antiques market smallWhether you're looking for antiques, art and crafts, silverware, table linen, second-hand books or farm-fresh market produce, you're bound to find it in L'Isle sur la Sorgue.

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On this page we explore these fairs, shops and markets, while our picture gallery shows the incredible range of treasures on offer. Click here to read our guide to the town itself and its many other attractions.

Antiques on display in L'Isle sur la Sorgue

The substantial riches of L'Isle sur la Sorgue - visible today in its lavish church and the elegant mansions lining the river - comes from the fishing and textile industries. But by the mid-20th century this wealth was beginning to fade. So L'Isle de la Sorgue found a new identity and lease of life: by reinventing itself almost overnight as one of France's leading antiques centres.

Its first antiques fair was held in 1966 and was an instant success - so much so that it has continued and become a twice-yearly fixture.

The Foire internationale Art et Antiquités de L'Isle sur la Sorgue takes place over the long weekends of Easter and 15 August (the Feast of the Assumption, a public holiday in France).

It's now huge. Around 500 antiques and art dealers and up to 120,000 visitors attend the event. This is the third largest fair of its kind in Europe, beaten only by the markets in Saint-Ouen in the northern suburbs of Paris and London's Portobello Road.

As well as it, there are two big brocante fairs a year. (Brocante is a level or two down from posh antiques, spanning everything from second hand goods and bric à brac to flea market junk.) Website for the Isle sur la Sorgue association of brocanteurs.

These two fairs are held for two days at Pentecôte (Whitsun) and on the Toussaint (All Saints' Day, a fixed feast on the 1 November and a public holiday in France).

insider tip for the isle sur la sorgue antiques marketSince 2003, L'Isle sur la Sorgue has brought in a team of antiques experts from the Compagnie des Experts Français en Antiquité for both the two big antiques fairs and the two brocante ones.

They monitor dealers and are on hand in the Commissariat Général de la Foire, in the Parc Gautier, to give free advice and professional valuations to shoppers.

antiques villageBut don't worry if you're not in L'Isle sur la Sorgue on one of those dates. All through the year the town's three hundred or so permanent antiques businesses open their doors for a long weekend, from Friday to Monday inclusive.

Some of them are stand-alone shops. Others are organised in loose clusters, known as "villages" These are basically high-class mini-malls based in atmospheric old former warehouses with stone walls and wooden beams or historic mansions.

Some of these buildings have quite stark facades on the street, like the Hôtel Dongier, pictured, but don't be fooled. Inside, they are treasure troves. See slide no.3 in our gallery above for a glimpse of the flower-filled courtyard hidden behind the door.

There's a small cluster of these "antiques villages" near the railway station, the longest established of which is the popular Village des Antiquaires de la Gare (2 bis avenue de l'Egalité), which has around a hundred dealers and a restaurant and tea room. This part of town is especially good for gilt-framed mirrors, crystal glassware, lighting, silver, rugs, and leather sofas.

A booklet introducing the town's antiques shops is available - in English, French and Italian - from the Tourist Office.

On Sundays the "proper" upscale antiques are augmented by an open-air brocante along the river, mainly on the avenue des Quatre Otages.

Also on Sundays, much of the Old Town is taken over by a classic provençal street market selling a very good range of local produce - cheeses, flavoured oils and vinegars, olives, ham on the bone, saucisson, fresh fish and so on - plus flowers, hats, espadrilles, fabrics, pottery... (A smaller version of this market is also held on Thursdays.)

So, while the writer Peter Mayle once famously quipped, "The only thing you can't get in L'Isle sur la Sorgue is a bargain," you'll find many smaller items that are highly affordable.

mont ventoux cheeseCertainly we were very pleased with our large, creamy and delicious five €uro cheese from Mont Ventoux, pictured, which fully lived up to its sales pitch: "Easier to eat than to climb".

In short, on Sundays the whole of L'Isle sur la Sorgue is given over to the shopping and browsing experience. So, if visiting then, arrive as early as possible as, although there are no fewer than 17 car-parks in the middle of town, parking is really at a premium.

We turned up at 9.30am on a rainy March morning and only just bagged one of the very last free spaces in a centrally located car-park. In summer you'll probably have to leave your vehicle on the edge of town. Be sure to take all valuables with you.

The Sunday food market runs till 1pm, after which the Old Town becomes relatively quiet, but the brocante and antique sellers remain open throughout the day. On non-market days, the streets around the rue de la République are the best area for shopping.

Over and above all this, L'Isle sur la Sorgue hosts several occasional markets. The second-hand booksellers set out their stalls on the esplanade Robert Vasse on the last Sunday of each month.

Each year in spring there's a toy and doll fair organised by the town's charming little Musée du Jouet et de la Poupée ancienne (Toy and Doll Museum).

And a major tourist draw is the marché flottant, or floating market, in the morning of the first Sunday of each August. In bygone times fishermen would come down the Sorgue River on their distinctive nego chin (flat-bottomed boat) to sell their wares.

marche flottant isle sur la sorgueThis one-off annual event revives the custom with decorated boats and vendors in traditional costume selling not only fish but olives, cheeses and all sorts of other local produce. Arrive early in the morning to secure a good vantage point.

The artists, craft workers and designers of L'Isle sur la Sorgue keep busy too. The town is dotted with art galleries where the work on display is, in many cases, for sale: they're marked on a little map which you can pick up at the Tourist Office.

Among the main ones are the Hôtel Donadeï de Campredon, an 18th century listed mansion which houses the Campredon Art Centre and regularly hosts exhibitions of modern art, and the Villa Datris, a foundation for contemporary sculpture. Note that neither of these two venues is open in the middle of winter.

A new arrival is La Manufacture, tucked away down a side street in the Old Town. It's a collective of thirty or so young artists and designers selling unusual hats, jewellery and houseware such as an old hairdresser's dryer or a beekeeper's mask repurposed as lampshades.

When we visited, the complex was guarded by a cute posse of grinning "dogs" made from green wellington boots, pictured in the gallery above.

Some sellers offer 1960s and 1970s style vintage stuff and there's a little sculpture garden too. 21 impasse Hotel de Palerme (off the rue de la République).

Finally L'Isle sur la Sorgue hasn't completely abandoned its old roots. In the past there were around forty manufacturers of textiles in the town.

Only one continues today, but it's a top one. Established in 1808, Brun de Vian Tiran specialises in fine fabrics: mohair, cashmere, silk and wool from the Merino sheep of the Camargue.

You can see the factory from the outside at 2 cours Victor Hugo and buy its products at Un Jour, 8 place Ferdinand Buisson, just behind the Tourist Office. Here too, the exterior is deceptively modest but inside its many rooms are an Aladdin's cave.

Cheap and cheerful everyday indiennes (the traditional fabrics of Provence) are on sale at the farmers' market and antique linens at the brocantes and antique shops.

markets of provence smallFinally, Markets of Provence is a comprehensive new guide to exactly that by the American travel writer Marjorie R Williams.

It's a survey of the best markets all across the region with interviews, background featurettes and useful tips and you can buy a copy on Amazon here.

Photo credits. Gallery: © Alain Hocquel for CDT Vaucluse (nos.1, 6, 7, 9 and 11), OTI PMSV JP GERMAIN (nos.2, 5, 12, 13 and 14), RWS for Marvellous Provence (no.3), Muriel Akermann for ADT84 (no.4), Guillaume Baviere for Wikimedia Commons (no.8), La Manufacture (no.10).

Main text (from top): © Alain Hocquel for CDT Vaucluse, RWS for Marvellous Provence (two images), OTI PMSV JP GERMAIN.

 

 

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