Avignon is one of the major cities of Provence, in Southern France. It is the main city of the département of Vaucluse, and is on the banks of the Rhône river. Avignon was one of the European Cities of Culture in 2000.
Avignon is famous as the city to which the Popes fled when leaving the corruption of Rome in the 14th century. The palace they built, Le Palais des Papes, or the palace of popes, is the world's largest Gothic edifice. It was largely emptied over the centuries, and its vast stone rooms are filled with little more than old frescos, but it is still an imposing building. The Ramparts themselves were erected to keep the plague and invaders out during the turbulent Middle Ages, when Avignon belonged to the papacy and not the French crown.
Its early history is much older than the popes, however. Avignon occupies a strategic location for several reasons - it is at the confluence of two once-mighty rivers: the Rhône, still one of the biggest rivers in France, and the now largely-dammed Durance. Both were important routes of trade and communication even in prehistoric times. In addition, there is a long island in the Rhone that made it possible to ferry people and goods across, and later bridge the river, more easily than in other places.
It is estimated that about 200,000 people live in Avignon, 16,000 of which live 'intra-muros,' or within the ramparts built in the 14th century.
The city is now sprinkled with buildings and monuments ranging from the new to the old, the very old, and the ageless.
Avignon has been continuously inhabited since the stone age, when inhabitations were built in caves in the “Rocher des Doms”, a massive outcropping of rock rising over the banks of the Rhône. Today, a public park with benches, views over the surrounding countryside, a café and playground is on top of the Rocher.
The Romans had a presence in Avignon, though the walls they built lie buried somewhere under the modern streets. Vestiges of the forum can still be seen, lying unassumingly near the Rue Racine and the Rue Saint-Étienne, to the west of the city.
Then, in medieval times, the town grew to an important center of communication and trade. The stone bridge spanning the Rhone was one of only three between the Mediterranean and Lyon. It was undoubtedly for its strategic location and ease of travel that it was chosen by the papacy as home within the then kingdom of Provence. The presence of the papacy made Avignon into a city of great political and economic activity. The old city wall, now visible only as a street that circles the very center of the town (changing names 5 times in the process!) was much too small and a larger wall, still visible today, was necessary to protect its bulging population. Wealthy Cardinals built extravagant palaces known as livrées both within Avignon and across the river, in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon.
The city teemed with activity and building as architects, builders, artists flocked to the town. At that time, within the city walls there were over 100 churches and chapels - many of which have been transformed since then into everything from shops to a movie theater! The wealth and activity generated by the presence of the papacy spilled out into the region, so that even small villages nearby boast a rich architectural past.
Local and regional trains call at the central station, outside the walls on the southern edge of the old town. TGVs call at Avignon TGV, about 2 km out of town. A regular bus ("TGV Navette", €1.20 in January 2011) links the TGV station with the square outside the post office, just opposite central station.
A weekly Eurostar service from London St. Pancras International to Avignon operates every Saturday in the summer. The journey takes approximately 6 hours.
A map of the city, lists of hotels in all price ranges, restaurants, ideas for nightlife, and daytrips to the surrounding countryside can be found at the Office de Tourisme, 41 cours Jean Jaures (in the main street, which begins just inside the walls across from the regular train station).
The city itself is small, and all sites are easily walkable. An automatic bike sharing scheme called Vélopop' allows you to ride along . Smartcard needed.
- Papal Palace (Palais des Papes), Place du palais des papes. This is the palace where the Popes of Avignon ruled, during a period when the Papacy was divided, with a Pope in Rome and another in Avignon. Most of the artwork inside (statues, frescoes) was destroyed during the French Revolution, but the impressive building still stands, and little bits of artwork, such as those that were too high to be convenient to ruin, remain.
A popular tourist destination is the Place du Palais, just next to the Place de L'horloge, though the casual tourist may find these places shockingly expensive, and flooded during the summer months with tourists. Within a short distance in just about any direction are the smaller squares frequented by the locals, and much lower prices. Recommended is the Place Pie, with its covered market (open 6AM to 1PM everyday) which sells fresh produce, cheeses, wines, and produits du pays.
