L'Isle sur la Sorgue is just what the name says: an island in the middle of the River Sorgue. And there are many excellent reasons why this is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Provence.
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The antiques, art and lively farmers' markets are the main magnets for many people: click here for our full guide to the fairs, markets and galleries that make L'Isle sur la Sorgue a shoppers' paradise. This page surveys the other tempting attractions in town, including its river-based events and activities, old town and museums.
A THUMBNAIL HISTORY
The first houses of L'Isle sur la Sorgue rose up on pilotis (stilts or pillars) from the surrounding marshland in the 12th century. Their inhabitants lived first from fishing and farming, and later from textiles when, using the fine merino fleeces of sheep from the nearby Camargue, L'Isle sur la Sorgue became a major wool producer.
In the Middle Ages, by a quirk of history, this whole area fell under the control of the Vatican. Known as the Comtat Venaissin, it was a Papal enclave in the middle of Provence.
And it continued to be so, even after the Avignon Papacy had ended, from 1274 right up to the French Revolution. L'Isle sur la Sorgue was one of the most powerful towns in the Comtat.
By the mid-20th century the traditional wealth generated by fishing and textiles was beginning to fade. But L'Isle de la Sorgue found a new identity and lease of life: 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 become a twice-yearly event, on the weekends of Easter and 15 August (the Feast of the Assumption, a public holiday in France).
LIFE ON THE SORGUE RIVER
A river runs through it! Originating in nearby Fontaine de Vaucluse, the Sorgue River splits into two branches a little further downstream towards L'Isle sur la Sorgue, at a Biblical-sounding spot called La Partage des Eaux (The Parting of the Waters), pictured.
The divide was man-made and its purpose was originally to drain the marshes and irrigate the land, and later to drive the water wheels for grain and textile mills.
After the Parting of the Waters, the river then splits again into five smaller channels, which flow around and through L'Isle sur la Sorgue. Today the town competes with the less famous Martigues for the title of the Venice of Provence.
So it's not surprising that the river - and a host of colourful customs and ceremonies around it - has always been central to life in L'Isle sur la Sorgue.
You can see many mementos of its importance, down to some of the street signs: Anguilles (Eel), Truite (Troute), Ecrevisse (Crayfish), Loutre (Otter) are all reminders of a time when fishing was central to the economy.
And the large wooden water wheels dotted all along the river and canals of L'Isle sur la Sorgue are one of its most distinctive features. These were used to grind cereal and power textile mills and there were once around seventy of them. Today just 15 remain, the oldest of which dates back to 1530 (though more are being restored and added from time to time) and they are decorative rather than functional.
You can pick up a "waterwheel discovery map" with background notes on each wheel from the Tourist Office or download it here. Truth be told, one water wheel looks very much like another, but the little circuit on this map, which takes between 40 minutes and an hour to complete on a leisurely stroll, is an excellent route to take in some of the main sights in town.
You're also likely to catch sight of the odd nego chin, pictured (the name is provençal for noye chien or dog drowner). Rather like a big stand-up paddle board, this is a large flat fishing boat that's able to sail through marshes and shallow waters but is unstable and tricky to navigate.
Over the summer various events are organised around the nego chin, with regular boating classes, races and water jousting contests, plus some one-off specials. You can read more about them on the website for the Association de Nego Chin (in French only).
On the third Sunday of July, local fisherman demonstrate ancient fishing techniques using implements such as a seven-pronged trident. Both the fishermen and many market stall holders dress in provençal costume for the occasion.
The last Sunday and Monday of July mark the Corso Nautique, a water carnival whose lavishly decorated floats are literally that: they float down the river, magically illuminated as night falls.
And the festivities continue the following week with the marché flottant, or floating market, pictured below, on the first Sunday of August, when vendors revive the old practice of selling farm produce from the nego chin boats.
One pleasant attraction is the 1.5 km / one mile walk along the river to the Parting of the Waters. It takes around 25 minutes on foot. If driving, note that the - rather poorly signposted - road in each direction is one-way.
Dotted at intervals with little illustrated plaques about local history and ecology (in French only), this route is suburban rather than rural, but it's a refreshing ramble.
And, once there, a dip in the cool river (the temperature remains a constant 12 degrees Celsius / 54 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year) awaits you, as does a cluster of picnic tables and guinguettes (bars with music) .
