Vaucluse: a department in Provence Region – the Alps – Cote d’Azur – in south France. Population: slightly over 0, 5 million people.
The department was formed as the result of the 1793 administrative reform, in the territory of a former Rome province of Provence. Vaucuse includes three districts, 24 cantons and 151 municipalities.
The name of the department is of Latin origin and means ‘a blind valley’.
The name of the department is of Latin origin and means ‘a blind valley’.
It is in the valley, around the rivers Rhone and Durance, and in picturesque Vaucluse Mountains, that the department stretches, the nature of which is one of the most colourful and varied in Provence.
The administrative centre of the department is the city of Avignon, situated on the banks of the Rhone. Its population is about 90 thousand people. The city is interesting with its beautiful nature, impressive architecture, and mostly with its rich history: for about 70 years, during the so-called ‘Avignon Captivity of the Papacy’, the city was the Pope’s capital and in that period played a decisive role in the development of Catholic church and geopolitical processes in Europe.
For many centuries the impressive evidence of that period is the Pope Palace (1370), the greatest Gothic temple in Europe, standing high on the hill over the Rhone. Up to the present day it strikes the eye by its immense size and outside grandeur, as well as by its rich interior ornaments.
However, beside the periods of triumph and glory, during its lasting history the palace also survived complicated periods of decay. One of them was during the French Revolution of 1789, when it was ruined and ransacked by rebellious people. In 1791 its courtyard became the execution place for many French aristocrats. Afterwards, in Napoleone Bonaparte times, the palace housed prisons and barracks for military men. Since 1906 the Palace is the site of the National Museum exhibitions.
Of late the city took care of its defence, that is why it is surrounded by solid berms and walls, which are still in perfect condition and strike by its might and its special fortification esthetics.
Avignon is the city of churches, monasteries, churchbells, organs which are in a great number here. This is the city where incomparable Mireille Mathieu was born and the great prophet Nostradamus worked.This is the city of numerous museums possessing rich collections of sculptures and outstanding pieces of world pictorial art (Boticelli, Rodin, Manet and others). Besides, it is the city of a great number of cosy cafes and restaurants with delicious Provence food and special Provence hospitality.
The city has not been lost in centuries, but today it presents its new image – that of the acknowledged site of numerous international festivals, in particular of Avignon theatre festival, where renowned theatre companies of the world demonstrate their art. Here the alternative festival ‘Off’ takes place where amateur groups and folk and jazz performers can announce themselves. During this festival the extravaganza of festival life covers the city like a continuous wave, day and night, the whole month throughout.
One of the most magnificent constructions of Avignon is its cathedral church Notre-Dame-de-Dome (12th century), standing on the rock. Up to present days it houses the shrine of Pope John XXII.
Vaucluse has no access to the sea, though the region is rich in water resources: except rivers, these are cavern streams, which, when tearing up their way to the surface, create wonderful cavern lakes. In geography and geology there exist a recognized international term to name such lakes ‘vaucluse’.
Lake Vaucluse is one of the wonders of the department which has no analogies anywhere world-wide; it is the deepest cavern lake in the world and also the biggest natural fresh-water reservoir in France. The lake is situated in a cavern grotto, and under it there flows the river Sorgue which is in the state of a quiet dose during the whole year, and only in March its powerful stream rushes upwards, and during several weeks creates amazing fountains and waterfalls.
Due to its considerable depth and interesting bottom relief, as well as to the complicated cave structure, the lake has always attracted researchers, speleologists and simple lovers of everything new and unknown. However, the lake is very unwilling and slow about disclosing the mysteries of its depths. The first man-diving into the lake (25 m deep) dates back to XIX century. Only in 1967 the crew of famous Jacques Yves Cousteau managed to dive to 130 m. Nearly 200 m was left to the bottom. In 1989 thanks to a super-modern deep-submergence vehicle, which reached the bottom at last, it became known that the lake is 315 m in its deepest point.
The lovers of diving and speleologists can experience wonderful opportunities and real thrill at the lake. Though there exist certain warnings dealing with high hazard to life and divers’ safety during plunging into great cold depths. During plunging divers can rely only on themselves, because the instructors refuse to take any responcibility due to great risks. There are also limitations on the side of local authorities, which are aimed at the prevention of stealage of jewellery from the bottom, thrown to the lake in old times by the people who wanted to mollify their gods.
A guided walk along the cave is absolutely safe and very interesting; with your own eyes you can admire strikingly beautiful waterfalls, fantastic rocks and canyons, quaint-shaped stalactites and stalagmites. And also underground lakes and rivers, with the mystical glitter of their surface in magis cavern walls. The view is really smashing!
If only experienced divers can afford the pleasure of plunging into the lake Vaucluse, a visit to a town of ChâteaudesPapes near the lake is anybody’s pleasure. During centuries, since the Papes’ staying in Avignon, the secrets of making exquisite selected wines have been kept there.Today anybody who visits wine-cellars in ChâteaudesPapes can enjoy the pleasure which in old times was accessible only to the selected few.
