Provence is known for many things: Its food, its wines, its lavender fields. Its ritzy coastal enclaves and charming hilltop villages. It’s a wonderful place to bike, to hike, to meander slowly down twisty cobblestone streets and browse bustling farmers’ markets. But in my book, one of the most fun ways to explore Provence is through its antiques.
L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is nestled on the banks of (or, in the case of a small sliver of the town center, on an island in) the Sorgue. It’s about a half hour’s drive from Avignon. And it’s the heart of Provence’s antiques trade, with a market second only in France to Paris’s famed Marché aux Puces. There are upwards of 300 antiques dealers with permanent stalls in the town; on market days, that number is even bigger, and during the biannual antiques fairs, it can reach 750. And then there are the smaller weekly markets, or brocantes, in different towns throughout the region.
This August, I had the chance to visit L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and some local brocantes with Susannah and Hugh Cameron, the founders of Chez Pluie, a company that specializes in curating and shipping French antiques worldwide (more on that below).
They shared their expert tips for making the most of your days antiquing in Provence—whether you’re on the hunt for something specific, decorating or redecorating a home, or (like me) just poking around to see what you can see.
The Markets of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue
The first thing to know: In the winter, Saturday is your best day to visit L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. In the summer, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are all good options—though Sundays are a lot more crowded. On Thursdays and Sundays, the food market is in town, and on Sundays, it’s accompanied by the street brocante—with these come an influx of tourists and stalls selling produce, bric-a-brac, and the like. It’s fun but harder to park and navigate through the crowds. Many of the permanent antiques dealers are open only sporadically throughout the week, so it can be a bit hit-or-miss. In general, weekends are your best bet if you want to find the greatest number of dealers present and open for business.
The antiques here run the gamut—you can find everything from Louis XIII to mid-century modern, from furniture and architectural elements to books and objets d’art, from oil paintings to kitchenwares. It’s hard not to feel a certain sense of urgency or overwhelm given the sheer volume there is to browse (what if you miss something?! Don’t worry—you will, and it’s okay). Try to go slowly. The retail culture is laid-back; there’s no hard sell, Hugh explained. The dealers will let you wander through their spaces as you like, and if you want to know more about a certain piece, just ask. And you will want to ask. The smallest question can unlock an incredible story. Like the gilded circular settee upholstered in a golden floral watercolor fabric—not my taste, but the kind of piece you can’t ignore. Where is that from? I asked. It belonged, the dealer told us, to Virginia Oldoini, the Countess of Castiglione, sometime mistress of Napoleon III and King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy.
“Just ask questions,” Susannah told me. “You never know what you’ll find.” Her go-to question for each dealer: “What’s your favorite piece here at the moment?” The answers were unexpected, and some of the most memorable pieces we saw—a Montgolfier chandelier, a Freemason’s chair, a 17th-century wooden mortar—were ones we might otherwise have missed.
If you are shopping for a specific room or space, you’ll want to come armed with all the necessary measurements of your space and a tape measure so you can assess what works as you go. And if you need time to marinate on a piece before committing, Susannah suggests taking pictures of it, along with the dealer’s card and location; in the moment it seems as if you could never forget, but a few stalls (and a few hundred other pieces) later, you almost certainly will. Another question to ask, if you are looking for something specific and not finding it: whether the dealer has any other items in their depot. Most of them have only a selection of their inventory on display. If you are looking for, say, a flying-saucer-shaped Willy Guhl planter and are at a stall that has a selection of Guhls but not the shape you want, ask if they have more in their depot—they very well might, and if they don’t, they may know someone who does. It’s a small, very interconnected world.
Mémoires d’un Âne: Owned by Jean-Jacques Bourgeois and David Demolis, this shop in Hôtel Dongier specializes in classic French country pieces, pottery, and religious objects. The standouts, for me, were a collection of cane chairs outfitted with new hand-block-printed cushions custom-made to match their original paint, which was faded but intact.
Dickinson Antiquities: As its Instagram handle, @k8silverplate, would suggest, this shop in the Village des Antiquaires de la Gare specializes in antique silver plate, both French and English. Flatware, serving pieces, champagne buckets, chargers, tea sets—you name it. I fell for a set of dachshund-shaped knife rests, which, I am told, are making a comeback.
Galerie Isabelle de Lafage: Isabelle de Lafage is an art historian who meticulously restores and researches each of the paintings she sells. She focuses on Expressionist, Provençal, and Mediterranean works, and each comes with information on the artist and provenance. In addition to the canvases, there are well-used palettes, trays of pastels, and paint boxes dotted around the shop—those aren’t for sale, but you’ll wish they were.
VB Antiquités & Décoration: Valerie and Bruno have a gorgeous selection of Biot jars—large teardrop-shaped terra-cotta vessels originally used to store and transport olives and liquids, now more often used as garden décor. They also have an assortment of crystal chandeliers and really stunning Art Deco pieces and furniture.
