In Provence’s Vaulcuse department, Carpentras is a town with something interesting or just plain adorable on almost every corner. It’s a one-of-a-kind town because it was the capital of Comtat Venaissin, a Papal Enclave that remained separate from France until the Revolution.
An unusual thing about Carpentras is that it has always tolerated people of the Jewish faith, and Carpentras is proud to have the oldest practising Synagogue in France. Also putting the town on the map is the precious black truffle, which is harvested from November to March and sells for eye-watering prices at the weekly market.
Lets explore the best things to do in Carpentras:
1. Carpentras Synagogue
The city has had a Jewish community since 1276 when the Jews were expelled from France by Philip the Fair.
This Papal Enclave was one of the only places to grant Jewish people freedom of worship at that time.
The town’s synagogue is from 1367 is the oldest one still used in France.
You can book a tour of the building from the tourist office, and will be led through the basement where the mikvah bath is set for ritual washing.
There’s also an antique instrument for making matzo flatbread here.
The interior of the synagogue upstairs was updated in the 18th century and, with chandeliers and columns, is a master-work of rococo religious design.
2. Friday Market
Carpentras has been a centre of trade since ancient times, when the Phocaeans and Greeks would barter over grains, honey and livestock.
As a weekly ritual the market is the oldest in France, founded in the 1st century BC when it was then known as the Forum Neronis.
It’s impossible to imagine Carpentras without the stalls that fill its streets and squares on Friday mornings.
Fresh produce and regional delicacies of all descriptions (candied fruit, boiled sweets) are piled high, and the strawberries, cherries, grapes, melons and peaches are fresh from local farms in summer.
3. Black Truffle Market
In winter Carpentras’ feted black truffle market trades on Friday mornings.
There’s a private wholesale market in the courtyard of the Hôtel-Dieu, where these “black diamonds” fetch thousands of Euros per kilo.
From November to March there are also stalls outside the town’s tourist office from 08:00 to 12:00 selling truffles to the public.
Buying truffles entails a degree of etiquette and ceremony, as they’re weighed on antique scales and individually wrapped in paper.
All of these fungi are harvested in the oak forest on the slopes of Mont Ventoux and detected by trained dogs and pigs.
4. Carpentras Cathedral
This 15th-century Church of Saint-Siffrein actually lost its cathedral status back in 1801 when the Diocese of Carpentras was abolished after the Revolution.
The big treasure inside is the horse bit that graces Carpentras’ coat of arms.
It was fashioned for Emperor Constantine’s mount in the 4th century and is said to include a nail from Jesus’ cross.
This is kept in a gilded reliquary in the Oratoire de Saint-Mors.
You should also do a circuit of the church’s 11 chapels that have polychrome sculptures, 15th-century stained glass and marble altarpieces.
5. Passage Boyer
This covered shopping arcade is a piece of Paris in the heart of Carpentras.
It came about in 1848 at the dawn of the Second Republic, when there was mass unemployment in France.
The answer was to create the Ateliers Nationaux, harnessing the country’s languishing workforce for ambitious jobs like this.
Named for the philanthropic goldsmith who led the project, the Passage Boyer is 90 metres long and five metres wide, and is covered by a vaulted iron and glass canopy.
170 years later the passage is still lined with stylish boutiques and speciality shops, all in a cultivated Parisian atmosphere.
6. Musée Comtadin-Duplessis
Come to this museum to immerse yourself in the art and culture of the Comtat Venaissin from the 13th century to the Revolution.
To get your head around this interesting and often mystifying period in the town’s history there are ethnographic collections of traditional dress, votive offerings, official seals and examples of local metalwork (coins and keys) and a bell from the Simon foundry.
But for most of us the main event will be the art galleries that display medieval Provençal primitives, pieces from the Italian School and French works by well-known artists like Hyacinthe Rigaud and Carl van Loo.
7. Porte d’Orange
This fortified gate to the north of the city centre is the best remaining piece of an old, 1770-metre-long defensive enclosure around Carpentras.
The wall was built by Pope Innocent VI in the second half of the 14th century, and was made up of 32 towers similar to the one you see here.
Nearly all of these fortifications were pulled down at the start of the 1800s to help the city grow.
Towards the end of that century this gate’s historical meaning was recognised with a “monument historique” label.