Not far from the lake, in a valley, there is another wonderful Provence town, Fontaine de Vaucluse. It is there that Francesco Petrarca (14thcentury) lived for a long time, admiring the beauty of the place but suffering from unanswered love for Laura de Sade; and he turned all his feelings into ever-living sonets, which don’t leave anybody indifferent even today. One can learn much about his poetry and love story while visiting Petrarca Museum.
There is one more ‘cherry on top’ in the city – an old paper factory which still uses a water-mill to produce paper, like centuries ago. The old technology of paper production can be witnessed during a tour of the factory.
A small ancient town L'Isle sur la Sorgue (which translates from French as ‘an island on the river’) is certainly worth attention.The name is not accidental, as seems that the river Sorgue embraces the town with its divided channel. In old times the town was famous for its weavers, and nowadays it is the Mecca of French antiquaries who come here for their annual fairs. There are very many antiquity shops (over 300!) in the town, and also water-mills, several picture galleries, a beautiful cathedral, dating to XVIII century, Notre Dame des Anges. And also it has fairy-tale narrow stone streets of an old town, a beautiful embankment, miniature bridges across numerous canals… All this taken together creates a unique atmosphere of a holiday and the feeling of ungraspable interlacing of times and epochs.
Another ‘must’ for visiting while in the department of Vaucluse is a small, but surprisingly beautiful town of Orange on the bank of the river Rhone, 20 km from Avignon. In Roman times its name was Arausion; it was one of the richest towns in Provence, until it was looted by the Visigoths in 5thcentury. Since 11th century Orange had been known as Orania Principality within Holy Roman Empire. By the way, princes of Orange – progenitors of royal dynacties of Luxemberg and the Netherlads – originate from here, and another their descendant William III of Orange was King of England and Scotland in XVII century. The ruins of ancient buildings and the antique theatre, well preserved up to the present times, are the memorials of the Roman epoch. One of the front walls of the theatre (100 m long!) struck King Louis XIV so much with its monumental looks that he called it the most beautiful wall in the whole of France. The 19-metre triumphal arc, the ornaments of which tell about Guy Julius Ceasar’s victories, is still in a very good condition too, as well as the majestic statue of Roman emperor Octavian August (3.7 m high), looking at the town for many centuries.
Having left Orange and moving in the direction of Hautes-Alpes along the so-called ’ Prince of Orange road’ (107 km long), be sure to visit the ancient town of Vaisonla-Romaine, situated in a picturesque valley on the banks of the river Ouvèze at the foot of the mountain Mont Ventoux.The landscapes around Vaison la Romaine are extremely beautiful. Besides, here one can find still preserved unique historical monuments, which witnessed several epochs the town had survived, and namely, a Roman bridge which is about 2000 years old, a church dating back to 8th century – one of the oldest in Europe, a medival part of the town sitting at the very top of the mountain thus providing a reliable defence from enemies and natural calamities for town-dwellers.
The trip along Prince of Orange road in a car or bicycle presents breath-taking panoramas of surrounding nature and cosy settlements in mountain valleys, as if they are painted on wonderful landscapes by the hand of a genious artist. The road will give you lots of unforgettable impressions.
There are several other fairy-tale towns, known as the most beautiful in France, one should certainly visit them. One of them is the town of Roussillon in Lubéron valley, which has abundant deposites of yellow earth, due to which the soil, mountains and houses here are of a wonderful red-orange colour of most unbelievable shades. Previously there were quarries here, which gave dust used as wall-paint. Today it’s the territory of a protected park. The bright and uplifting colours of the town raise the spirits, and the surrounding world is seen as if through pink glasses, it looks magic like a fairy-tale.
Travellers are also impressed by the town of Gordes with its medival streets and water-mills; and today visitors are attracted by lots of cultural events (the best-known is a theatre-jazz festival «Summer Nights»). Another attraction is Notre Dame de Sénanque Abbey (12th century) 4 km away, surrounded by vast lavender fields and vineyards. Everything here is full of fabulous aroma and pleases the eye with its lilac endlessness, it brings the sensation of being out of time or in a fairy-tale.A small town of Lacosta (no association with a famous trademark!) has an original image too.It is famous for its ancient castle (early 12th century), which in 1723 was given as a wedding present to sinister Marquis de Sade, the author of the novel «120 Sodom Days». The novel was written in the prison of Bastille, where the author was put for poisoning four maidens. But here is a new trick of history: in 2001 the house was bought and restored by a well-known French couturier Pierre Cardin.
Vaucluse grants tourists a lot of opportunities. These are traditional walking tours on numerous routes to satisfy any taste all the year round, horse racing and mountaineering, Lake Vaucluse plunging, speleology, cultural tours in historical places, visits to vineyards and wineries with tasting of famous local wines, various ethnographic holidays, music and theatre festivals and a lot of other things. Any visitor of Vaucluse will surely find the occupation to his heart and liking.
And before going home, be sure to take along some charming curio, be it lavender honey or a bunch of Provence herbs, a piece of local-made soap or excellent local nougat, a bottle of vintage French wine or some exquisite antique thing.
Looking at them at home, you will surely remember heavenly landscapes of Vaucluse with its wonderful nature, beautiful cities and towns, hospitable original people, who can preserve what the Nature had given them, appreciate their history and readily share their heritage with everybody who comes on a visit.
You will remember this and wish to return there again.