Avignon & Provence city guide

Frank Partridge heads over the ramparts to seek Avignon's turbulent past and vibrant present
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The Independent Travel

WHERE?

On the atlas, Avignon looks more like a frontier town than a regional capital, lying at the extreme western edge of the Vaucluse, where Peter Mayle spent his famously chronicled year and Pablo Picasso lived out his final days. Defined by a sharp curve in the River Rhône, which flows along its western flank, the low-lying city is encircled by distant giants: Alpine foothills to the east, rocky pinnacles to the west, and one of Europe's most forbidding peaks, the 6,200ft Mont Ventoux, to the north.

For nearly a century in the Middle Ages, Avignon was the temporary home of the Catholic papacy, but after the church re-established itself in Rome, the city was never quite the same, until the expansion of France's rapid rail network at the end of the 20th century put it back on the map again. Today, the TGV covers the ground from Paris to a station 3km south of the old town in two hours 40 minutes, while Eurostar's door-to-door service from Waterloo to Avignon Central takes just over six hours. From there, the ancient ramparts are a two-minute walk away.

Almost everything of interest, old and new, is contained within the roughly circular three-mile line of defensive ramparts, with numerous portes allowing vehicles access from the ring road to a disorderly sprawl of streets, lanes and alleyways. Getting lost in this 800-year-old warren is an essential part of the Avignon experience. Rediscovering your bearings never takes long: all roads eventually feed back to the stately rue de la République.

The north end of that street feeds into the bustling Place de l'Horloge, a natural tourist haven with its Parisian-style carousel, theatre, and scores of cafés. Down a side street, the popular Hôtel de l'Horloge (1-3, rue Felicien David; 00 33 4 90 16 42 00; www.hotels-ocre-azur.com) charges €113 (£79) for a double room. Breakfast is an extra €13 (£9) per person. Pricier, but more in keeping with the city's ecclesiastical history, is the Hôtel Clarion Cloître Saint Louis, at 20 rue du Portail Boquier (00 33 4 90 27 55 55; www.cloitre-saint-louis.com). This imaginative amalgam of the 16th and 20th centuries is pure Avignon. The bedrooms in the original building, a former Jesuit school and cloister, somehow retain the atmosphere of monks' cells, while those in the new block feel more like penthouses. The high season rate for a standard double is €147 (£103) per night. Breakfast is an extra €16 (£11) per head. In common with most Avignon hotels, prices rise by about 15 per cent during the July festival.

The main tourist office is at 41 cours Jean-Jaures (00 33 4 32 74 32 74; www.avignon-tourisme.com). Summer opening hours are 9am-6pm from Monday to Saturday; 10am-5pm on Sunday.

WHY?

Successive layers of history, from the Roman period onwards, are squeezed into a remarkably confined space, but modern Avignon incorporates its past, rather than fossilising it. Thus, the new médiathèque (interactive library) is housed in one of four surviving Cardinal's Palaces, the university was a hospital in the 17th century, while restaurants and hotels have made design features out of mediaeval chapels and cloisters. An outstanding example is La Compagnie des Comptoirs (83 rue Joseph-Vernet; 00 33 4 90 85 99 04), which blends old and new in a typically Avignon way. Set around a 14th century courtyard, the décor reflects France's colonial past, while African and Oriental flavours do exciting things to traditional Provencal dishes. Main courses are around €25 (£17).

WHAT?

From the Place de l'Horloge, walk north across the cobbled Place du Palais and climb to the city's highest point and greatest treasures. You reach first the Petit Palais, built for an archbishop and arguably more beautiful than the old popes' home overshadowing it. It is now a museum (00 33 4 90 86 44 58; open every day except Tuesday) which is largely devoted to the Italian Renaissance, and includes a Botticelli. Next, you wind through the lovely Bishop's Garden, featuring the "Pope's Vineyard" - Grenache and Syrah are the grapes of choice - offering the best views of the river and surrounding region. Looming over the north-east skyline, rugged Mont Ventoux, is snow-capped all year round. In the foreground looking north is the pride of the Côtes du Rhône wine region, Châteauneuf du Pape.

The popes' sprawling palace (00 33 4 90 27 50 00; www.palais-des-papes.com) is actually two edifices-in-one. It opens between 9am-7-pm, closing an hour later in July and August, admission €9.50 (£6.60). Pope Benedict XII commissioned the older, Romanesque model, in 1335; his successor Clement VI, a man of lavish tastes, tacked on a Gothic extension seven years later. The Palace's Grande Chapelle alone is larger than Avignon Cathedral, and its central courtyard, where the popes blessed the faithful after Sunday Mass, plays its part in contemporary life, becoming a 2,000-seat open-air theatre during the annual Festival (00 33 4 90 27 66 50; www.festival-avignon.com). This prodigious celebration of the performing arts, held at 120 venues around the city, rivals Edinburgh's in its scale and ambition. This year, the 60th Festival (6-27 July) will feature nearly 600 theatre companies from all over the world.

Steep steps descend from the west of the rock, beyond the city walls to the restless river. Over the centuries, the Rhône has disturbed enough rock and soil to create the largest river island in France, Barthelasse, which for 15km divides the waterway into two separate arms. The airy, green island is a restful contrast to the tight, bustling streets. Take the free river ferry that runs back and forth from mid-morning to dusk, leaving from the foot of the famous bridge. Numerous other sightseeing boats leave from Oulle Dock, varying from one-hour outings to half-day cruises with lunch or dinner on board.

Back inside the walls, shopping opportunities are as accessible as historic landmarks. The big stores are ranged along the rue de la République, but the most interesting shops lie down the twists and turns immediately to the west of it. For fresh produce, head east of the main street to the indoor market, Les Halles (every day except Monday, 6am-2pm).

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