Bordered by the rushing Rhône and the towering Alps, the Vaucluse area is a beautiful, picturesque part of Provence. These days, tourists flock to see the quaint hillside villages, to climb the impressive Mont Ventoux and to sample the produce of the many vineyards. However, they also come for the interesting history of the area.
Past home to many popes, Vaucluse has several UNESCO World Heritage sites within its borders along with historical palaces, museums and churches. To visit this corner of Provence is to step onto the land from which the Catholic Church had a stronghold for hundreds of years, and to see where a concentration of the French Resistance persevered during World War II. Everywhere you visit, you will come across the varied and fascinating history of the people who have lived here. Of course, visiting in modern times means that you may want a few mod cons to accompany your journey back into France’s past. We have already put together a guide to the best hotels in Vaucluse, but it may reassure you to know that the area is now firmly in the 21st century. On my own visit to the area, I utilised my down time by catching up with the news back home, indulging in a cerebral workout or two, and checking out ratings for the local restaurants. All before heading back out into this pleasant and alluring region of France.
It’s known that the area of Vaucluse has been occupied since prehistory, with traces of several different tribes found across the territory. It was then occupied by the Romans in the 2nd century, who made vast contributions to the architecture of the area including the theatre still standing at Orange and a variety of different roads and bridges. This rich history confronts any visitor through the enduring shape of the landscape, the remaining ruins and the names that the area’s numerous interlopers have left behind. Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, the village and spring from where the area gets its name, was once the site of ritual offerings to ancient gods. Nearly 2000 pieces of archaeological significance have been found in the water, hailing from the 1st century BCE all the way up to the 5th century AD. Nowadays, you can visit the nearby Museum of the Underworld and Speleology to find out more about what’s going on beneath your feet.
Home of the Popes, Capital of the Church
At the start of the 14th century (1309 to be exact), the Catholic Pope decided to move from the traditional papal seat in Italy and relocate to Avignon. Within two decades, a new papal palace had been constructed and Vaucluse became home of the Popes. This transferred the centre of the Catholic faith directly into the area and made the commune of Avignon the world capital of all Christendom. This monumental shift brought Vaucluse into sharp focus on the world stage, where it remained for hundreds of years. Even after the Pope had once again vacated France in favour of Italy, Avignon and Vaucluse remained important to the Catholic faith. As a visitor, this aspect of the area’s history provides a whole host of fascinating buildings for you to marvel at. Perhaps the most significant of these is the Palace of the Popes in Avignon. The enormous palace, built in the Gothic style, boasts frescoes, towers, over 20 rooms, and the occasional theatre performance. If you’d like to visit the Popes’ former summer residence, it’s just a short journey to Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the Papal Castle. Built some years after the relocation to Vaucluse, this site also hosts world-famous vineyards which are well worth stopping off at for a taste.
Fontaine de Vaucluse
Despite Avignon’s prominence as the papal seat, the area (or departement) of Vaucluse was not created until 1793. Translating as ‘the closed valley’, its borders were defined over several years and became the area we know in the year 1800. The name Vaucluse is taken from a local village of the same name which now uses the denomination Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. The “fontaine” in the name claims the title of largest karst spring in France; its true source has still not been located but you can visit the area where it appears at the surface.
A walk along the Sorgue River will take you into the enclosed valley of the area’s name, surrounded by imposing cliffs and with a classic ruin atop one hill to add the effect. This was previously the home of the Bishop of Cavaillon, best friend to Petrarch. You can really feel the history of the landscape here; one idea is to read up on the myths and fairy tales of the area before making the trip. The legend of the nymph that appeared to a wandering minstrel at the source is a charming tale, and the legend of the Coulobre (a dragon) is perhaps the village’s most impressive story.