- Le Pont Saint-Benezet (Le Pont d'Avignon). Le Pont Saint-Benezet is a ruined bridge not far from the Palais des Papes. The bridge was built in the Middle Ages - before the arrival of the Papacy - perhaps partly to allow the local bishop to cross the river to Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, where the church authorities had installed themselves because of Avignon's then-infamous dirt and lawlessness. The legend of the bridge's building is that a local shepherd, Benezet (a dialect form of Benedict) was inspired by angels to build a bridge. When his appeals to the town authorities proved fruitless, he picked up a vast block of stone and hurled it into the river, to be the bridge's foundation stone. Convinced by this demonstration of divine will, the bridge was swiftly built. The poor shepherd boy was canonised, and his chapel remains on the surviving portion of the bridge.
If the bridge was divinely inspired, the Deity must have quickly changed his mind, because before long the bridge became unsafe and, following numerous floods, mostly derelict. Originally, the bridge had 22 arches, reaching across to the tower of Philippe le Bel via the mid-stream île de la Barthelasse. Only 4 of the 22 arches now remain. A multilingual audio tour of the bridge explains some of the local history. The well-known song "Sur Le Pont D'Avignon" (on the bridge at Avignon) refers to the bridge. The bridge itself is far too narrow for dancing or festivals - the original text of the song was "Sous (under) le pont d'Avignon", referring to the festivals and entertainments staged on the île de la Barthelasse. The current version was popularised by a 19th-century operetta, whose librettist clearly assumed that 'sous le pont d'Avignon' would have meant in the river.
Avignon has its share of museums, ranging from Modern Art Museums to museums housing artifacts from the Roman and pre-Roman days.
If you are confident about biking, there are a lot of places to bike to.
- Theatre Festival. Avignon is famous the world over for its annual theatre festival. For three or four weeks in July the city is virtually swollen with street performers, actors, musicians, and of course the ubiquitous tourists. The festival is an excuse to turn any room with enough seating into a 'salle de spectacle' and the city is host to a wide variety of entertainment. The gem of this festival are the performances which take place inside the Pope's Palace itself. Tickets are expensive, but this is considered by many French and European thespians to be a crowning achievement of a career. The vast majority of performances are, of course, in French but a number of foreign companies perform in (eg) English. Even without attending any events, the atmosphere and street theatre give the city a marvellous feeling.
- The International Congress Center. Was created in 1976 within the outstanding premises of the Palace of the Popes and hosts many events throughout the entire year.
- Flea Market, Place des Carmes. Every Sunday morning. browse the tables looking for your hidden treasure.
- Food Market, Les Halles d'Avignon, place Pie. Every morning except Monday. Local specialties like olive oil, tapenade, local wines, cheeses, and pastries can be found at the market along with fresh local produce. Cooking classes are available on Saturday mornings.
- Pure Lavande, 61, rue grande Fusterie, ☎ . This boutique specializes in lavender and lavender products.
- Restaurant l'Orangerie, Place Jerusalem. (A few minutes walk from the tourist-centre Place de l'Horloge). This is a small restaurant and the style is Provençal/Corsican. In Summer it has tables on the Square, the rest of the year it has four tables and bar on the ground floor and a few more upstairs.
- Terre de Saveur, 1 rue Saint Michel, (Just south of Places des Corps Saints). Mixed vegetarian and meat menu using fresh local ingredients to produce food highlighting Mediterranean flavours. Main dishes with meat, €14.50, without €13.50. Starters at €8.50 and desserts €6.50. Sit outside on the terrace, or inside in the dining room. They also sell locally made jams and tapenades.
- L'Epicerie, 10, Place Saint Pierre (tucked in a nice little square just south of the Palais des Papes), ☎ . Try the Assiette Epicière for a plate full of provençal specialities such as tapenade, ratatouille, with a salad and some ham. Count around €25 for lunch, more with wine.
- Au Tout Petit, 4, rue d'Amphoux, ☎ . This restaurant is tiny and has a cuisine ré-créative, taking traditional European dishes and giving them a little twist such as red gazpacho with no tomatoes. The dishes can be a bit inventive, ask questions about them before you order. Wine list is also great, reservations recommended for groups. Three-course dinner menu is €24.
- Restaurant Christian Etienne. A well known Provence chef, his restaurant is right next to the Palais des Papes. An excellent vegetarian menu is available.
