LA VIE EN FRANCE / LIFE IN FRANCE: LES VACANCES / HOLIDAY
(for ‘the story so far’, see postings 279, 280, 283, 286 and 288)
If I were to challenge you to come up with the names of, say, ten European rivers that were famous the world over, you would probably come up with something like….the Thames (naturally), the Severn (perhaps), the Seine (also naturally), the Rhine (definitely), the Rhone (if you want to stay on my good side), the Loire (probably), the Danube (longest of them all), the Tiber (because of Rome, of course), the Volga (at a pinch) and the Po (for its sheer sonority).
If you were being a tendentious patriotic smart-arse, you might choose the Tay or the Wye or the Shannon or even the Tweed. Less patriotic, but just as know-it-all, would be to choose the Elbe or even the Guadalquivir (on which stands Seville; that’s me being a know-it-all name-dropper).
I can guarantee, though, that you wouldn’t put the Sorgue on your list.
It has roughly the same proportions as the Gaunless or the Aln and flows as sweetly and almost as unnoticed in the great riverine scheme of things. It doesn’t crash down steep mountainsides in gushing torrents, it doesn’t feature in any waterfall-hunters Top Ten, it has no Olympic-standard rapids and even the fishing is barely average, or so I’m told.
Nevertheless, it’s quite definitely a river that I would include on my list - and I wager you would, too, if you’d been to Fontaine de Vaucluse as we did the next morning.
We left ‘sleepy old’ Apt as quickly as we could, stopping only to buy some obligatory candied fruit. The journey west and north was adorned here and there with temporary roadside stalls set up by local farmers at this time of year, each one groaning with cherries, apricots, peaches or nectarines. It made a change, I thought, from the carrots and cabbages I was used to seeing on such stalls in England. It was like being in a foreign country!
We were making our way to the part of Provence known as the Vaucluse, the ‘closed valley’, and as we approached Fontaine, I realised how it got its name. The river’s twists and turns became more and more extreme as the sheer rock faces that contained it closed in on both sides. Eventually, their tops became invisible to us as the gorge narrowed even more until, quite suddenly, we found ourselves at the closed end of this extraordinary and dramatic valley. Before us rose the foot-slopes of Mont Ventoux (‘mountain of winds’), which rises to over 1,900m (6,200ft) and is known as the ‘Giant of Provence’.
And nestling in its shadow is the small, gorge-girt town of Fontaine de Vaucluse, named for the feature which marks this area out as very special indeed.
A little to the north of the town rises the sheer cliff 240m (787 ft) high that closes off the valley.
The feature of the valley, though - celebrated throughout France and by cognoscenti elsewhere - is what goes on far, far below this rockface. For this is by far the biggest wellspring (‘fontaine’) in France. In fact, it’s the fifth largest spring in the world.
Its statistics are mind-boggling. Its average water-flow is 22 cubic metres a second, which often rises to over 110 after heavy snow-melt. That’s an average of 630 million cubic metres a year. Which is a lot of water gushing up out of the ground all at once - and all the time! Most of the rivers I am familiar with rise as teeny-weeny trickles on deserted upland moors - like our local ones, and even the mighty Thames, do - so the fontaine here comes as a bit of a shock.
But its volume and power are only half the story. It’s famous in caving and geological circles for its underground origins and dimensions, many of which remain a mystery even today.
It was only via images from an underwater camera robot (belonging to the splendidly-named Spelunking Society of Fontaine de Vaucluse) that its secrets were partially revealed in 1985. The camera sank to a depth of 308m - that’s all of 1,010ft below ground. And what it found there was even more staggering: a vast underground basin of at least 1,200sq m (1,300 sq yds) that collects the run-down water from Mont Ventoux and the nearby mountain of Lure.
And the fontaine is the only exit point for all that water as it’s pushed up to the surface from its deep and utterly mysterious underground basin. Which is why it gushes out so fiercely, as you can see.
And, when it surfaces, it does so as the River Sorgue. And that’s why, dear reader, I would feel compelled to include it in my Top Ten.
Fontaine de Vaucluse was a spellbinding place - but we still had a long way to go, including a long drive home to Beaujolais. And Serge had one more place he wanted me to see. It’s a lovely little town just a few miles downstream, originally built on a small island in the river - L’Isle sur la Sorgue.
It’s a smashing old place full of narrow lanes, weird shops, artists’ studios, and a very ancient basilica church three sizes too big for the town. It’s greatest charm, though, are the many canals into which the river has been divided as it flows through. These were used to turn waterwheels, some of which still survive, overgrown with moss and water-loving plants. They are extraordinarily picturesque, as you can see in the picture at the top.
The town was busy and the weather was very warm indeed. I decided to sit beside one of the newly-landscaped canals and watch the swans for an hour, coffee to hand. We watched the world pass us by as our Provencal holiday drew to a close.
Before we left for home, we checked that we had enough souvenirs of our time in this genuinely enchanting part of the world. Apart from candied fruit, that could only mean one thing: Rose de Provence, the best-kept wine secret in France. It’s as light, as gentle and as refreshing as Provence itself.
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