I can’t help but have rather a soft spot for Fontaine De Vaucluse. I can’t really explain why, but there is something about it that just makes me smile. The word Vaucluse derives from the latin ‘vallis clausa’ or ‘closed valley’ a perfect description for the setting of this village, that gives its name to the department
In the summer the path, that runs alongside the river, lined with cafes and restaurants overlooking the water, is always busy with visitors. They slowly amble up towards the site of the source of the River Sorgue, where it emerges from a pool at the bottom of incredible cliffs, which tower to well over 200 metres above this spring, which is the largest in France.
I’ve always been fascinated by the source, which in the summer is a limpid pool, sitting far below the lip of the rocks at the end of the path. For years I have sat and watched as the boys have climbed down to join others at the edge of the pool, which in the height of season looks almost stagnant, its surface often covered with a layer of dust ….
Yet below this, and feeding it, is a vast network of underground, mostly uncharted channels, bringing melt-water and rainfall from Ventoux, Lure and the surrounding areas. This results in the source creating an average of 630 million cubic metres of water a year, which works out at the equivalent of just under 700 olympic swimming pools worth of water every day.
Of course the daily amount shifts with the seasons, and in the height of summer the water emerges a considerable distance downstream, a clear icy flow starting its journey back to the sea…
But at the wettest of times, the water level rises over 20 metres, reaching the roof of the cave, pouring over the lip…
……in a noisy, rushing torrent, tumbling over the rocks, that people scramble across in the summer months.
Of course, like so many places, there is a lovely legend told by the famed Provencal writer Frederic Mistral, about the spring and the dramatic changes in levels, which is detailed on a glazed plaque, set into the stones by the path.
The story is told that an old Minstrel was on his way back after playing music for the girls of L’Isle Sur La Sorgue to dance to. He fell asleep under a tree and a nymph appeared, taking his hand and leading him to the edge of the pool. The water opened up in front of them, and they walked into the spring, where there was a meadow, in the middle of which were 7 diamonds. When the nymph lifted one, the water began to flow, and she went on to explain that when each diamond was removed, more water came to the spring, and that she only removed the seventh diamond, once a year, which allowed the spring to rise high enough for the fig tree to have a drink. Having explained this, she disappeared, and Basile, the minstrel woke.
It’s a lovely legend, and indeed there is a fig tree growing high on the cliff wall above the spring, and it can only ‘drink’ when the water is at full spate, but deep water explorations of the cave below the source (by divers including Jacques Cousteau) have found no trace of the meadow, or the diamonds…. but perhaps they weren’t looking in quite the right place.
Mistral isn’t the only famous provencal writer to be attracted to the village, and had been preceeded in the 1300s by the italian poet Petrarch, who loved the area, travelling and writing about his experiences, including climbing Mont Ventoux in 1336, much more of a tourist than we may have imagined possible 700 years ago. He is believed to have played a key part in the start of the Italian Renaissance and his works were used, with others as a basis for the Italian language, yet he is indelibly linked with this small village in Provence, where there is a museum celebrating his work , and a statue dominating the main square.
The river here is so clear and there is always a wonderful freshness, even in the height of summer, when it sweeps silently over the vivid green weeds below.
There are still signs of the industry that developed in the village thanks to this constant source of power, with the ancient paper mill, still producing beautiful handmade paper from linen, pulped by wooden hammers, powered by the, still functioning, water wheel.
It’s very easy to just arrive, walk to see the source and then leave again, but there is so much more to Fontaine de Vaucluse than the source. There are a number of other museums to visit, including ‘L’Appel de la Liberte’ dedicated to the local resistance during WW2, and another dedicated to the local tradition of Santons , small handpainted figures, designed for nativity sets, that represent different characters from provencal village life, from water carriers and gardeners, to fish sellers and shepherds.
It is also possible to walk up to the remains of the Chateau, that sits high on cliffs above the river, originally built by the Bishops of Cavaillon in the 14th century.
It’s quite a scramble up to the castle, but the views from the remains of the old walls are well worth the effort, with beautiful views out towards Cavaillon and down over the village itself.
The river though is the main attraction and there is something very calming and peaceful, even in the midst of the season, about just sitting on the bank, under the Plane trees, that in summer are filled with the sound of cicadas, simply watching it flow gently past, at the start of its long journey.
If you fancy doing something a little more adventurous, then just outside the village you can take to the treetops on the high-ropes courses at the climbing centre, The Passerelles Des Cimes Visit site here . This is a great activity centre, and we used to spend many an hour there, with the boys, who happily negotiated the ropes with out a second thought. I did give it a go once, just to show willing, but as I am terrified of heights and my knees were wobbling so much, that I couldn’t put one foot in front of another, it wasn’t my favourite activity.
Or if sitting by the water sounds too sedentary, and taking to the trees to scary, then you can hire a kayak at one of the rental centres on the way into the village and spend a few hours on a guided paddle down the river to L’Isle Sur La Sorgue, enjoying the peace of the water, away from the roads and just surrounded by nature.
Whatever you fancy doing Fontaine De Vaucluse is a delightful little place to visit, and it’s always worth taking the time to explore, that little bit further beyond the riverside path.