650 years in Provence

Sandy Rashty discovers another side to the South of France, as she traces the Jewish heritage of the Vaucluse


If the fragrance of freshly-cut lavender does not catch you, the rosemary and thyme stalls will.

Here in Carpentras — a town of almost 30,000 people in Provencal France — a food and flower market blooms.

People brush past one another on cobbled streets lined with blue shutters, as they make their way from stall to stall sampling strong cheeses, chilli-infused olives and freshly baked bread.

While some leave with picnic portions, others clutch bulbs of garlic, jars of lavender-infused honey, sweet yellow and red tomatoes and the region’s famed truffles as part of their weekly grocery shop. Tourists lean towards tangible goods; picking up brightly-painted pottery, hand-made jewellery and lace-lined tablecloths.

But this is no ordinary Friday morning market. The cobbled streets once marked the town’s Jewish Quarter, and at the market’s heart, sits the oldest synagogue in France, which celebrated its 650th birthday this year.

Few people here know the history, marked by the local synagogue, the Jewish Cemetery and Judaica Collection at the local Bibliotheque-Musee I’Inguimbertine.

Few are told that while Jews were expelled from countries across western Europe from the 13th century, they were only offered papal “protection” in four Provencal areas: Avignon, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Cavaillon and Carpentras. By the 16th century, these were the only places where Jews could worship freely.

Here, the community practised Judaism within the confines of what would become the ghetto; forced to wear the yellow colour of “traitors” (hats for men and ribbons for women), confined to three professions (money-lenders, traders of second-hand clothes and goods) and prevented from building any places of worship that could be perceived to challenge the grandeur of the nearby cathedrals.

It was under these conditions that the community dwelled in the small streets of Carpentras and prayed in the synagogue — which is still in use today.

Community member Françoise Richez, our tour guide, leans across a market stall selling African-inspired jewellery. She points to a gap between a side street that once marked the ghetto entrance, before knocking on the large synagogue door.

“If people come to Carpentras, they have to see the synagogue,” she insists. 
“It is a reminder of our Jewish history.”

Inside the synagogue, visited by 7,000 people last year, a restoration project has begun. Beyond the 10-metre deep natural spring mikveh (dating back to the 17th century), bakery and ovens once used by the community, work has begun to preserve the history.

“It is important to remember, this is not just a museum,” Richez points out. “It is a synagogue, we still use it. We celebrate festivals here.”

While the synagogue has a community here, numbers have dwindled –—those who keep kashrut must travel to Marseille for the nearest kosher butcher.

Back outside, the market has started to close. There’s enough time to snag a some lavender-infused honey myself, before travelling along rural roads to Sault to see it growing — the largest production area for fine lavender (lavandula angustifolia) in Europe.

Here, fields of purple pay testament to why the south-east of France is so famous for its flowers — as well as for its strawberries, cherries and sweet orange melon.

As Nicholas Landais from the Musée de la Lavande explains, the importance goes beyond its beauty alone with the flower’s natural medicinal properties leading to the production of lavender soaps, honey and oils.

“We specialise in real ‘lavender’ — not the ‘lavendin’, which is sold 95 per cent of the time,” he says. “Ours is more expensive because the yield of oil from the flower is less than one per cent. This is the only place in the world where you can get fine lavender — not its imitation.”

After disturbing a bemused bumblebee in the fields, the oil came to my rescue. Placebo or not, its soothing properties left me buying more. In a world of international mass-production, there are few places where authentic family-trade goods are still sold.

Down in Cavaillon, family trade also continues at the Plateau Ratatouille farm. Here, Bernard Avy opens his farm — located in a region famed for its orange melons — to the public. For those visiting the region, cooking your own dishes after visiting local farmers would be a treat in itself.

The tomatoes are the sweetest I’ve yet tasted, and the orange melon flesh, the best. I’m told it’s down to the soil and the climate: Cavaillon melon seeds were brought to Provence from Cantalupo in Italy in the 14th century by the papacy, so legends suggests..

Avy, whose family has farmed melon for five generations, says he is fighting the corporate push by refusing to sell to big supermarkets. His friend Guy Boujnias helps out, demonstrating the complicated and precise growing and picking process to tourists.

Back in Cavaillon town centre, the synagogue here functions solely as a museum after its last member, Louise Astruc, died at the turn of the 20th century. Her picture still hangs on its walls.

“The popes decided to tolerate the Jews,” explains tour guide Sarah Leterme. “They were confined to living on one street in Cavaillon, and both entrances were locked every night at 6pm. They were free from the persecution across France, England and elsewhere in Europe — but they had tough conditions for living here.”

Inside, the unusual interior is decorated in pale pink, blue and gold paint. “It is in the Baroque and Rococo style — because it was decorated by Christians. Jews weren’t allowed to be painters or architects so its style is Provencal, Christian and Jewish.”

In the shadow of the Popes, other mementoes remain in the Unesco-listed city of Avignon, where the gothic Palais des Papes and the famed 13th century bridge still stand. From the Jardin de Doms hilltop garden, the spectacular views compete with those from a boat on the Rhône .

In the heart of the town, the synagogue is only a stone’s throw from St Peter’s Church, whose bells can be heard within the shul’s walls. Still in use, it was rebuilt in 1855 and now has 500 member families and 50 people who regularly attend.

“Most of the community left after the French Revolution,” explains community leader Albert Teman. “There were big families who stayed, but most were deported during World War Two. After the 1962 war with Algeria, most Sephardi Jews came to Avignon from north Africa in search of work. So we have a big Sephardi community.”

With them, they brought Torah scrolls used by the community today — and pray by names of people who once lived in the area, the latest to continue this area’s little-known heritage.

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