- esclavebar (gay club), 10 rue du Limas (near place Crillon), ☎ . 11PM-5AM. The best gay and straight friendly club in town, open 7/7, full every night with shows, house and cruising area. Entrance is free of charge all year except July (5€ including a drink) alcohol:8€ soft drinks:5€ beers:7€
frequented in summer by most of theatre festival artists and celebrities. The place is small but on two floors with a smoking area inside. Second floor there is a backroom, first floor a small bar (mostly gay male) with videos. Ground floor dj's, main bar, and a small dance floor. Most people arrive after bars closing hour (1:30AM) so come here later, it's a must! Very friendly staff (1st floor bartender speaks good english)
- Le Vin Devant Soi (wine shop), 4 rue Collège du Roure (just off of Rue de la République, south of the Place de l'Horlorge), ☎ . Until 7PM or 8PM. This wine shop has a permanent tasting machine set up with 32 wines. You purchase tasting credit for however much you like, they give you a card that you can put in the tasting machine to select the wine you want to taste. Tastes come in three different sizes, with different prices for different wines. The staff is very friendly, and there is a nice atmosphere.
- Auberge-Camping Bagatelle, Île de la Barthelasse. This Hotel/ Hostel and Camp Site is situated on Ile de la Bathelasse in the centre of the Rhone . This is perhaps the best place to stay on a budget. It has great facilities and offers perhaps the best view of the center of Avignon. Carries a basic menu restaurant. Another benefit is that is placed directly between Avignon and the opposite town Villeneuve-les-Avignon, both begin within 10 minutes walk. €16.56 with complimentary breakfast.
- Hotel d'Angleterre, 29 Boulevard Raspail (10 minutes walk from bus and trains station). some rooms with bathroom. Small hotel located within the city walls. Has a small private car park. Its use is free of charge if you can find a place for your car. €40.
- Avignon Hotel Monclar, 13-15 Avenue Monclar (just behind the central station, which faces the main avenue of downtown and the bus station), ☎ , fax: 04 26 23 68 31. Family run hotel overlooking a flowered garden, within a private carpark. Internet wi-fi available in the whole building. Recently renovated rooms with the typical Provencal style. 7 languages spoken. Private taxi service. Double room with ensuite shower and bathroom €30-60, studios and apartements from €75, breakfast €7 can be taken in the garden in season 7:30AM 11AM.
- Hotel Boquier Avignon, 6 rue du portail Boquier (in old city, near the tourism office), ☎ . Check-in: 1PM, check-out: 11AM. A charming hotel in a XVIIIth-century house. 55-69.
- Hotel Danieli, Rue de la République. very centrally with air conditioning and a good breakfast. €80 per night for a double during the summer, more expensive during the Festival d'Avignon..
- Mas du Clos de l'Escarrat Route de Carpentras chemin de l'Escarrat. €80 Bed & Breakfast
- Hotel Le Colbert, 7 rue Agricol Perdiguier, ☎ . Individual air conditioning room from € 78.
- Au Saint Roch, 9 rue Paul Mérindol, 84000 Avignon (South West from the middle age city), ☎ , fax: +33 4 90 82 78 30, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Nice hotel with a very quiet garden. From €48 to €65, €750 for breakfast.
- Hotel d 'Europe, 12 Place Crillon, F84000 -AVIGNON. €350. 5-star
- 'La Mirande Hotel, 4 place de la Mirande,F- AVIGNON. €400 and up. 5 star hotel housed in a 700 year old converted townhouse
- Henri Duffaut Hospital, 305 r Raoul Follereau, ☎ .
- Clinique Urbain V, chem Pont des Deux Eaux, ☎ , fax: +33 4 32 74 24 41.
The surrounding region is full of interesting sites, There are three sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List
- Arles is full of Roman and Romanesque monuments and worthy of a full days exploration. 17mn from Avignon by TER.
- Orange just a short train ride to the north is home to one of the finest Roman Theatres in Europe
- Le Pont du Gard is about 30 km to the West it is probably the finest Roman aqueduct still in existence, and a great place for hiking and canoeing.
Other notable sites nearby are:
- Nimes which has a huge Roman amphitheatre and a famous Greek Temple
- Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a short train ride north and is home to some of France's most famous vineyards
- Aix-en-Provence, town of water - town of art, founded by the Romans.