Avignon is the capital of the Vaucluse department in Provence, southern France. It’s the world-famous seat of the 14th-century Popes. Their former palace is UNESCO World Heritage listed and the greatest Gothic palace in Europe. It’s also home to a famous bridge which inspired a song known around the world. If you’ve only got 48 hours in Avignon here are our top tips for what to focus on.
City of Popes, Ponts and Peculiarities
As a child of the 70s and 80s, and with a grandmother who’d spent a lot of time in the south of France, singing “Sur le Pont d’Avignon, L’on y danse, l’on y danse…” was an essential part of my French education! For those that don’t know, the song relates to a 15th century dance that took place underneath the Pont Saint-Bénézet in Avignon. I don’t know why they were dancing but perhaps it was because the bridge was such an astonishing feat of engineering for its time!
Built in the 12th century across the Rhône, it took eight years to complete. It originally had 22 arches and for a while, was the only place between Lyon and the Mediterranean where you could safely cross the Rhône by foot.
Over the years, the bridge was destroyed and re-built a number of times. In the 17th century, persistently damaged by flooding, it was no longer affordable to maintain and repair it. Today, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and quite literally half the bridge it was with only 4 arches left. But it’s also one of the many reasons to visit the historic city of Avignon in Provence.
See the Pont d’Avignon how it looked originally
A small city with a huge past
As the capital of the Vaucluse in Provence, Avignon is a small city surrounded by medieval ramparts. Apart from its bridge, it’s perhaps most famous for its Palais des Papes (also a UNESCO World Heritage site) and cathedral.
Why were the popes in Avignon?
During the early 14th century, tension between the French crown and the papacy had been mounting. One pope was severely beaten by allies of France (and later died) and another died only months after taking office. In 1305 the French managed, by foul means or fair, to secure the election of a French pope, Clement V – a personal friend of King Phillip IV.
Not popular in Rome, Clement moved the papacy to Avignon, which was then the Kingdom of Arles and part of the Holy Roman Empire. Seven successive popes subsequently lived here between 1309 and 1377. The Palais is one of those places you just have to visit.
It’s Gothic, commanding and utterly compelling. Tours include interactive handheld tablets which bring things to life as you visit the 25 rooms (including the Papal Chamber and the Stag Room) which are open. Suddenly you find yourself in a warm room with the sound of the fire crackling surrounded by monks. Or viewing amazingly brightly coloured frescoes! And you must climb up to the top terraces for the best views of the rooftops of Avignon.
The Rocher des Doms
The Rocher des Doms is a vast rocky terrace at the top of the city. It overlooks the Rhône and nearby Villeneuve-lez-Avignon. It has a garden, a pond and views of Mont Ventoux. You reach it via steps leading from the cathedral and it acts as a gateway to the city ramparts and Bénézet Bridge.
Getting to know the city
The focal point of the city (apart from the Palais des Papes) is the Place de l’Horloge. Here, as you’d expect, you’ll find a 15th century belfry and clock. And, as you might not expect, a Belle Époque style carrousel. Cafés and restaurant abound here and this a great place to start any explorations. Streets fan out in all directions with an impressive selection of medieval houses and Renaissance mansions and facades.
For a small city, there’s lots going on here, especially if you wonder round the narrow back streets. You’ll find every possible kind of artisan including traditional bookbinding or new concept ‘Le Nid’ (in Rue Des Trois Faucons). Here you can buy local, environmentally friendly products. And, linger in the café enjoying freshly prepared local produce or pop up stairs for a spot of Yoga. They even host occasional “Yog’Apéro” events – yes, that’s yoga and wine!
Almost next door is the compulsory chocolatier, Aline Géhant. Every packet of their chocolate is beautifully illustrated by hand with a little card that tells the story and concept behind the different recipes and flavours. For example, Chocolat Des Papes was inspired by the opulent colours of the religious orders and worn by the ancient popes. Ingredients include fig for purple, pistachio for green and apricots for orange!
Working up an appetite
The ramparts that surround the city provide roughly a 5km circuit. But if it’s exercise you’re after, then cross the Rhône via Pont Edouard Daladier and head to Ile de la Bathelasse. The 700 hectares of pretty island is squeezed in between the Grand Rhône and the Petit Rhône and in between Avignon and Villeneuve-les-Avignon. It’s flat, has cycle paths, a distillery and farm, wildlife and its own orchards.
If you don’t fancy walking, there are boat trips up the Rhône. They include everything from a one-hour trip or dinner to a 4 day luxury stay. It’s a pretty special way to see the city and surrounding area.
Where to stay and eat
I stayed in the Hotel de l’Horloge which as you’d expect is just off the Place of the same name. It’s small, comfortable and couldn’t be more conveniently placed.
You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to places to eat but my recommendations are:
Grand Café Barretta in Place Saint Didier: A theatre and restaurant in one. It’s just a short distance from the market and the building has quite a history. Dating back to 1784 when it was home to an early coffee shop. It used to be a grand courtyard and was allegedly frequented by Napoleon Bonaparte and heiresses, Blanche Barretta (one of the first women to join the Comédie Française). It’s a beautiful building with a welcoming menu and popular with the locals.
Restaurant Agape in Place des Corps Saints: With customer feedback written on the blackboard walls in chalk, the Agape has a distinctive and youthful vibe.
There are 101 reasons to visit Avignon and you can easily spend a lot longer than 48 hours there. From feasting on its very distinctive past, using it as a base to explore the Vaucluse, or enjoying its many and diverse products and festivals. The atmosphere is unique and no trip to this region would be quite complete without paying it the homage it deserves.
Lucy Pitts is a freelance writer, copy writer and deputy editor of The Good Life France.