In a flash of self-pity, I think about what I’m not doing while staying in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, France, the enchanting and historic island town ringed by the Sorgue River in the Luberon region of Provence.
I’m visiting nearby Gordes, one of the most beautiful villages of France and noted for its stone buildings rooted into craggy mountain cliffs. However, I’m not hiking the 12 miles to Gargas, with its dazzling ochre hills, as long planned. Deleted from my itinerary are hour-long morning walks, both to acquaint myself with L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and help maintain my fitness program. Scoping out a yoga class to work on my flexibility is pointless.
Two days before my departure for France, I fractured my ankle. Arriving at the Little Sugar Creek Greenway in Charlotte for a walk, I exited the car, and promptly stepped into a several-inch-deep hole hidden by grass. My left ankle rolled sharply, and I landed in the street lying on my back.
I boarded the plane wearing a shin-high, stacked-heel, supportive walking boot on my left foot. On my right foot was a hiking boot, an Evenup shoelift attached to accommodate my different leg lengths. According to my new orthopedist, I’ll wear the walking boot for at least the next four weeks and restrict my activity even longer. Happily, surgery and crutches weren’t necessary.
A woman at the TGV train station in Lyon on the way to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue noticed my bulky foot, and approached me with a kind expression. “Bless your heart,” she sympathized in English. When I disembarked the train in Avignon, a fellow passenger scolded others in French for trying to board as he offered me his arm for assistance down the steps.
Appreciative of their courtesies, I nevertheless feel conspicuous and vulnerable, an unsettling sensation anytime, but especially on the road. Normally, I stride confidently and in high gear. Nowadays, my gait is ungainly and uneven, frequently spiked with pain. A Quasimodo parody.
And what of it? Life at this moment could be so much worse. Life at this moment couldn’t be better.
My husband, Bill, and I are in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, and a world of opportunity awaits. A slower, more contemplative pace can bring new insights. Pills and the passage of time can lessen the pain.
Perspective and gratitude quickly restored, my thinking switches back as it should to what I am doing.
The charms of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue
We’ve rented a tiny studio apartment on Quai Clovis Hugues on the bank of the Sorgue. The river here is narrow, perhaps 20 feet across, and shallow, possibly a yard deep.
The gently flowing water is amazingly clear and sparkling like an emerald thanks to vibrant green plant life springing from the riverbed. Fish (trout, Bill says) and squawking and splashing ducks are plentiful. Several canals also run between the ancient and narrow cobbled streets. We cross the river on little pedestrian bridges, many covered in climbing vegetation. Situated around the river are remains of 15 paddle wheels formerly used centuries ago to provide energy for mills grinding wheat and spinning silk and wool.
Across the Sorgue from our apartment is a boulodrome for playing pétanque, Provence’s signature sport. The objective is to toss hollow steel balls, or boules, about the size of a large orange, as close as possible to a much smaller wooden ball called a cochonnet.
On Thursdays and Saturdays especially, large groups of (mostly) men and women congregate on the pale dirt. A circle scuffed into the dirt is their throwing boundary, like a flat pitcher’s mound but smaller and more discrete. Some players squat to toss their boules, and others stand, concentration marked on their faces. Some throw palm down, which creates backspin, and some palm up. Multiple shots are dead-on, landing atop rivals’ boules and scattering them. Those not inclined to bend down to pick up their boules lift them with magnets attached to dangling ribbons. Camaraderie and competition are high, yet minus raucous chatter, loud music, hearty backslaps, or high-fives that typify American sports.
L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is home to nearly 300 antique dealers and second-hand shops, making it the second largest antiques center outside of Paris. Thursdays and Sundays are outdoor market days, with Sunday being the largest market in the Luberon.
I love the elemental and emblematic nature of a Provençal market. Stalls full of choices and snaking through narrow streets. The sense of community and continuity, for some markets have existed since the Middle Ages. Vibrant colors, fresh produce, and prepared dishes.
We buy dried lavender to scent our apartment. Rotisserie chicken and potatoes, browned and enriched from dripping fat. Mushrooms, both funnel-shaped girolles and thick-stemmed cèpes, for an earthy sauté. Slender, mild radishes to eat the French way with creamy butter and flaky sea salt.
I ask a fruit vendor for a sweet, juicy Cavaillon melon. Etiquette requires he make my selection. So, too, does common sense, for he knows his products. “Aujourd’hui?” he asks, meaning do I want one at peak ripeness to eat today. “Oui, merci.” I reply. And it is.
We purchase cheese at La Fromagerie de L’Isle on rue Carnot. Goat cheese is Provence’s specialty, the shopkeeper tells us as she offers a sample. Ancient Phoenicians brought goats here millennia ago, and the animals adapted well to the Mediterranean climate, rocky soil, and scrubby vegetation. They “make little milk, but high quality,” she says. Our favorite cheese is Comté. Aged for 34 months, it has a dry, crumbly texture like Reggiano Parmesan and a depth of flavor not found in the smoother American version.
Baguettes, croissants, and pains au chocolat come from Boulangerie Pâtisserie Cattoën, located on the tree-lined center square across from Collégiale Notre-Dame-des-Anges, a Catholic church known for its elaborate Baroque interior. From the bakery window, we select chocolate meringues the size of salad plates. Light as air, they gently break into sections and crumbs, and we devour every crispy morsel.
Rosé is the Provençal wine. Served chilled, it counteracts the searing heat of Provençal summers. We can attest rosé tastes just fine in the fall, too, for we sip and savor it at lunch and dinner, in wine bars, at cafes, restaurants, and tastings, and in our apartment.
We visit other fabled hill villages and towns that dot Provence, each boasting its own rich past and picturesque character.
Menèrbes, with panoramic views of mountain ranges and valleys lush with vineyards and olive trees. Les Baux-de-Provence, perched on a rocky spur where remains of its fortified chateau speak to a tumultuous military history. Vestiges of a Roman winery in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Renaissance towers of Uzès, situated near the still-standing Roman aqueduct Pont du Gard. Rousillon and its ochre-infused landscape and houses. Saint Rémy de Provence, where Vincent van Gogh painted his iconic “The Starry Night” while residing in the asylum of the monastery.
My thoughts wander back to the Sorgue. The river is such a prominent feature that L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is nicknamed “Venice of Provence.” We drive to the nearby village of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse to see the river’s source. The river emerges from an immense underground network of waters fed by rainwater and melted snow. One of the largest springs in the world, water flows up a cave passage, or chasm, at the base of a 750-foot limestone cliff.
As we near the end of the path to the spring, the surface switches from gently rolling pavement to an unexpectedly steep incline. We must choose between a ramp and side-by-side steps, both fashioned from dirt and rocks. I cling to Bill’s arm as he draws me upward on the ramp. Planting my right leg first to steady myself, I drag my left foot to meet it, ignoring the discomfort and keeping an eye out for loose pebbles. I break a sweat from exertion under the midday sun.
Not really hiking, of course, but given my condition, the climb is a worthy and much appreciated substitute in a transcendent and magical natural setting. I feel terrific and grateful for what I am doing in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.