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Place du Palais from Petit Palais (c) Andrew Sanger

Place de l'Horloge, Avignon (c)Avignon Tourisme / C. Rodde

Avignon

Palais des Papes, Avignon (c)Andrew Sanger

Pont St Bénezet, or the Pont d'Avignon

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Bursting with life and energy, yet echoing with history, this ancient riverside fortress city under clear blue skies is the very essence of Provence. From the bank of the broad turbulent river Rhône rise its magnificent ramparts. Projecting oddly from these "honey-coloured, rose-faded walls", as Lawrence Durrell called them, there's Pont St-Bénézet, the famous bridge of the nursery rhyme - Sur le Pont d'Avignon - its broken arches stepping just half way across the river.
   Medieval gateways enter Avignon's old city, which the 14th-century poet Petrarch, living nearby at the time, described as "a sink of vice". Today, elegant designer boutiques and jewellers, famous restaurants and fine mansions stand just a few steps away from crowded squares, outdoor tables and narrow, cobbled backstreets. The town delights in contrasts, vivacity, art, creativity and history.
   There's always a sense of excitement in the Avignon air, especially during the huge three-week
Avignon Festival, every July, devoted to theatre, arts and music.


 Get the feel

While the real Avignon of today, outside the tourist zone, is a large industrial and commercial centre for the southern Rhône and western Provence, the walled, preserved old quarter retains a wonderful atmosphere of art, relaxation and joie de vivre.
  Within the walled Old City, there are several differing neighbourhoods, including a slightly disreputable district in the south-east quarter, a historic residential area along Rue Carnot, and a little more discreet charm in the quieter western side.

 What, why, where

Why a "Papal City"?
Avignon gained the soubriquet "City of the Popes" when a Frenchman was elected Pope Clement V in 1309 but was unable to move to Rome at that time for political reasons. He made Avignon - already a possession of the church - his capital instead.
  The next six popes were all French and all kept Avignon as their base. In 1377, Pope Gregory XI returned the papacy to Rome. However, dissident "popes" were then elected who remained at Avignon. The last of them, Benedict XIII was eventually driven out of Avignon by force in 1403, ending Avignon's time as Papal City.
 
These dubious French popes may have proved a blessing to the town's tourist industry, but while Avignon was their capital it became a corrupt, overblown haven for the flotsam and jetsam of Europe.
  Arguably Avignon makes too much of its popes, who were here for under 100 years. Yet even after that period, Avignon remained a possession of the papacy, and did not become part of France until 1791.
 
Today that unusual historic background gives Avignon's Old City  a unique character.
  In modern times, Avignon - or "Grand Avignon" (Greater Avignon) - has spread far beyond its medieval ramparts to become one of the largest and busiest towns in western Provence.

 Getting started

Avignon tourist office is just inside the town walls at 41 Cours Jean-Jaures, a few paces from the railway station.

 Compass points

Avignon's walled Old City stands on the Rhône's east bank.
  Directly opposite the railway station, majestic Porte de la République is the main medieval gateway through the city walls. This leads vehicles and pedestrians onto the crowded central thoroughfare, which starts as Cours Jean-Jaures and becomes Rue de la République, making its way through the heart of town to the spacious main square, Place de l'Horloge.
  Adjacent to the main square is the even larger Place du Palais, dominated by the Papal Palace.
  Avignon's most interesting museums, sights, and small neighbourhoods are all within walking distance of this central axis. Place Pie, to the east, with its bus station, covered market and car park, is a focal point for locals.
  Outside the walled city, extensive modern districts extend along the river in both directions, and eastwards.

 Getting around

Avignon within the ramparts, although extensive compared to other walled towns, is all fairly manageable on foot. The areas of greatest interest are mainly in the northern part and around the Palais des Papes. Vélopop Grand Avignon bike hire scheme
  Public transport options include a good bus service, both inside and outside the old city, with a bus station in Place Pie. A single ticket costs 1.40€, a carnet of 10 is 12€, and an all-day ticket 3.50€.
  A municipal bicycle hire scheme called Vélopop allows you to help yourself to a bike from stands at 17 locations, including behind the railway station; in Place Pie; in Rue de la République; and in Place de l’Hôtel de Ville. Using a credit card to register (it's only 1€ for a day, 5€ for a week), there’s a charge of 0.50€ per half-hour of use.
www.velopop.fr - bike hire scheme
www.tcra.fr - Avignon public transport

 Eat and drink in Avignon

Restaurants in Avignon

Brasseries and inexpensive eating places fill Place de l'Horloge, and extend down little rue Galante and along rue de la République.
For fine dining, top city centre include...

