This is the Street of Wheels in L’Isle sur la Sorgue, Provence, France. The town once had seventy waterwheels, all powered by the Sorgue river, driving mills for grinding grain, making paper and weaving silk. Nowadays the river turns fourteen vestigial wheels driving the tourist circuit around the town. We came here on holiday and stayed in the house on the right by the street lamp.
This was the view from our window, № 1, Roue Victor Courtet, the recommended starting point for a parcours des roues, a tour of the wheels visited by a constant stream of waterwheel pilgrims. Its cool, soothing waterfall sound was a good rhythm to fall asleep to. Except for when drunken revelers climb inside and rotate like merrymaking hamsters.
We slept to the sound of a waterwheel turning in the street and an electric fan spinning in the bedroom and I dreamed I went… round like a circle in a spiral like a wheel within a wheel never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel like a snowball down a mountain or a carnival balloon… comme le chemin de ronde que font sans cesse les heures le voyage autour du monde d’un tournesol dans sa fleur tu fais tourner de ton nom tous les moulins de mon coeur… thanks to Dusty Springfield and Michel Legrand. Then I remembered Escalay (Waterwheel) by Hamza El Din & Kronos Quartet…
L’Isle sur la Sorgue is surrounded by water. The river splits and divides and threads its way around and through the town along numerous canals and culverts full of clear, fast waters still fished by enthusiastic anglers who wander the streets with their flies tied and their rods primed.
The sound of water is everywhere. In the river below a footbridge there’s a curious stone ear, with an anonymous inscription:
Je repose ma tête sur une pierre et rince mon oreille dans le fleuve.
It’s customary to throw a coin into the ear and make a wish, though it’s not so easy as it looks. The strong current deflects most attempts. Children can often be seen retrieving coins from the river.
A short walk upriver leads to ‘the parting of the waters’ (le partage des eaux) where the Sorgue naturally divides into two branches, one flowing north and one flowing south. The southern branch goes on to encircle the town though both continue to divide. Unlike most rivers, which are fed by tributaries and grow wider, the Sorgue grows thinner and branches into distributaries, like a river grown backwards, more in the shape of a tree with its trunk sprouting dramatically out of the ground 8 kilometres away at Fontaine de Vaucluse.
When we were here it was high summer and the water level was lower than usual but by climbing higher off the path I was able to look straight down into the source, down into the origin of the Sorgue.
This is the biggest spring in Europe. The river is born full grown into this green and peaceful idyll. The crystal clear waters flow at a constant 13°C. It was here that Petrarch, the 14th century Italian poet, in exile from Florence, became enamoured of the mysterious Laura (later thought to be Laure de Noves, an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade). ‘The hermit of Vaucluse’ expressed his unrequited love by writing 366 sonnets for his beloved Laura and was later crowned poet laureate in Rome.
On our host’s bookshelves I discovered a copy of Caesar’s Vast Ghost: Aspects Of Provence by Lawrence Durrell, in which he tells of a journey he made on horseback from Saint Rémy de Provence to Fontaine de Vaucluse:
By the following afternoon we at last reached the celebrated fountain, the Sorgue’s ample source. The water gushes with unimaginable abundance and freshness through the verdant yet secretive valleys, falling down upon a precipitous limestone cliff into a deep black pool, luminous and noisy, whence in smaller thunderous leaps it descends to a rich limestone valley.
The rocks are crowned by a ruin called the Château de Pétrarque. It was, however, to a villa in the valley that the poet retired in 1337, having been deeply impressed by the atmosphere of the place after a childhood visit in 1313. It was here, he says, that all his work was either executed, begun or conceived. He would never have left the spot, he goes on to narrate, had he not by strange chance received on the same day two letters: one summoning him to Rome, signed by the Senate, and one from Paris from the Chancellor: they summoned him to receive the poetic crown of olive as supreme laureate… He chose Rome and was crowned on the Capitol in April 1341.
It would be over-imaginative to conjure up traces of the absent Laura here, though the place breathes the very spirit of peace and concentration. The dark water makes its own characteristic music, and the air is full of the singing of nightingales while, in the shadowy glades over the pool, there were roses in bloom. In the shade of a willow we drank a toast to an invisible presence; but nobody spoke, and it was in silence that we turned and rode away.
Downriver, back in L’Isle sur la Sorgue, on the first Sunday in August each year there is the silly spectacle of the Marché Flottant or floating market. Local growers, shopkeepers and restaurateurs put on fancy dress and ply their trade from the Nego Chin flat-bottomed fishing boats. I imagine Keith Floyd would’ve enjoyed this, maybe even taken part since he did once have his own restaurant here.
He was also known to frequent the Café de France, a popular bar & restaurant at the heart of the town in Place de la Liberté, where he would often come to sip a pastis.
Also convenient for Our Lady of the Angels across the street, whose simple facade belies its theatrical and extravagant interior decorated with 222 carved, gilded and painted representations of angels.
A walk around town on market day is a colourful feast for the eyes…
… and once a year for four days in August the roads are closed to traffic and filled with stalls for the International Antiques & Collectibles Fair…
…there’s so much stuff we need a break and relax by the river where we drink a toast to the constant chorus of cicadas as they synchronise their songcycles over and over before we go around yet again…
…round sometimes slowly, other times more quickly until such time as we spin so fast we fly off at a tangent and visit other far-flung places. But more of that another time. For now I am so dizzy with all these circuits (singing here we go rue des roues) I need to return to where we started from and see it for the first time. Wheel № 1 at the still point of the turning world. Round, like a spiral in a circle…