The waters at Fontaine de Vaucluse gush from the rocky cliffs and well up from untold depths below, settle into wide streams and swift-flowing channels, and are eventually collected, tamed and regulated to constitute the Sorgue, which flows south, divides at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and divides again several times more before reaching the Ouvèze, the Rhone, and eventually the Mediterranean.
But the Sorgue has a mysterious source, not entirely understood. For while the waters surge with enormous pressure in spring and fall, following the rains and snow melt, the unexplained flow continues even during the driest summer months.
Thousands of visitors climb the village’s gentle slope, alongside beckoning ice cream and tourist shops. The road and the town abruptly end at the cliff, and here, within a deep grotto is a seemingly shallow pool. This is where the river begins.
Many of these pilgrims are Italian, uncharacteristically morose-seeming. They seek answers at the river’s source. The national sport of shouting is barbed with a drop of bitterness these days. Where you might expect to find them in cafes and restaurants equipped with giant screens tuned to the World Cup, all you see are brawny and sunburned Brits and Germans (alas, the Germans!).
But you do see the Italians at mid-day, in the blistering sun, trudging along what must seem like the Via Dolorosa, to La Source. Afterwards, back in their hotel rooms and B&Bs, windows shuttered, mumbling and groaning into their knuckles.
The biggest spring in France
But to return. The spring is indeed a gusher — the biggest in France and, according to some sources, fifth biggest in the world. But now we’re getting into ridiculous territory. Who’s the fifth-best James Bond? And which is the fifth-best breakfast cereal? Since we’re not hydrologists, let’s just agree that it’s one of the top springs in the world.
Attempts to measure the depths have been taken. First, divers descended but never found bottom. Jacques Cousteau got involved. Then they sent a robotically controlled submarine contraption to a depth of 300 metres. Still no bottom. I hope they leave it at that and don’t continue to torment this beautiful place with facts.
At dinner the other night, over trout amandine, we watched a man positively bristling with expensive fishing paraphernalia sloshing through the waters below the restaurant and casting his fly in every direction, craftily targeting placid pools, then shadowed areas beneath the trees, then deeper regions where the fish seek cooler waters.
The fish were having none of it. They were no doubt sneering at his equipment.
The waters are in fact teeming with trout and grayling and dozens of other species, and you see plenty of men and boys fishing off footbridges and from the water. It’s a catch-and-release area, though, so the trout you see on so many menus are caught somewhere downstream by less expert-seeming fishermen.
For the record, the fish was delicious.
I got up early this morning for my long run along the aqueduct, and headed north, against the slow current. It was early and there was no one else on the path, but the path and canal are generally deserted at most hours anyway, except for the butterflies and ducks, and the occasional scurrying lizard.
As I rounded a corner, I finally discovered how deep the canal is. A woman was thrashing waist-deep in the water, as a man, possibly her husband, tried to help her out. They must have been at it for quite a while because they both looked exhausted and a little panicked. Meanwhile a small black-and-white dog was nervously jumping about and barking, and the exasperated woman kept telling it to shut up.
I immediately offered to help, and together the man and I grabbed the woman by her forearms and managed to heave her out of the water. Apparently she had fallen in while trying to rescue her little dog, which I now noticed was still wet. They thanked me. In its excitement, the dog was turning cartwheels.
As I turned my Garmin back on and continued my run, I felt for the first time like a godsend.