Back in 1966 Joseph Légier, the fourth generation of a family of antique dealers, grew tired of the high taxes and tough competition in Avignon. That August, helped by his friend Albert Gassier, he persuaded a dozen other intrepid dealers to abandon their pitches close to the papal palace and move lock, stock and barrel to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. The brocante they began has blossomed into the largest antique market outside Paris, with almost 400 regular dealers, and nearly 700 during the bi-annual fairs.
L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue really is an island, built in the 12th century on piles hammered into the grey-green Sorgue River. Its waters are channelled into three rings of canals, isolating individual boulevards and creating a series of nooks and crannies, ideal for stalls and little antique shops.
Le Quai de la Gare has two floors offering fine china, 18th century French furniture, oil paintings and exquisite mirrors. Just opposite are thirty less affluent stalls, running into one another, where crystal chandeliers compete with art deco display cabinets. The Hôtel Dongier, a former coach inn, hosts another thirty antiquaires, whose curiously interconnected shops are reminiscent of the set of a bedroom farce. Here the antiques preserve the last vestiges of a long-disappeared aristocratic lifestyle, from delicate decanters to eccentric garden statues.
Some antique stores are open all year round, others only between April and October, and then not always every day. The dealers know that they will do their best business from Thursday afternoon to Sunday. The bi-annual fairs take place at Easter and in mid-August. The range of items on display is truly astonishing as, alas, are some of the prices. The author of ‘A Year in Provence’, Peter Mayle, once waspishly declared that “The only thing you can’t get at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is a bargain.”
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© J.L. Seille / CDT84