L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

Crisscrossed with lazy canals and still alive with waterwheels that once drove its silk, wool, and paper mills, this charming valley town retains its gentle appeal—except on Sunday. Then this easygoing old town transforms itself into a Marrakech of marketeers, "the most charming flea market in the world," its streets crammed with antiques and brocantes, its cafés swelling with crowds of chic bargain browsers making a day of it. Yves St-Laurent bigwig Pierre Bergé, Viscount Linley (the noted furniture designer and son of Princess Margaret), and interior decorator Jacques Grange all flock here. Even hardcore modernists inured to treasure hunts enjoy the show as urbane couples with sweaters over shoulders squint discerningly through half lenses at monogrammed linen sheets, zinc washstands, barbotine ware, china spice sets, Art Deco perfume bottles, tinted engravings, and the paintings of modern almost-masters. For high-style big purchases—furniture, $5,000 quilts, and the like—head to the town’s noted antiques shops . There are also street musicians, food stands groaning under rustic breads, vats of tapenade, cloth-lined baskets of spices, and miles of café tables offering ringside seats to the spectacle. After London’s Portobello district and the flea market at St-Ouen outside Paris, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is reputedly Europe’s third-largest antiques market. L’Isle’s antiques market ratchets up to high speed twice a year when the town hosts a big antiques show, usually four days around Easter and another in mid-August, nicknamed the Grand Déballage—the "Great Unpacking" (foire-islesurlasorgue.com). Prices can be high, and bargains are few, but remember that in many cases dealers expect to bargain.

On a nonmarket day, life returns to its mellow pace. Dealers and clients catch up on gossip at the Place Gambetta fountain and at the Café de France, opposite the church of Notre-Dame-des-Anges. Wander the maze inside the ring to admire a range of architectural styles, from Gothic to Renaissance, with the occasional burst of color where an owner has broken from local tradition to paint an archway indigo blue or a pair of shutters lemon yellow.

The Provençal Venice, L’Isle is dotted with watermills and canals that once drove the wheels of silk, paper, oil, grain, and leather mills. Today, these wheels—14 of them—turn idly, adding to the charm of the winding streets. If you want to explore the vestiges of L’Isle’s 18th-century heyday, stop in the tourist office and pick up a brochure called "Vagabondages L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue" (available in English).

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