And for some trivia: In 1791 the “commissaires royaux” entered Carpentras through this gate to join the Papal Enclave to the rest of France .
8. Arc de Carpentras
One of the only signs of the Roman settlement of Forum Neronis is this triumphal arch.
This would have been built towards the beginning of the 1st century during the reign of Emperor Tiberius.
The arch is heavily weathered and has lost some of its decoration, but on one side there’s a vivid relief of two prisoners in chains.
One is clearly Germanic, with a bear skin tunic, while the other is more oriental, in Persian garb and wearing a Phrygian cap.
This would have been sculpted to convey the might of the Roman Empire to its newly conquered subjects.
9. Musée Sobirats
On a narrow street in the old town is a mansion giving you a taste of upper crust life in the Comtat Venaissin before the Revolution.
The rooms inside are decorated with antique Louis XV and Louis XVI furniture, but there are also a few outstanding pieces from the reign of Napoleon.
On the walls are 18th-century paintings and Aubusson tapestries, and there are presentations of faience from Marseille and Moustiers.
Take your time to inspect the skilled ironwork on the stairway and the gypsum plasterwork on the Louis XV trumeau.
The town’s old hospital was completed in an exuberant Baroque style in the 1750s, and stayed open up to 2002. It was founded by Joseph-Dominique d’Inguimbert, the Bishop of Carpentras who made a lasting impression on the town as he also established the venerable Bibliothèque Inguimbertine, which is known by bibliophiles across France.
The hospital was built outside the walls to avoid the smelly streets of the old centre.
You can go in to see the fabulous apothecary, which has been left as it was in the 1700s and has carved cabinets, faience jars and mortars from this time.
There’s also a gallery inside the entrance with 281 canvas paintings honouring each person who donated to the hospital over the centuries.
11. Palais de Justice
When you visit the tourist office, ask about a guided tour of the courthouse that dominates the centre of the town: These visits are usually available during the school holidays.
This building used to be the episcopal palace for the Bishops of Carpentras and was a meeting hall for the Comtat Venaissin nobility.
The palace was built in the 17th century in the Italian Baroque style and was embellished with sculpture, dainty plasterwork and frescos, most of which survived the Revolution when the bishop was suppressed.
12. La Charité
You could also drop by another historic attraction to see what’s on show: La Charité was a shelter and hospital for the poor of Carpentras, established in 1669. It was renovated in the 1980s and is yet another marvellous building, with a tower, a two-tiered gallery and atmospheric stone vaults inside.
Sheltered in these arches are seven rooms dedicated to the art, theatre and the town’s Conservatory of Music and Dance.
La Charité is worth discovering in its own right, whether or not you’ve come to see the art or performances inside!
13. Carpentras Aquaduct
As with any medieval town the fountains in Carpentras were built to provide the residents with water for drinking and washing.
To reach Carpentras, this had to be channelled some distance from the Caromb springs.
The answer was to build a Roman-style aqueduct, which first took shape in the 1400s, but needed remodelling at the start of the 1700s.
The man in charge of that job was Antoine d’Allemand, who also designed the majestic Hôtel-Dieu in Carpentras.
It’s a structure to behold, with 48 arches and running for more than 700 metres across the Auzon River.
14. Dentelles de Montmirail
At Carpentras you’ll have an overwhelming choice of day trips to choose between.
But the Dentelles de Montmirail to the north is a scene that sums up the whole of Provence.
This jagged mountain ridge protrudes for eight kilometres and rises above a Mediterranean landscape of cypress trees, Rhône Valley vineyards and olive groves.
The bare limestone walls attract climbers in their droves, while everyone else should come just to bask in the sight of the massif and countryside on hundreds of kilometres of walking and cycling trails.
15. Food and Drink
Wine grapes have been grown at Carpentras for more than 2,000 years, and the Popes expanded the vineyards further in the middle ages.
You can go to the source to sample AOC Ventoux wines at local estates like the Domaine de Marotte or caves in the town.
The rosés are the stars in this region, loved for their hints of cherry, raspberry and pepper.
At the market there are lots of truffle-related treats to browse, like truffle oil, truffle salt, truffle charcuterie, dry truffle flakes and even a truffle aperitif.