L’Isle sur Sorgue: On the Antiques Trail

Ester Laushway (April 2006)

Now that winter is definitely beating a retreat, take advantage of the pleasant spring weather: use the present to go in search of the past. Set forth on the antiques trail and track down that special object that will be your personal link to the Provence of many years ago.

To become a successful antique hound, a natural flair helps, but mostly you need time and patience, plus some basic knowledge of the habitat and habits of the game you are stalking. The region is a treasure trove for antique hunters: shops and fairs, auctions and roadside markets spill over with wares that range from the sublime to the ridiculous, and even though you are unlikely to stumble across a Van Gogh being flogged from the back of a lorry, some genuine prizes are waiting to be carried off.

The biggest gathering of antique dealers in the south of France is near Avignon, in the picture-postcard river town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. The sparkling river Sorgue serpentines through its centre, its crystal waters, carpeted with greenery, forming the bright warp of the town’s fabric. It flows lazily along in some spots, then tumbles and spills energetically over rocks and splashes from the wooden paddles of the mossy waterwheels. Some 350 antiquaires have congregated here, in the Venice of Provence, in ten different “villages” open from Saturday to Monday only.

L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is the place to come if you enjoy the convenience of the supermarket approach to shopping. You can find almost anything here, but you need a discerning eye and enough time and energy to work your way through the mind-boggling array of merchandise.

Some of the most unique purchases you can make are typically Provençal pieces that were crafted from the 18th century onward, mainly in the towns of Arles, Fourques and Nîmes. Mainly made from walnut or fruitwood, they are easily distinguishable from each other by their decorations. Those that come from Arles show a penchant for flowery, exuberant carvings on a vegetal theme: armoires, buffets and commodes are liberally adorned with olive branches, laurel leaves, ears of wheat, grapevines and stylized flowers. Nîmes carved out its own, even more elaborate style by adding ornamental openwork along the bottom, while Fourques, though very close to Arles, developed a completely different, far less ornate look characterized by spirals and other geometric designs.

All three towns made the large pieces that were standard furnishings in any well-to-do French house of the time: massive armoires that were often dowry gifts, buffets, commodes and writing tables. But in addition, they produced a special repertoire of purely Provençal pieces that do not exist anywhere else. Often tricked out with extravagant decorations on every available surface, they brought an air of Sunday finery to the kitchen. Each had its own specific use: the pétrin was the trough in which the bread dough was kneaded; the panetière was where the baked bread was kept; the estagnié was a hanging shelf for displaying pewter ware; the verriau held drinking glasses; flour was stored in the farinière and salt in the boîte à sel. Empty of their original contents, they hold memories now, and are some of the most beguiling keepsakes from Provence’s past.

Your chances of finding a special treasure in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue double at Easter and in mid-August, when over 500 antique dealers gather for the bi-annual Antique Fair and Fleamarket. First created in 1966, with just 14 participants, it is celebrating its huge success and 40th anniversary April 14 – 17. For more details, contact the Tourist Office: 04 90 38 04 78 or www.oti-delasorgue.fr

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