Provence in the summer has this particular charm which attracts the French and foreigners to its region every year. With its warm, Mediterranean weather, endless sunny days, gorgeous landscapes, and plenty of rosé to boot, it’s no wonder that this area in southern France gets a lot of attention. Summer in Provence is the epitome of what summer is: tranquil, idle, and countless possibilities.
While stationed in Avignon this past July, I took several day trips to other Provencal towns. One of them was l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, situated about 28 kilometers (17 miles) east of Avignon. Dubbed the “Venice of Provence” (la Venise provençale), this small town of 19,000 inhabitants is along the Sorgue river, which gives rise to its notable canals and moats that encircle the town center. Its colorful houses along the banks also add charm to the place, and it comes as no surprise that l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is reminiscent of the great Italian water-city, at least smaller in scale.
L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is most-famous for its water wheels (“les roues à aubes”), with over a dozen or so dotted on the river. They were first installed in the early 19th century to power the then-industrial town, especially for corn and silk mills. The water wheels were also used to provide water to the public, which goes to show that the locals were really resourceful in their use of the Sorgue river. Many of the water wheels are still in use today, and they have become tourist attractions to spot while strolling the river banks.
Small as it is, l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue has a prominent industrial past thanks to the water wheels. Today, however, much of town has dedicated itself to holiday-goers: countless boutiques and cafés pepper the Old Town, offering plenty of shopping and eating for an idle afternoon in the heart of Provence. You can choose to purchase fragrant lavender oils (a regional staple) or otherwise pause for a glass of rosé with views of the iconic peninsula along the Sorgue. The building on the peninsula is, funny enough, a financial bank!
I visited l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue on my very first day in Avignon. I had just arrived earlier that morning and, upon dropping my belongings in my friend’s flat, I decided to hop on the regional bus at the gare routière to any place in Provence. Originally, I had planned to visit les Baux de Provence, but unfortunately, the bus times weren’t convenient (and also required a confusing transfer). That said, I picked a random town as my alternative, and that happened to be l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. I paid just a little over 5€ for a round trip, and I took the 40-minute ride to town.
The bus dropped me off right at esplanade Robert Vasse. I saw the picturesque peninsula right away, as well as the elegant building that was a bank. Considering that I had arrived in the afternoon, the town was already bustling with locals and visitors, especially at the cafés along the quay. I decided first to explore town before returning for a break at the café, so I set off into the heart of Old Town.
After passing by several souvenir shops, I reached the towering collégiale Notre-Dame-des-Anges. Constructed in the 17th century, its architecture is heavily Italian-influenced, and one can especially see the opulence in its blue-and-gold interior. Aside from a few, I had never been blown away by French churches and cathedrals, but I admit that this one did turn my head a bit.
Upon stepping out the church, I was once again hit with the sweltering heat. I took a gander around the place de la Liberté, also coming across the café de France which is a historic eatery and perfect for lunch and a drink. Tons of people were outside on its terrace enjoying their meal and the good weather that came with it. As tempting as it was to get something at the café, I still wanted to explore town, so I breezed by it on my way to the next destination.
I briefly stopped by the tourism office (adjacent to the collégiale Notre-Dame-des-Anges) for a town map and suggestions of places to see before continuing with my visit. Soon enough, I hit the Sorgue river where I saw my first water wheel. Fascinating to believe that it was still in great working condition despite being over 200 years old. Paired with some colorful flowers along the bank, it made for a quaint and picturesque view.
There were three or four more water wheels that I encountered while on my stroll along the river. Eventually, I wrapped around the périphérique before cutting into a small side street to get back into the Old Town. I stumbled upon a brightly pastel library on rue Danton, with a bold blue backdrop and cheery sunflowers for that extra burst of color. The charm didn’t stop at the library, however, as I strolled the pedestrian street painted with sunflowers that lead back to the animated place de la Liberté.
Eventually, I made my way back towards esplanade Robert Vasse, but not before stopping by one of the souvenir shops for a postcard and lavender perfume. Besides being a well-known Provence product, lavender is also known to have a calming, therapeutic smell to help with stress, anxiety, and sleep. It’s even considered a mosquito repellent, which certainly comes in handy during the humid summer days — really, mosquitoes in France are terrifyingly vicious!
My time in l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue ended with a break at one of the cafés near the peninsula. The café was absolutely packed, and even though I had only ordered a glass of rosé, it took forever to receive the drink. In any case, though, it was a satisfying finish to my visit in town, as I relaxed under the awnings of the café terrace (equipped with a misting system, which was appreciated) and enjoyed my chilled beverage with views of the Sorgue river.
Although I only spent an afternoon in l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, I enjoyed the slower pace of travel. Usually, I’m bustling around town to see as many sites and monuments as possible, but I took my time from this moment to soak up the atmosphere. I was able to see more of what local life was like, and all the while enjoy everything under the Provencal sun.
More of my time in Provence coming soon!