In his guidebooks, Rick Steves is no fan of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, a Provencal village tucked beneath a steep mountainside pockmarked with caves. I beg to differ. Before the tourist season hits, the village is one of my favorites in Provence.
In the 2010 edition of Steves’ Provence & The French Rivera, Steves wrote, “While the setting is beautiful — with cliffs jutting to the sky and a ruined castle above — the trip is worth it only if the spring is flowing. Sans flowing spring, this is the most overrated sight in France.”
Ah c’mon. I’ve visited Fontaine-de-Vaucluse in January, March and April and loved it all three times. Last week, the waters that are the start of the Sorgue River cascaded downward from the mysterious source atop a heavily traveled trail, roiling feet below the walls of the riverbank. When we came in March 2007, we could see the water bubbling up from what Steves calls the “murky, green waterhole” that’s the mysterious river source. Even in late April, when the waterhole seemed dry above ground and the river was calm, its emerald green surface, navigated by families of ducks, made for a lovely picnic on the shores.
All three times, we ignored the tourist shops that line the path to the spring’s source. This time we hiked above the town to the castle ruins above, passing almost no one on the way and enjoying the dramatic view of the mountainside across from us and town below. In springtime, we coupled our visits to the river with a one to the excellent museum there dedicated to those who fought in the French resistance (the museum is closed in mid-winter. Be sure to check its hours before arriving).
There’s a second museum dedicated to medieval Italian poet Petrarch, who, as Steves notes, “mourned his love, Laura” here. It’s also possible to canoe downriver, starting in the village.
I’d agree with Steves to the extent that this is a place best limited to an off-season day trip. I wouldn’t use it as a base to see Provence because access is limited (same road in and out) and parking comes with a pricetag. I’d also carry a picnic rather than stopping at one of the somewhat overpriced places to eat in the town. But each of our three visits here was worth three or four peaceful hours, at least one or two to marvel at the beauty of the valley and its magical ever-flowing stream.