La Cour d'Honneur - It's a delight on a sunny day to sit in this shaded walled courtyard garden in rue J.-Vernet (opposite Musée Calvet). Enjoy good service and excellent gastronomic cooking, with a low-cost set menu at lunchtime.

83.Vernet
Set in a handsome courtyard off rue Vernet, this chic restaurant mixes high style with haute cuisine. In the evening it becomes part of the young, fashionable scene with a popular cocktail bar and, from Thursday to Saturday nights, a DJ. Good value lunchtime set menu.

Restaurant Christian Etienne
This gastronomic landmark in one corner of Place du Palais ranks among the region's top names. The chef's inventiveness and passion for fresh Provencal produce are legendary. Seafood, fish, fowl and local vegetables are specialities. Summer's Tomato Menu features tomatoes (prepared in astonishing different ways) in every course, including dessert.

 Stay in Avignon

Hotels in Avignon
The tourist office website has useful searchable pages on the town's hotels.

Hotel de l'Europe - Avignon's legendary and classiest place to stay, a haven of good living tucked away in gardens in Place du Crillon. Its restaurant, too, is one of the best in town.

La Mirande - Hidden in a lane behind the Palais des Papes, this 14th-century cardinal's palace has become one of Avignon's best small hotels. With elaborate, elegant taste, everything is comfortable and luxurious
. Its restaurant is one of Avignon's best.

Hotel de l'Horloge - Affordable four-star comfort right on the busy main square. Bedrooms  and public areas are on the small side - but all of good standard. There's little noise despite the location. The hotel offers a discount in the nearby secure public car park.

Hotel Les Corps Saints / Hotel Splendid - Through many decades, this modest budget hotel (which recently changed its name from Splendid to the less appealing Corps Saints) has continued to offer simple, well-kept, brightly decorated little rooms. It's in a quiet backstreet just off the main thoroughfare, next to a pleasant public garden, and a few minutes walk both from the station and the main sights.

 Getting to Avignon

By rail
via Paris or Lille:
Several times daily: Eurostar from London connects at Lille with TGVs direct to Avignon. Or take Eurostar to Paris and change stations for TGV to Avignon.
Eurostar direct to Avignon: Direct Eurostar from London (or Ebbsfleet or Ashford) to Avignon operates for about 9 months a year. It
runs once a week each way in December, 3 to 5 times a week the rest of the year, except January-March. Journey time about 5h36m. The trains go to Avignon TGV station, linked to the city centre by a 4-minute shuttle bus ride.
www.eurostar.co.uk

www.sncf.com

By air -
direct flights to Avignon from the UK for part of the year
from London City with CityJet
from Southampton and Birmingham
with Flybe
- There are are also direct flights to nearby Marseille Provence airport from Bristol, Dublin, Edinburgh, London and Nottingham.

 Must-see

 Papal Palace / Palais des Papes 
Every visitor to the town makes their way to this grim, imposing fortress, which dominates the immense and uninhabited Place du Palais. It's actually two palaces in one - the austere structure built in 1342, and behind it the more elegant building erected ten years later.
  You may wander inside it on your own or with a guided tour (in English) through room after empty room. The now lifeless palace is all of big, white flag stones, massive halls, gorgeously frescoed walls and decorated timber ceilings.
www.palais-des-papes.com

 Musée du Petit Palais 
At the far, sun-baked end of the Place du Palais, this fortified 14th-century palace is a fascinating building given over entirely to a priceless collection of medieval religious art, often with exceptional temporary exhibitions.
www.petit-palais.org

 Rocher des Doms 
Reached either by steps or on a long ramp from the Place du Palais, the lofty Rocher des Doms gardens was home to Avignon's original inhabitants, 4000 years ago. Today it's an enticing, peaceful park of shady ponds, paths and flowerbeds. It climbs to a viewpoint from which most of Western Provence can be seen.

 Pont St-Bénézet 
Here is the Pont d'Avignon on which on y danse. It's a lovely, curious, fortified stone bridge which extends into the Rhône and then stops in midstream, the rest having been washed away in a succession of Rhône floods over the centuries.
 
Bénézet was a shepherd boy who - under divine instruction - built the bridge between 1177 and 1185, bringing prosperity to the town and sanctity to himself. Beside the entrance to the bridge, the Musée en Images tells the city's story in pictures.
Rue Ferruce.
www.avignon-pont.com

 Place de l'Horloge 
Everything and everyone in Avignon converges on Place de l'Horloge, the enticing main square. It's half-shaded by leafy plane trees, dominated by the grand old town hall and bordered by hundreds of brasserie tables under parasols.
This is a perfect spot to linger over breakfast, lunch or dinner, or just a drink, watching the whole spectrum of passers-by and street entertainers from acrobats to accordionists.

