Avignon is one of France’s most distinctive cities. Sitting on the banks of the mighty Rhône River, it has some of the most extensive medieval fortifications in Europe and is dominated by its massive Papal Palace. There is so much to see! And if you want the best spot to view this beautiful city, it’s not in Avignon itself, it’s across the river on Barthelasse Island (Île de la Barthelasse.)
Barthelasse Island, one of Europe’s largest river islands, is just minutes from Avignon by ferry, foot, or car. From there you have a clear line of sight to Avignon, with nothing blocking your view. You can see the stone cliffs that protect the city and the thick walls built in the Middle Ages. And above them all is the Papal Palace, topped by its golden statue of Mary, sparkling in the Provençal sunshine. If there’s a better view of Avignon, I haven’t found it.
Things to do on Barthelasse Island
Barthelasse Island has a broad, grassy esplanade facing Avignon, and it’s the perfect place for a picnic. Get some gourmet goodies at Avignon’s Les Halles market and enjoy a lazy afternoon! Or if you’d like something a bit more upscale, Restaurant Bercail sits right on the water, so you can enjoy excellent food and fabulous views at the same time.
The island is rural, full of farms and forest, making it a quiet refuge from busy Avignon. It is large (5 miles by 2 miles) and flat, so it’s ideal for easy walks or bike rides. There are several campgrounds on the island and a few hotels and homestays, plus the Distillerie Manguin that makes pear eau de vie and offers free guided tours on Saturdays.
Barthelasse Island and a Famous Song
Barthelasse Island played a surprising role in the famous song about the Pont d’Avignon (“sur le Pont d’Avignon, on y danse…”) According to the song, people dance on (“sur”) the bridge. But historians believe they used to actually dance under (“sous”) the bridge and the lyrics changed over time.
How can you dance under a bridge? Won’t you get wet? Well, back in olden times, part of the Pont d’Avignon crossed Barthelasse Island and there was dry ground underneath it. The island was known as a place of drinking and revelry, so people really did dance under the bridge.
If you’d like to see what the Pont d’Avignon looked like before most of it was swept away, take a look at this interesting article with a 3D video of the original bridge.
Getting to Barthelasse island from Avignon
By Ferry: A free ferry runs regularly from the Quai de la Ligne, about 200 yards east of the Pont d’Avignon
On Foot: It’s a short walk to the island over the Édouard Daladier bridge
By Car: Take the Édouard Daladier bridge and park at the Parking de l’Île de la Barthelasse
More on Avignon
Top ten things to do in Avignon
Where the locals love to eat out in Avignon
The monumental Palace of the Popes in Avignon
Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Silicon Valley and Provence. He is the author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Keith & Val’s Adventures in Provence. Read more at Life in Provence.