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Isle sur la Sorgue – the nicest place you’ve never heard of


There’s a lot to see in France, and a lot of France that no-one sees. Here’s just one town you’ve never heard of.

The unassuming little Provencal town of Isle sur la Sorgue is known, if it’s known at all, for the fantastic antique market. Foodies might, perhaps, remember it for celebrity chef and bon vivant Keith Floyd, who once ran a restaurant here. It even rates a brief mention in the book ‘A Year in Provence’. But if you’ve not been here, you won’t know a delightful marked walk around the town to show off the waterwheels that turn languidly in the rushing waters of the rivers and canals that run through, around and under the streets.

It’s the waterwheels I want to talk about.


Isle sur la Sorgue started life as a riverside village, known by the Romans, and got by on fishing for crayfish. But the rise of spinning silk and wool, weaving and papermaking in the 16th century led to the river being harnessed as a source of power. All the local industries could be run from waterwheels, and over sixty waterwheels did just that, supporting around twenty factories and mills, and a few hundred workers. By the end of the 19th century, it was all over. Mechanisation took its toll, and the remaining eighteen or so waterwheels now turn idly, in silent testament to the industry that once was.

The setting is undoubtedly lovely. The Tour de France regularly passes nearby, en route to the iconic climb of Mont Ventoux. The spectacular Gorges de la Nesque are a few miles away – a place that deserves to be as well known as the Grand Canyon, yet is a mostly-deserted scene of hydrology on a massive scale. And you are surrounded by the lavender, sunflowers and vineyards that typify Provence and make it so attractive to the few visitors that make it here before they rush on to the more well-known tourist hot-spots of Avignon, Aix-en-Provence or the Cote D’Azur.

This is truly a little-visited corner of France. And yet, over a century before Blake wrote about the ‘dark, satanic mills’ of Northern England, this literal backwater had its own small Industrial Revolution. And it ran on waterwheels.

Tony travelled on his Brompton folding bike and stayed at the Hotel les Nevons. A keen traveller, Tony blogs on travel sites and cycling fora.

Tony Simister