If you're feeling in a sporty mood, you can rent a canoe and paddle downriver from Fontaine de Vaucluse to L'Isle sur la Sorgue. Or, between mid-March and mid-September, you can go trout fishing; you'll require a permit, for the day, week or year, which can be bought from the angling store Le Sorguett (route de Caumont, 84800 Isle sur la Sorgue). More details here about fishing in L'Isle sur la Sorgue (in French only).
THE OLD TOWN
Most people visit L'Isle sur la Sorgue for its fairs and markets. That's a pity in a way because the crowds and tempting distractions of the stalls on market days make it difficult to appreciate the historic sights of the vieille ville (old town).
A walk round it will take in a variety of towers, churches and hospitals, grand Renaissance mansions fuelled by wealth from the textile trade and agricultural and industrial buildings, many of them repurposed for modern use as galleries and shops.
A good place to start is the Office de Tourisme (Tourist Office). Housed in a vaulted 18th century granary right in the heart of L'Isle sur la Sorgue, it's a lovely building in its own right.
Arrive early on Sunday to see the church which is the town's star architectural feature before Mass starts. Notre Dame des Anges (sometimes called La Collégiale) dates back to the twelfth century but was substantially expanded and decorated in the 17th century and is now a rare example of baroque architecture in France.
The exterior is relatively sober. Watch out, though, for the richly carved wooden doorway and, above it, something unusual. Provence is famous for its sundials but Notre Dame des Anges has an extra: a moon dial. Both sun dial and moon dial were essential aids for local farmers planning their crop-planting calendar.
Inside, the church is very ornate and amazingly large for a town of the size - a testimony to the status of L'Isle sur la Sorgue at the height of its power. It's teeming with ornamentation, but take a moment to turn round and admire the host of gorgeous golden anges - angels - above the main door.
Outside, you'll pass by the place Ferdinand Buisson which has some pretty multi-coloured houses and the Tour d'Argent, a striking 13th century tower that has at various times been a treasury, an inn and a dance hall. Currently under restoration, it will eventually become a cultural centre with three cinemas and an exhibition space.
Other buildings of note in the centre are two chapels, the Chapelle des pénitents blancs and the Chapelle des pénitents bleus; the Hôtel Dieu, a former hospital with a beautiful iron gate, fountain and 18th century pharmacy; and some lavish châteaux constructed by the Bruns, a leading local dynasty of architects.
Because they were for centuries independent of the rest of France, the Comtat Venaissin and Avignon became a refuge for persecuted Jews in the 14th century.
The Avignon Popes practised a policy of (relative) tolerance and allowed them to settle in four ghettos, in Avignon, Carpentras, Cavaillon and L'Isle sur la Sorgue. These communities became known as the "Juifs du Pape" or the "Pope's Jews".
Compared to those three other towns, not much remains of that period in the small Jewish quarter in L'Isle sur la Sorgue around the place de la Juiverie. The synagogue was destroyed in 1856 but the Jewish cemetery on the route de Caumont to the south of the town survives and is listed as an Historic Monument. L'Isle sur la Sorgue also had a Jewish mayor, Adolphe Michel Abram, in the 19th century.
If you want to relax after your walk, head over to the Parc Gautier, just outside the main centre of town near the railway. It's grassy and shaded by trees, with a children' playground, small skateboard park and, in the middle, another splendid former granary which is now a music school.
MUSEUMS AND GALLERIES
L'Isle sur la Sorgue has a lively gallery scene. 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.
There are also two intriguing small museums. The Musée du Jouet et de la Poupée ancienne (Toy and Doll Museum) is inspired by one woman's passion. Huguette Jeanselme began collecting dolls over half a century ago and has now amassed some three thousand, lovingly restoring them and repairing their clothes.
The pick of her collection is on show in a very cluttered little 17th century house in the centre of town. When we called by, Madame Jeanselme was there in person, presiding over hundreds of exhibits, looking after the ticket office and eager to chat to visitors.
The oldest dolls date back to the late 19th century. Hand-made, they are exquisite and fragile and could cost a worker a month's salary: their purpose was to be admired, not to play with.
They're displayed with carefully handwritten labels in roped-off areas or glass cases and so, although some of the exhibits are enchanting, this museum isn't ideal for very small children who will surely long to touch them.
