I have to thank a follower on Twitter for suggesting quatre-vingt-quatre, as an option for Q, as I wanted to write about the department, but with Ventoux, Vin and a number of other options for V, I was really struggling on how to make it fit.
So, quatre-vingt-quatre it is, the departmental number for the Vaucluse, and the area we now call home.
France is split into regions and departments, with 101 departments across France and its overseas territories, which were created in the 1790s, following the French Revolution. The aim of this huge reorganisation, was to help develop national unity, by replacing the old provinces, that had existed for many years beforehand under the ‘Ancien Regime’.
The design of the new departments was done, not only to split provinces, that would have had very particular identities and allegiances, but also to ensure that the main centre was within a day’s ride for the residents. Although with the geographical location of Avignon, that seems to be pushing that rule a little far, as it is not exactly at the heart of the landscape, covered by the Vaucluse department.
As part of the process of breaking down the old provinces and the structures and allegiances within them, the new departmental names were based on distinct geographical features, unique to the area. As such, it was decided that this department would be named Vaucluse, after Fontaine de Vaucluse, with its closed valley (Vallis Clausa), where the spring gives rise to the Sorgue river.
The departments were initially numbered alphabetically, and as such, sitting between Var and Vendee, the Vaucluse was allocated number 84. What we have come to realise, is that you very quickly develop a real sense of pride in your department’s number, and I was so excited to get it on our number plates, when we re-registered the car here.
The Vaucluse was originally formed from parts of the Bouches du Rhone, Drome, and the Basse Alpes, and as a result is a really geographically diverse area, bordered by the Rhone to the West and the Durance to the South.
Bizarrely part of the Vaucluse is not within the obvious borders of the department, but sits, as an enclave, surrounded by the department of the Drome (26). I had always wondered why weather maps for the area had a separate little piece, wondering at first whether it was for the summit of Mont Ventoux, as the weather there is often so different to the rest of the department, but it appears that wasn’t the case at all.
This additional little piece of the area is Valreas, which was an Enclave of the Popes at Avignon, so remains part of the Vaucluse, despite being slightly un-attached. Founded in 1317, the enclave came about when the Pope at the time, visited the village when he was feeling unwell, and rather enjoyed the wine that was made there. He bought the village and over the next 150 years, other nearby villages were bought by the papcy too, extending their Enclave, and at the same time their wine-cellars.
The Enclave is marked with stones, denoting it as part of the papal lands, and when the decision was taken to create departments, the residents requested to remain with Avignon and the Vaucluse, so since that time, it has existed as a little piece of Vaucluse, just slightly further north and west than the boundary.
The Vaucluse itself, is dominated in the north by the vast bulk of Mont Ventoux, the iconic mountain that can be seen from as far away as the Camargue, and whose shadow at sunrise stretches across the department towards the Rhone.
There are also beautiful gorges, with the Toulourenc and Gorge de La Nesque, both situated at the base of its slopes.
And the Vaucluse Plateau, a high platform of land that stands between Ventoux and the soft, wide, shallow basin of the Luberon valley, slightly further to the south, with isolated hamlets and the beautiful Chateau de Javon.
Beyond that, the wide Luberon valley, narrows as it approaches Apt, as the hills start to rise, heading towards the neighbouring department of the Alpes De Haute Provence (04).
Then the next ridge of land with the Petit and Grand Luberon, creates another barrier, before the department flattens out towards the Durance river, the other side of which is the neighbouring department of the Bouches Du Rhone (13).
It is an incredibly beautiful area, with picturesque hilltop villages, many of which are counted as being among the most beautiful in France, and it is easy to see why so many people want to visit, and enjoy everything it has to offer, and of course what drew us here in the first place.
Despite the extremes in temperature, from the droughts of the summer, to heavy frosts in the winter, it is incredibly fertile and agriculturally rich, with world-renowned vineyards, thriving fruit farms, fruits confits, and of course the vibrant lavender industry too.
But it also has a rich history, with Avignon being the seat of the Popes from 1309 to 1377, and the city & surrounding area forming the Comtat Venaissin, which took in lands towards Cavaillon, and Bollene and across to Malaucene & Vaison La Romaine. I find it interesting, but understandable too, that following the area being annexed by France, it wasn’t officially recognised by the papcy for over 20 years.
However there were also some horrific events, that have left their mark on the area too, including the 5 year siege of Menerbes, and the persecution and massacre of over 2,500 Vaudois people, from villages across the Luberon, including at the Chateau in Cabrières D’Avignon
There is also a link with more recent history too, with a strong network of the Resistance, working across the area during the second world war, a period of time that left significant scars for the generation that lived through it. The town of Sault, at the base of Mont Ventoux was awarded the ‘Croix de Guerre’ with gold star for its work developing and supporting the local ‘Maquis’, despite the town being bombarded and a considerable number of its young men being killed, injured or deported.
With its wonderful light, long hot summers, and its warm and sunny shoulder seasons, it is the perfect place to visit all year round, with so much to offer, beyond simply sitting beside a pool (although that is a very pleasant way to pass the time here).
The summer calendar is filled with events in the local villages and towns, there are museums to visit, lakes and rivers to swim and walk in…
and of course the opportunity for spectacular cycling, along roads that regularly are used for major cycling events, from the Tour de La Provence to the Tour de France, both of which will be taking to Mont Ventoux this year.
It’s an area we love, and we know that we have only really scratched the surface of it. We are constantly discovering new places to visit, new walks to be done, or new views to admire whilst we are out and about….
And we can now just look forward to spending time finding out even more about life in quatre-vingt-quatre, our little part of France