Where to Eat and Take a Break in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue
You’ll be on your feet for much of the day, so plan to take a well-timed break (or two) for coffee, lunch, or a midafternoon snack. Sarmiento Torréfaction is a tiny spot serving truly excellent coffees—all roasted on-site—and Dammann Frères teas (you can also buy beans and teas to take home). It doesn’t have a public restroom and doesn’t serve food, but it’s just a couple minutes’ walk from the public parking lot on chemin des Névons, so it’s an ideal starting point for the day.
For a quick lunch (salads, quiches, savory flatbreads, and the like), Jouvaud is an excellent option. It’s also a patisserie, so save room for dessert, or save room in your bag to bring some home: The jarred babas au rhum are divine. If you want a more leisurely sit-down bistro lunch, Le Jardin du Quai and Le Carré d’Herbes are both solid choices, and both have lovely outdoor seating areas should the weather oblige. For an afternoon tea, the patisserie Eugénie serves a selection of confections so gorgeous, you’ll want to admire and photograph before you pierce a fork into them. All four of these spots have restrooms and changing tables.
Shopping a brocante is very different from a day at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. The brocante vendors are there for the morning only (which means you have to be more decisive about your buys). And they are more of a mix—you’ll find some proper antiques dealers and some weekend dabblers, some with a lineup of fine china and crystal and some with things that you might find at a tag sale. Because the brocantes are temporary (and the vendors bring everything in that morning and, if it doesn’t sell, back out in the afternoon), you’re less likely to find large pieces of furniture here, but you may find some. For the most part, though, the focus is on smaller and more movable items.
At the Villeneuve-lès-Avignon brocante (which is held on Saturday mornings and has a higher-end assortment than some of the other brocantes), there was a stall that sold nothing but antique linens, beautifully laundered and bundled; some, monogrammed and still in their original boxes, seemed like wedding gifts that had perhaps never, or rarely, been used. (Consider this your sign to use your good linens!) There were also tables with Daum crystal pieces whose siblings we’d seen behind glass in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue the day before, pottery from Robert Picault’s atelier, and 19th-century first editions. The Carpentras brocante was more of a mixed bag than Villeneuve, but there were still treasures to be found—including oil paintings, pottery, garden décor, antique keys, and the 19th-century wood paper press that now lives in my study.
Also worth visiting: The small brocante at the intersection of place Pie and rue St. Jean le Vieux in Avignon on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And the vide-grenier (which is more like a garage sale) on the last Sunday of the month in Pernes-les-Fontaines, a picturesque village on the banks of the Nesque river. If you are in Provence and looking for brocantes to visit, the best thing to do is look for signs posted along the roads—these usually have the most reliable and up-to-date information on local markets. There is also a website that has listings of brocantes, vide-greniers, and marchés aux puces throughout France, but it’s not easy to navigate (and entirely in French).
How to Get It Home
When it comes to pieces you think you can’t carry out, first I will tell you: Don’t underestimate what you can pack. I’ve come home with a lead crystal bowl, a 17th-century wood mortar (yes, that one—it’s massive), china, and so much more stashed in my suitcase. But if you are buying furniture or chandeliers or other pieces whose dimensions or logistics defy packing in your suitcase, you have a couple of options. Most dealers can refer you to a shipper that they work with, but these companies can’t always provide quotes on the spot, and you may also find that different dealers work with different shipping companies, so if you’re shopping from multiple stalls, that’s not always the easiest (or most economical) option. And if you’re shopping from a brocante, that’s likely not a good option either.
Chez Pluie has been working with most of the L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue vendors for years, and they can help facilitate shipping. And now they’ve launched an app (for both Apple and Android) to make things even easier: It is almost like a mobile shipping cart you can keep updated as you make your way through the stalls. Add an item and enter its dimensions and your shipping address and you’ll get an instant quote that includes packing, shipping, and customs. You’ll buy from and settle with vendors on your purchases as you go, but Chez Pluie will coordinate with the vendors to collect your items from their stall (or from your hotel), then package and ship them home to you. (And of course, if you are just in the dreaming or planning stage and don’t have a ticket to Provence booked, you can also browse the antiques markets virtually, via their site.)
Where to Stay
Grand Hôtel Henri is right in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a short walk from the antiques markets. It’s a comfortable and well-appointed home base for a day or two of browsing. Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, about an hour from L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, is a charming town just across the Rhône from Avignon. In addition to its Saturday brocante, it has narrow cobbled streets that beckon to be explored, a medieval fortress that’s worth spending a morning or afternoon visiting, and a number of little shops and restaurants you can idle away the hours at. Le Prieuré is a medieval cloister turned boutique hotel in the heart of town, with a bistro and restaurant gastronomique. And Hôtel Crillon Le Brave, which is about a 45-minute drive from L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, is a bucket list destination in its own right: The hotel has basically taken over the entire tiny hilltop village, which has breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape and Mont Ventoux. There are two exquisite restaurants, a pool, a spa (that uses Tata Harper products), and an array of luxuriously charming rooms tucked into the historic stone buildings.
Crillon Le Brave images courtesy of Mr. Tripper