Roussillon and its well-known Ochre Footpath.
A protected village since 1943, Roussillon has benefited from a complete absence of modern development. An enormous deposit of ochre, which gives the earth and its buildings that distinctive reddish color, provided this village with its economic base until shortly after World War II.
With St. Steves as our guide, we did a quick self-guided walk of the village, walking past the 11th-century Church of St. Michel and continuing uphill to Chemin de Ronde, with its terrific views from atop medieval walls of the Luberon and the town of Gordes across the valley.
We continued back down to the base of town and then up to the entrance to the Ochre Footpath. Roussillon was Europe’s capital for ochre production until World War II, sitting on the world’s largest known ochre deposit. Made of iron oxide and clay, when combined with sand it creates the yellowish-red pigments you see in the buildings nearby. Although ochre is also produced in the US and Italy, the quality of France’s ochre is considered to be the best.
The value of Roussillon’s ochre cliffs was known even in Roman times. Once excavated, the clay ochre was rinsed with water to separate it from sand, then bricks were dried and baked for deeper hues.
The procedure for extracting the ochre did not change much over 2,000 years, until mining became industrialized in the late 1700s. Used primarily for wallpaper and linoleum, ochre use reached its zenith just before World War II when cheaper substitutes took over.
This is a stunningly lovely place to walk through with Bryce Canyon like wind and water carved hillsides pulsing the bright color the area is known for. We finished up our tour and as we walked back to the car stopped at a small café for a coffee and hot chocolate, then drove back to L’isle-Sur-le-Sorgue eagerly anticipating the dinner we would have later at Restaurant La Libellule.
After refreshing ourselves in the new room, which was a bit larger than our original assignment (one plus to having mentioned the noise the night before), we made our way to the restaurant only to find to a sign on the door, indicating that due to circumstances beyond their control, the place was closed for the night and would not reopen again until after we left town. Deeply disappointed, we were thrown into a quandary and wandered back out towards the river and our hotel.
We debated number of options including getting a pizza from a food truck and eating it in the room and not coming up with any better idea, particularly as it was Monday and many restaurants are closed that day, stopped in at Au Chineur.
This is a friendly and informal bistro with simply prepared food. I had a steak with frites and Joanna a piece of tuna, both without any adornment but cooked nicely. It was a pretty good meal, the only drawback being our elevated sense of anticipation for the one we thought we’d get at La Libellule. With wine the tab came to 53 euros, still quite reasonable for food and drink
We slept much better that night, a combination of a quiet room, fatigue from a full day of sightseeing and good food to digest. We had one last day in Provence before us and were eager to get out there and see as much as we could. It would be another good day.
A Year in Provence: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Year_in_Provence
Village de Roussillon: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roussillon,_Vaucluse
The Ochre Footpath: http://www.francethisway.com/places/roussillon-ocre-mines.php