Savour the South of France on a trip to Avignon on the banks of the Rhone - a magical medieval town famed for its seven popes, ancient architecture and a beloved children's rhyme you may recall
"Sur le pont d'Avignon..." Mention Avignon to most people and the children's song celebrating the town's legendary bridge often springs to mind. But what else does it have to offer? As I've discovered on numerous trips to the South of France, there’s much more to this ancient town on the Rhone than a half-remembered rhyme.
Its most obvious attraction is a rich history. No visitor can fail to notice the towering Palais des Papes, or the fortified walls that run for three miles around the oldest part of the city. But there is no trace of stuffiness here; the city is no lifeless exhibit. Instead, it bustles with culture and boasts dozens of restaurants and bars. Its young, student population, meanwhile, gives Avignon a lively, upbeat atmosphere.
But first, let’s go back to that rhyme. Its lyrics concern a bridge called Pont Saint-Bénézet, the emblem of Avignon. Although these days it is just half a bridge. Following a flood back in 1668 it broke up and abruptly ended up in the middle of the Rhone. Now, for a few Euros, you can walk the length of its cobbled top, explore the tiny chapel built into its stone arches and, of course, find out about the origins of the famous song.
It may not be immortalised in verse, but the Palais des Papes, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the place to go for a grander, more gothic taste of Provencal history. Its impressively scaled cloisters and corridors are now mostly bare, but as you wander through them you can still try to imagine the lives of the seven medieval popes who lived there between 1309 and 1377. A ticket for both the Pont Saint-Bénézet and the Palais des Papes costs €13 in the high season and will save you a couple of Euros on the price of separate tickets.
The Pont Saint-Bénézet and Palais des Papes are Avignon’s two historical big-hitters, but there’s plenty more on offer. A great way to do lunch in Avignon is a picnic to the Rocher des Doms, the peaceful gardens just above the Palais des Papes. For food head to Les Halles, the indoor market on Place Pie, and indulge yourself at the delicatessens, patisseries and cheese counters. Then head up to the gardens, located at Avignon’s highest point, and enjoy views over the whole city.
In summer Avignon suffers from heat and crowds. A great way to escape both is to visit La Palmeraie, an outdoor swimming pool on Ile de la Barthelasse, the island that lies in the middle of the Rhone. At a flat rate of €10 for adults and €6 for children, plus an extra €5 to hire a sun lounger, it’s worth leaving time to make the most of your visit. But with an Olympic-sized pool, kids’ paddling pool and three-metre diving board there’s plenty to do. Be warned, however, that the water is not heated. So while the kids’ pool might warm up during a day in direct sunlight, the larger pool remains a bracing prospect. To get to the Ile de la Barthelasse, you can walk across a road bridge, but it’s more fun to take the small free shuttle ferry that crosses the Rhone every 15 minutes.
For dinner in Avignon, you can’t do better than L’Epice and Love, at 30 Rue des Lices. Set in a space no bigger than a normal living room, this really is the city’s hidden culinary gem. The restaurant is brightly and eccentrically decorated and you can expect friendly, chatty service as well as a €15 set menu of traditional Provencal food.
Why travel all the way to the South of France just to go and see a film? Well, when there’s a cinema like Utopia on offer, the chance shouldn’t be turned down. This three-screen picture house is located in a building at least as old as the moving image itself, and right in the shadow of the older-still Palais des Papes. It’s perfect for a traditional movie-going experience and, with English-language films subtitled - rather than dubbed - even a non-French speaker can enjoy a visit.
If you’re looking for somewhere to drink and people-watch, the Place des Corps Saints is one of Avignon’s prettiest after-hours locations, with the outdoor tables of several bars meeting in a tree-lined triangle of streets.
For a livelier night head to the student-friendly, loud music-playing pubs clustered around Place Pie, and then maybe even to Bar L’Electro or Red Zone. When bedtime comes, Hotel le Magnan, on Rue Portail Magnanen, is a simple, reasonably-priced hotel, built around a quiet courtyard and within easy walking distance of the railway station.
The website for La Palmeraie is www.clubpalmeraie.com
Utopia is located on Rue Escaliers Ste Anne and its website is www.cinemas-utopia.org/avignon
The Hotel le Magnan can be contacted via its website, www.hotel-magnan.com/indexenglish.htm or by phone on +33 (0)490 854 890.