Francesco Petrarch was born in Italy in 1304 and died there in 1374, but it was in Provence, in the remote village of Fontaine de Vaucluse, that he found a sanctuary for his restless spirit, and surroundings that moved him to write his greatest love poems. Inspired by his all-consuming, but unconsummated passion for the mysterious Laura, he composed his most beautiful sonnets, including the Canzoniere (Song Book), a collection of 366 poems, at his retreat in Provence.
He was drawn to Fontaine de Vaucluse by its wild beauty and secluded location: surrounded by mountains at the end of a Vallis Clausa, a closed valley, the tiny hamlet gave its name to the department of the Vaucluse. Petrarch first visited it with his parents when he was nine, to see the source of the Sorgue River, which was a tourist attraction even back in the 14th century. Gushing out of the foot of a 230-meter high cliff, and tumbling over the rocks, the spring is one of the fastest flowing in the world – at least from late autumn through spring. In summer, the fountain subsides back into its rocky bed, leaving only an eerily still, bottomless pool of water, black as night.
So if it is a spectacular, rushing torrent you want, now is the time to visit. Petrarch would have made his way to Fontaine de Vaucluse from Avignon, 26 km to the West, where he spent his youth studying Antique literature. The N100 did not exist then, but makes the trip a lot easier now, and also lets you approach from the direction of Apt, 30 km to the East.
Several pay car parks exist in the village centre, near the town hall. From there, it is just a few steps to the main square, the Place de la Colonne. The stone column in its centre was originally erected in 1804, for the 5th centenary of Petrarch’s birth, by the underground spring. The locals thought it looked horribly out of place, like a giant bowling pin, and it was moved to the square in 1827.
A little bridge leads across the Sorgue, to the Petrarch Museum, which stands very near the spot where the poet lived in a modest house, from 1337 to 1353. The museum houses a collection of old prints and engravings showing Fontaine de Vaucluse, Petrarch and the elusive Laura, as well as an important research library of old editions of Petrarch’s works and a modern art collection by artists such as Braque and Giacometti, who had links with the village.
Cross back over the river and walk, with it on your right, up to the Vallis Clausa Paper Mill. The mill makes paper out of old rags, the way it was done in Petrarch’s time and lets you follow the process, step by step, from an overhead walkway. The hand-made paper, with flower petals pressed into it, is lovely, and is sold, with or without poems printed on it, in the mill’s gift shop.
Before strolling further uphill to the source of the Sorgue, get to the bottom of it by touring the Museum of Le Monde Souterrain (the Underground World) next to the paper mill. Trained speleologists take you on a fascinating visit into the bowels of the earth, through a life-size reconstruction of an underground cavern, including cave paintings, a river, a small lake and a speleologist’s camp.
Most intriguing of all is the history of the explorations of the funnel-shaped chasm out of which the Sorgue springs. In 1878, the first diver made it down to a depth of 23 metres. In 1983, a German diver completed a record dive to a depth of 205 metres. To even begin to imagine what an achievement that was, it helps to know that it took him only 30 minutes to plunge down, but 8 ½ hours, in the pitch dark, in 10° C water, to make his way back up to the surface!
Unmanned explorations have penetrated as far down as 308 metres – as deep as the Eiffel Tower is high – and have discovered other galleries that run still further down into the earth, through caverns still “measureless to man”. When you reach the actual fountain, you can admire it all the more, for knowing what a unique natural wonder it is. Petrarch often came here to meditate on love and death, two forces as mysterious and powerful as the underground spring.
To check on museum opening times, contact the Tourist Office:
Tel: 04 90 20 32 22