Avignon is a special place for both us greedy sisters. I spent a year living and working there during my university studies and my greedy sister came to visit many times, creating so many happy memories together. On my year in Provence we discovered our favourite chocolate shop, Joel Durand, responsible for an expensive and calorific addiction that whole family still maintains on a regular basis. During that year I also conducted detailed studies to source the tastiest hot chocolate, the most flavoursome tomatoes, the creamiest cheese and the finest pastries this beautiful region has to offer, as well as visiting as many gorgeous Provençal villages and towns as possible. That was ten years ago, and while I’ve been back to the region since then, I’ve not actually returned to Avignon since summer of 2008, when I packed up my Beetle and drove the thousand mile journey back to Yorkshire. This year felt like the right time to take a pilgrimage back to the place that was once – briefly – home, and I loved every second of it. Here are some of the highlights that anyone visiting this beautiful city should seek out immediately:
Palais des Papes
This has to be the first stop on any visit to Avignon, as it’s impossible to ignore this incredible structure which dominates the city’s skyline. Once the seat of western Christianity, Avignon was home to seven successive popes during the 14th century before this honour was returned to Rome. But the Avignon Papacy left its mark and the beautiful palace is the biggest gothic building of the Middle Ages and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can take a tour of the inside of the building, although the interior is rather sparse and the most impressive part is the structure itself. I’d advise grabbing a coffee in the square or perching on the steps and admiring the palace in its full glory from afar. You can also get great views of the city and its famous bridge by walking up to the cathedral beside the Palais des Papes, Notre Dame des Doms, and enjoying the views from the gardens there.
The next big hitter is this bridge, famous thanks to the children’s nursery rhyme (Sur le Pont d’Avignon). The original bridge was built in the 12th century and then rebuilt time and again when the arches kept collapsing due to the Rhone’s regular floods. In the middle of the 17th century the rebuilding was abandoned, leaving the incomplete structure we see today. On my first night back in Avignon I sat beside the bridge on the riverbank to watch the sun set, with some wine and goodies from the patisserie.
One of my favourite activities during my year abroad was people watching from the comfort of a cosy cafe. During the winter months I did this with a chocolat chaud in hand, but the blazing summer heat this time around called for un cafe and water, or a citron presse. My favourite spot for people watching is the cafe on the corner of Place d’Horloge and Rue de la Republique. This is also where I concluded the best hot chocolate could be found, so I headed back to the cafe at around 10pm one evening, when the heat had finally subsided enough to allow me to enjoy one. It was every bit as good as I remembered.
Chez Francoise is another favourite cafe which I was pleased to see is still thriving. Close to the university, this informal cafe has a Parisian feel and a delicious selection of food and drink. The most memorable was a pear and chocolate crumble, served in a wooden tray and enjoyed immediately with a wooden spoon. Sadly, this wasn’t on the menu when I returned, but the apple and raspberry crumble was a very good substitute.
For a real French experience, head to Ginette et Marcel in the pretty Place des Corps Saints. Their menu of tartines is unrivalled and this lovely square is the perfect backdrop to enjoy one of their open sandwiches and watch the world go by.
The stunning architecture of Avignon was something I got used to while living there, but returning with fresh eyes made me see how special the buildings really are. Wandering around the narrow streets I couldn’t believe how many pretty buildings are absolutely everywhere. The university is one of the grander sights, but humble apartment blocks are equally beautiful.
The centre of Avignon is completely enclosed by medieval city walls. The remparts are fascinating to explore and some of the entrances through the walls are more authentic than others. When I lived in the city my nearest route into town was at the end of Rue des Teinturiers, where you duck down the medieval steps and almost under the walls to emerge within the old city. It’s a rather smelly entrance (one of my clearest memories from my year abroad is that distinct Avignon pong!) but on the other side is Rue des Teinturiers, the most picturesque street and my favourite part of the city. Rue des Teinturiers literally means ‘street of dyers’, from when textiles were produced and dyed here in a thriving industry from the 14th to the 19th century. You can still see the old wooden water mills turning as you walk alongside the narrow river that follows the street. Pop in for a coffee at one of the many cafes dotted along the cobbles, or enjoy an evening stroll and stop at a restaurant – this area is particularly good for global cuisine alongside the traditional French offerings.
The indoor market of Les Halles is in the town centre and has a vibrant living wall on one side of the exterior. From fishmongers, bakers, wine merchants and chocolatiers to butchers selling pretty gruesome wares, Les Halles is where the locals shop. Don’t expect a polished, tourist version of a French market, instead you’ll find an honest, bustling experience. Every Saturday morning there is a live cookery demonstration inside the market, where I used to hustle for a spot near the front to see all kinds of culinary skills on display. If you can’t wait to sample the produce, there are a couple of places to eat inside, including a restaurant beside a fishmongers where tables were full at 1030am with people keen to try the day’s fresh oysters.
One of the other reasons for Avignon’s fame is its annual festival of theatre and arts, which takes place every July. We timed our visit this year so we could catch the start of it, with an exciting build up all week that saw performers jostling for flyer space and adverts lining every free wall, as well as strings of posters hung like bunting across every square. The performers and their teams approach each passer-by with a synopsis of their show like an elevator pitch, clearly keen to fill the theatres – some of them are permanent and others are pop-up theatres in bars, restaurants and any free space. The atmosphere is indescribable and street performers also make the most of the festival, creating a buzz across the entire city. Some tickets can be bought online but you can also buy tickets just before the performances begin, so you can decide which catches your eye while you’re there.
Trips out of the city
If you’re in the region for a while, Avignon is a perfect base from which to explore the whole of Provence and beyond. From countryside to coastal, there are dozens of gorgeous destinations for day trips. Some of my favourites are:
– Orange (don’t miss the Roman amphitheatre)
– Arles (famed for Roman ruins, bullfighting, and Van Gogh – take a look at Cafe La Nuit, when Van Gogh painted the beautiful Cafe Terrace at Night)
– Les Baux de Provence (a medieval village high on the hilltop with great views)
– Chateauneuf du Pape (wine!)
– Aix en Provence (take a look at Cezanne’s studio)
– St Remy de Provence (my absolute favourite, more on this in another post)
– Gordes (a chic and exclusive town high in the Luberon hills)
– Abbaye de Senanque (close to Gordes, a Cistercian abbey still occupied by monks and set amid stunning lavender fields. Pick up a pot of their famous lavender honey)
– Fontaine de Vaucluse (the site of a huge spring and the most powerful water source in France)
– Isle sur la Sorgue (in my Provence top three, this gorgeous town has a famous antiques market. One day I’m going to drive down in a huge lorry and fill it to the brim!)