Words: Susie Hollands
Images: Susie Hollands and La Mirande
Perhaps best known for its annual theatre festival, the light that captivated impressionist Vincent Van Gogh during his convalescence, and of course that bridge – Avignon is well worth the trip from Paris or further afield, particularly now that it boasts excellent connections to the Eurostar from London (changing in Lille is best). The town, set on the banks of the Rhône river, has played an important part in history, becoming the papal seat in the 14th century (and remaining a part of the papacy until the French Revolution) when Queen Joanna, Countess of Provence sold Avignon for 80 000 Florins to Pope Clement VI – the imposing Palais des Papes is an ongoing reminder of this religious identity.
Emerge from the train into that sunlight and choose where you are going to explore first. Contained within the perfectly preserved original papal walls, Avignon is easy to get around on foot, and if you stray from the pedestrianized tourist zones it offers plenty of vibrant places filled with friendly people, with a heavy dose of arts and culture. Like all the best locations, Avignon’s dazzling light is balanced by more melancholy shade: wander the rather eerie backstreets to see a different side of the city and to discover some of the best restaurants and bars such as La Fourchette and Tapenade. The city is centred around the Place d’Horloge, opposite the town hall – choose restaurants carefully around this popular area though!
Dominating the town is the Palais des Papes – though to be honest entering inside doesn’t offer a huge amount more than viewing the impenetrable, stocky structure externally. High up on the hill near the Palais you can find lots of little shops and restaurants off the beaten track. For those who are a fan of Van Gogh’s Saint-Remy period, you can visit the nearby village easily in a day, to soak up the same inspiration that struck the great master as well as a charming town filled with antique shops and excellent restaurants. You can even pay homage by visiting his sanatorium. If you prefer natural delights, Avignon is also well-placed to discover Les Alpilles, a craggy mountain range located not too far away.
The Festival d’Avignon is held each July, but to avoid the crowds a visit in March/April or September is also pleasant and makes the most of the nice weather. There are plenty of theatres and performance venues operating all year round. Take home locally produced olive oils, tapenade and wines, as well as the famous Provençale lavender – these items can be found at the markets held daily (except Monday).
Hotel La Mirande
4 Place l’Amirande, Avignon
Ph: 04 90 14 20 20
Very well located, this chintzy and grand 5 star hotel is located spookily down a backstreet close to the Palais de Papes, the former cardinals’ palace. Rooms are appointed with luxurious French decoration and detail including Toile de Jouy and Indienne fabrics.
Maison du Paradou
2 Route de Saint-Roch, Le Paradou
Ph: 04 90 54 65 46
Nick and Andrew Morris are the exceptional hosts of this intimate yet luxurious bed and breakfast situated out of town in Le Paradou (near the Bistrot of the same name – see below). They will put you at ease immediately and manage to effortlessly create a house party atmosphere amongst their diverse guests. Suitable for a couples get away but also perfect for a family with special treats for all ages. There’s often an international crowd and five rooms to accommodate them. Interiors are beautiful, with sympathetic design and attention to detail. Next door is their Maison Bleue, a three bedroom cottage available for rent.
10 Place Saint-Pierre, Avignon
Ph: 04 90 82 74 22
17 Rue Racine, Avignon
Ph: 04 90 85 20 93
9 Place Carnot, Avignon
Ph: 09 52 13 09 61
2 Rue Petite Fusterie
Ph: 04 90 85 87 12
Le Bistrot du Paradou
57 Avenue de la Vallée des Baux
Hours: Mon-Fri lunch, Sat & Sun lunch and dinner
Ph: 04 90 54 32 70
Celebrated restaurant located out of town but not far from Avignon. Renowned for its informal, fresh bistro-style cuisine, you’ll be in good company as Charles Aznavour dines there and Jean Renaud’s wedding was held there. There is a prix-fixe menu that changes daily.
Hotel Mirande has its own cooking school, Le Marmiton, which hosts guests chefs and has an emphasis on the cooking and ingredients of Provence. Seasonally themed, they run special classes themed around asparagus or truffles.
Histoire de Vins
60 Rue Carnot
Ph: 06 03 91 28 39
This caviste has a wide selection of wines staffed by young and dynamic owner Rémi who hails from Lille. He has wines from the Provence region and beyond, including some that are less well known as well as the robust reds but from all over France. He also speaks English.
Musee Fondation Calvet
65 Rue Joseph Vernet, Avignon
Ph: 04 90 86 33 84
5 Rue Violette, Avignon
Ph:04 90 16 56 20
Contemporary art museum housed in an old hôtel particulier.
Pont de L’Avignon
Boulevard de la Ligne, Avignon
Famous due to the eponymous song.
Le Place de Corps Saints
A street paved entirely in the delicate traditional stonework of ‘calades’ or galets du Rhône.
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday from 6am
Large, covered market selling all manner of Provençale and Avignoise specialties.
Jardin de l’Abbaye Saint-André
Rue Montée du Fort
Ph: 04 90 25 55 95
Splendid gardens attached to an ancient house, which offer panoramic views of Avignon and the Palais de Papes.
This street is the centre of the action for the Festival d’Avignon, and is also the historic base of the city’s fabric and textile craftsmanship. Indiennes, silks and cottons were all created on this street.
20 Rue des Marchands, Avignon
Ph: 04 90 85 39 38
Avignon’s oldest shop, this hat shop is classified as a historic monument.