Avignon is the capital of Vaucluse area, situated at the far western corner of the department, at the crossroads of the Rhone and Durance rivers. A city that housed the seat of papal power in the 14th century – which left a vibrant legacy of classical architecture, grandeur and fine art. At its zenith, it was the spiritual capital of the western world and major political power-house, ranked as UNESCO Heritage for Humanity. Its ancient cobbled streets are lined with designer boutiques along shady squares overflowing with café tables.
Its Number One attraction is the Palais des Papes, entered via a12th century gate, hanging on by a thread like a wobbly tooth, opening into a peaceful stone courtyard constructed over centuries in a mishmash of styles. It feels like a building that’s been knocked about; the brickwork is a mosaic of papal ego, each of the nine popes placing their thumb-print on the palace. Doorways added and taken away on each elevation – resulting in all the clunkiness of a giant Lego build. It’s the world’s largest Gothic palace, testimony to papal majesty, while the portcullises, watchtowers and three-metre deep walls bring to mind its vulnerability. Don’t miss a tour of the Popes’ private apartments, and the grand State Rooms where ceremonies and banquets were held.
Its Number Two attraction needs no introduction. Sur le Pont d’Avignon…go the words of the folk song and dance we did on the ancient Pont Saint- Benezet, which dates back to 1177 and took a mere eight years to build. Almost a kilometre long, it had 22 arches and measured four metres wide and was recognised as a marvel of its time. When Arles lost its Roman bridge, it became the only place to cross the Rhône between Lyon and the Mediterranean; attracting travellers, merchants and manufacturers. Best viewpoints are to be had from the terrace of the Palais or Rocher des Doms where an English-style garden enjoys panoramic views over the old city towards plains all the way to Mont Ventoux. A timeless view of a city that’s right up to date.
Where to Stay
One of my favourite hotels in the world, La Mirande, was once a cardinal’s mansion at the foot of the Palais des Papes. It’s a timeless refuge with 18th century-esque décor, and a foodie heaven with gastronomic restaurant, chef’s table, and fantastic cooking lessons. The current owners spent three years working with a top Parisian interior designer and local architect to house their fabulous antique collection, ready for a new century of discerning guests. Chef Severine favours what she describes as honest cuisine with respect for the finest of ingredients, and I heartily recommend her table menu, served with wines from the Rhône Valley from €86. Pas mal. Or sign up for one of her weekly cooking lessons in the cellar kitchen.
Eating and Drinking
For lunch – the enduring classical brasserie La Fourchette, near place de l’horloge is considered something of a local institution. Chef patron Philippe Hiély is the sixth generation of family cooks and well deserves his reputation for excellent dining. The table-d’hôte specialities include marinated sardines, classic magret de canard, and refreshing house sorbets.
Alternatively pop into the trendy Restaurant L’Agape, a great new place at the Place des Corps Saints with delicious fish dishes and seasonal puddings.
For dinner – the chic dining room, in the former mansion of Absinthe inventor Jules Pernod, at Restaurant N°75, is just 15 minutes by foot from La Mirande. It’s a fitting backdrop to its stylised Mediterranean cooking. The flamboyant menu, displayed on a chalkboard, changes nightly and includes a handful of entrées and daily specialities guaranteeing freshness and perfect seasonal flavours. On mild nights, reserve a table in the elegant courtyard garden.
Heaven on Earth loves…
Don’t go home without visiting the tiny Angladon Museum, created by Jacques Doucet, a famous Parisian philanthropist and collector. It houses an exclusive private collection of impressionist treasures by Picasso, Daumier, Degas, Sisley, Cézanne, Foujita, Modigliani and Les wagons de chemin de fer, the only Van Gogh painting permanently exhibited in Provence. Check the website for an interesting programme of lectures and exhibitions.
And finally the Shopping…
*The indoor market at Les Halles – perfect for local flavours, is open daily from 6 to 1.30pm.
*Pure Lavande sells all things lavender
*Chocolats Aline Géhant makes the best chocolates in town
When to Go
Avignon Festival is held during the first three weeks of June, comparable to the Edinburgh Festival and the second best known festival in France after Cannes
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