Among the curiosities are a doll whose head swivels to present you with three different expressions and moods, a souvenir of the Dionne quintuplets in a little coffret, an exquisite fairground scene where all the tiny figurines move in time to music, tin soldiers for the boys - and a showcase dedicated to Barbie.
The Toy and Doll Museum also organises a large antique toy fair each spring at the town's Salle des Fêtes.
The Musée de l'Ecole d'Autrefois(Old Schoolhouse Museum) transports you back in time to a 19th century school with its old wooden desks, blackboards, books and a machine to teach pupils to read, invented - supposedly - in Vaucluse. This museum is about 3 km / 2 miles north-east of the town centre and has somewhat irregular opening hours so check first before going out there.
The Tourist Office for L'Isle sur la Sorgue is right in the heart of town on the place de la Liberté. Note that the entrance is a bit hard to spot on market day, when it's almost completely hidden by the stalls!
You can easily visit L'Isle sur la Sorge on foot but, for those who want or need wheels, a petit train (little tourist train) runs at weekends in summer, leaving every half hour from in front of the Caisse d'Épargne on the avenue des Quatre Otages.
It offers two 25 minute circuits, one focussed on the town centre and one heading out to the Parting of the Waters, where you can hop out for a picnic or swim before picking up another little train later. Commentaries are in French and English - better English, we hope, than the little train's machine-translated website.
How to get to L'Isle sur la Sorgue: L'Isle sur la Sorgue is 32.5 km / 20 miles east of Avignon, 10 km / 6 miles north of Cavaillon and 18 km / 11 miles south of Carpentras.
The town has no fewer than 17 car-parks, but they still fill up very quickly in summer, especially on Sundays.
If you can't find a space in the centre, try the car-park at the Salle des Fêtes (Function Room) on the avenue Napoléon Bonaparte north of the town, about an eight-minute walk from the market.
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L'Isle sur la Sorgue is well served by buses. Bus no.6 runs from Avignon, bus no.13 runs from Carpentras and Cavaillon, bus no.14 runs from Apt, bus no.20 runs from Avignon and Carpentras and bus no.21 runs from Maubec and Fontaine de Vaucluse.
Click here for the current timetables (look for the link marked "horaires des lignes", then choose the relevant timetable from the list).
From Marseille and Aix, take bus no. 17, which also serves Carpentras and Cavaillon. Click here for the current timetable (choose the relevant timetable from the list).
There's also a rail service. The current timetable for the train between L'Isle sur la Sorgue and Marseille, Miramas, Cavaillon and Avignon can be downloaded from the SNCF TER (French regional railways) website (in French only). Select timetable no.9 (Marseille-Avignon) from the drop-down menu.
Where to eat: There is no shortage of super spots to eat and drink in L'Isle sur la Sorgue. A good start to any day is the Café de France, pictured, in the background, which, with its elegant Art Nouveau facade, large mirrors and wood panelling, is a classic brasserie.
Once a headquarters for Resistance fighters during the Second World War, today its unrivalled central location makes it a meeting point for tourists and locals on market days. 14 place de la Liberté.
Le Caveau de la Tour de l'Isle is a traditional wine bar that also sells an impressive selection of some sixty fine cheeses to take away or taste there with a glass of wine. Barrels set in front of the little shop do duty as tables. 12 rue de la République.
Restaurants are crowded cheek by jowl all along the quai Jean Jaurès and some have tables perched right over the canal. Most offer a prix fixe (set menu).
On the recommendation of a local (merci, Charline!) we made for Le Longchamp, pictured, on the esplanade Robert Vasse, which offers a cheap, huge and delicious set lunch plus unbelievably low-priced carafes of good local wine.
The menu is dominated by meat but vegetarians will find something to nibble on too. The burgers and frites (proper English-style chips, not skinny French fries) are excellent and the atmosphere very lively.
Naturally it's jam-packed with diners, drinkers and dalliers (plus people buying cigarettes: it's a bar tabac), so arrive early. After the lunch period it continues to serve tapas through the afternoon.
Photo credits (from top): © OTI PMSV JP GERMAIN, Alain Hocquel for CDT Vaucluse, JL Zimmermann for CDT Vaucluse, OTI PMSV JP GERMAIN, Alain Hocquel for CDT Vaucluse (three images), RWS for Marvellous Provence.