The heart of the Vaucluse holds the secret to its name: an enormous, powerful river that starts from a sinkhole beneath high limestone cliffs in a blind, closed valley. The volume of water coming out of the ground varies with the weather but is always enough to generate a river from apparently nothing, springing from the base of the cliff. Various explorers, including Jacques Cousteau, have attempted to explore the depth and direction of the sinkhole, but nobody has yet succeeded – and the water has held on to a tiny unmanned submarine, lodged forever somewhere in the depths of the tunnels.
This extraordinary place as been a focus of veneration for centuries, and the latin for “closed valley” is “vallis clausa”; add a shift into Occitane (the old language of Provence) and then into French and you have Vaucluse. The church of Saint Veran was built on the site of an ancient pagan site of worship. Veran himself was a hermit who lived in the valley and is said to have killed an enormous dragon who lived near the spring, after which he was given the bishopric of nearby Cavaillon. The medieval poet Petrarch lived and wrote here in the mid 14th century, leaving only after the death of his son.
On a more secular approach, the power of the river has been used for industries making glass and paper in the small town, Fontaine de Vaucluse, set close to the source of the river. There is still a working paper mill and you can see how a medieval pulping mill worked, connected to a water wheel. There are also glass workshops and a museum of the underground, with all the concretions and finds of a local speleologist.
Lastly, when you’ve done all the exploring you have an appetite for, and its finally time for lunch, there is a charming restaurant set near the main square, La Figuier, with a private courtyard in which to sit and relax.