 Musée Angladon 
Among my favourite of the many museums in Avignon, this backstreet treasure is unmissable for lovers of early 20th-century art. On display are little known pieces by Picasso, Modigliani, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Sisley and others, and an interesting display on Dégas, all displayed behind protective glass panels.
www.angladon.com

 Musée Calvet 
The Calvet is one of the most interesting museums of art and archaeology in Provence. Its spacious galleries, inside a grand 18th-century mansion off rue Joseph Vernet, display eclectic but well-organised collections. Among them are fine arts from the 15th to the 20th century, including sculpture, Flemish painting, religious works and Impressionists; decorative crafts such as tapestry, jewellery and porcelain; a section on ethnic art; and an amazing ancient Egyptian collection including mummies - among them the mummy of a child, and mummies of crocodiles.
www.musee-calvet.org

 Villeneuve-lez-Avignon 
Just across the river, and with fine views of Avignon, this small town (also spelt "-lès-Avignon") was once a place of resort for popes and cardinals, who built luxurious little palaces that still survive. Philippe le Bel Tower at the entrance to the town was once the other end of St Bénezet's half-collapsed Pont d'Avignon. The ruined Fort St-André - little more than its massive outer fortifications remain - gives good views. The loveliest of the sights is the immaculate Chartreuse. Founded by Pope Innocent VI, in 1356, this was once the largest Carthusian monastery in France. You can wander freely in its beautiful, austere galleries and cloisters under Gothic arches of white stone, and visit the 3-room 'cells' where monks took refuge from a noisy world, dedicating themselves to labour and contemplation under a vow of silence.
www.ot-villeneuvelezavignon.fr/

 Buy it

Papalines d'Avignon - liqueur chocolates;
Côtes du Rhône wines - including some of France's finest, such as Châteauneuf du Pape;
Pastis - the anis-flavoured aperitif evocative of Provence;
Fougasse - tasty flattish bread usually richly filled;
Herbes de Provence - traditional local mix of thyme, marjoram, rosemary and basil.
Candied fruit - local fruits preserved in sugar are a delicious treat from patissiers and confiseurs.

 In the Know

Avignon PASSion - free from the tourist office or any participating museum, this valuable card gives discounts on entry to sights and attractions.
Try a chic local aperitif - 'Mauresque' is pastis mixed with orgeat (almond syrup).
Book well ahead if you want to stay in the Old City.
Private guided tours in English are available at short notice from the tourist office guide service.
Boat trips on the Rhône are among the excursions bookable at the tourist office.
Rendez-Vous from the tourist office and the weekly magazine César give details of concerts, discos, events, shows, exhibitions.

 Kids' Stuff

Ride the Petit Train (little train) which tours the main streets causing traffic chaos.
  The two-storey traditional carousel in Place de l’Horloge is fun for younger ones. Also in the Place, buskers, jugglers and street theatre provide constant entertainment.

 Events and festivals

Ask at the tourist office for the monthly events bulletin called Rendezvous. Weekly magazine César gives details of concerts, discos, events, shows, exhibitions. There's always a lot going on, with a full programme of annual events. Among the highlights ...

Avignon Festival
6-26 July 2017
Ideally you should book accommodation in spring if you're planning to stay in the city during the Avignon Festival, a world-class classical theatre extravaganza every July.
 
Despite its high-brow programme focusing on classical and modern drama, the festival creates a party atmosphere - and non-stop fringe activities for the alternative Festival Off.

Hivernale
6-25 February 2017
This year's edition of Avignon's contemporary dance festival features 7 works (8 performances of each), as well as dance workshops and classes.
www.hivernales-avignon.com

Les Luminessences d'Avignon
August-October

Twice every evening (three times on August weekends), a spectacular light and video open-air show brings the walls of the Palais des Papes alive with its history and drama. The performance is in English at 10:15pm on Mon, Wed and Fri.
www.lesluminessences-avignon.com

 Avignon Basics

Where is Avignon?
  In the south of France, 75km (40 miles) from the Mediterranean.
International phone dialling code:
 
00 33 (+ drop initial 0 from local number)
Time zone:
 
GMT/BST + 1 hour.
Money:
 
Euro (€).





 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Avignon
Updated and revised January 2017.
All rights reserved worldwide.
Text © Focus Guides and Andrew Sanger.
Pictures: Pl. de l'Horloge © Avignon Tourisme/Clemence Rodde; Pont-St-Bénezet - Creative Commons; all other pics © Andrew Sanger.
Permission to use: This guide may be freely PRINTED ONLY for personal non-commercial use. Unless a LICENCE has been obtained it may not, in whole or in part, be COPIED nor used for any COMMERCIAL purpose.
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