The world’s deepest underwater system lies beneath the gorge at Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, at its formidable best in springtime. The fountain that gives Vaucluse its name is in fact a huge, natural overflow pipe for the river Sorgue that needs accumulated rainfall to produce its most spectacular effect.
Fontaine receives an estimated two million visitors per year, most of whom make their way past the row of tourist shops to the narrow path that leads to a lagoon-like cavern at the foot of a tall limestone cliff. In summer the water lies dank and still but in the wet season it pours out of the darkness over the lip of the cavern in a frightening, foaming cascade, turning the serenity of the Sorgue into a rushing torrent.
Even in periods of acute drought, the volume of water can reach 150,000 litres per second. Irrespective of the prevailing air temperature, the temperature of the water never changes by more than a degree from 12.7°C. Its source remains a mystery. Fluorescent additives placed in the water in potholes in the Luberon Mountains and on the plateaux of the Vaucluse have emerged at Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, although their exact route to the surface remains the subject of fierce debate.
The cavern was first explored by an Italian diver based in Marseille, Giovanni Ottonelli, who in 1878 descended 23m but was unable to pass a narrow fissure similar to the U-bend in a soil pipe. In 1946 Jacques Cousteau led an expedition to explore the caves that nearly ended in disaster at 46m when Cousteau and a colleague became disoriented and barely escaped with their lives. In 1967 Cousteau sent down a robot device, the Télénaute, that reached a depth of 106 metres, only to find a second sump-like obstruction. In 1981 another Marseille diver, Claude Touloumdjan, descended to 153m but almost froze to death because he had to spend a further seven hours in the icy water on essential decompression. More sophisticated robotic devices have since recorded the bottom at between 308 and 332 metres, dependent upon the flow, but some experts believe there may be a further undetected chamber below this level.
The river has turned the village of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue to the southwest into a series of islands. Here the Sorgue crosses and re-crosses the streets, dividing itself into five small tributaries. Plane trees line the banks of the Sorgue, adding to its charm and serenity. See, especially, about a kilometre from the village, the ‘Partages des Eaux’, an exquisite small pond with luxuriant foliage, where the river splits in two.
The tranquil atmosphere is interrupted only for two nights each July, when the Festival of the Sorgue turns the river into a kaleidoscope of noise and colour. What look like Venetian gondoliers on a day off propel exotically garnished floats up and down stream, to win the applause of the spectators and, hopefully, the votes of the judges. Each float, assembled by fiercely competitive schools and families, carries its own power supply, so the lights can be switched on and off to maximum effect. Arrive early and claim a riverside place for a good view. In mid-August L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue hosts a huge antiques fair, with dealers and collectors gathering from all over the world. The village is a permanent base for more than 300 antique dealers, offering an extraordinary range of items; however, bargains are rare.
L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue has a beautiful Baroque church whose interior is richly decorated with what seem to be Italianate panels, although the artists were in fact provençal. The old hospital has an elegant fountain in the courtyard, Moustier pottery jars in the old pharmacy, and 18th century woodcarvings in the chapel. A line of elegant houses, dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, owe their origins to fortunes made by traders in the silk industry. Then six watermills moved the factory machinery but only one still turns in a public garden.
Much further east, Roussillon is named after the red-brown hue of its houses, the centre of a now defunct stone quarrying industry, whose pit faces in every shade of ochre unintentionally created an artistic masterpiece. The most striking, a jagged array of rose-red cliffs known as the “Giants’ Causeway”, is reached by way of the D149, but sunrise and sunset in the village itself can be almost as spectacular. In high season Roussillon’s clambering network of little streets is jammed with visitors, so seekers of solitude should go elsewhere.
West of Roussillon lies Gordes, a spectacular Acropolis on a steep rocky hillside. Its white stone houses, rooted into the rock, make this one of the most beautiful and best known villages in France. Gordes is a thriving, if over-priced, craft centre, with artisans’ stalls set up in the calades, a labyrinth of narrow medieval streets. With superb views over rolling countryside, Gordes provides an ideal starting point for horseback rides. Parking is forbidden in the centre of the village: use the car parks at the entrance.
Just 5km north of Gordes stands the great Cistercian Abbaye de Sénanque, founded by Saint Bernard in 1148. Sénanque’s remote location, in a deep rugged valley, is served by an uncompromising road that was little more than a mule track until the last century. This is an active religious centre, but with all the trappings of a 12th century monastery. The medieval kitchens, the monks’ dormitory with its cross-cradled Romanesque vaulting and tiny windows and its tranquil arcaded cloister, make time seemingly stand still.
The Village des Bories, lying 4km south west of Gordes, is believed to be much, much older. Its extraordinary individual stone dwellings were once the shelters of huntsmen and shepherds, but the last bories were abandoned in the mid-19th century. The village was completely restored between 1969 and 1976 and declared a national monument, although the purists might argue that with a transient population that once included religious refugees and army deserters, it was never as well-preserved at any time during its history. Unique to the slopes of the Luberon and the Vaucluse plateau, bories date back to Ligurian times. They were constructed by stacking rough stones at an angle in ever decreasing circles to create a beehive shape, with the final stone sealing the top. Without mortar and modern tools to shape the stones, today the original technique looks well-nigh impossible.