Each summer one of the world's best arts events is held in the heart of Provence. As well as the festivities, Rhiannon Batten discovers plenty of historic delights for everyone in Avignon



For one of the world's top arts events, which starts today and runs until 27 July. The first Festival d'Avignon took place in 1947 and, like the Edinburgh Festival, today features a huge variety of events and an equally large range of venues across the city in which to see them. It's worth booking early for the main performances - this year's festival is even more hotly anticipated than usual, because, like many other arts events across France, it was cancelled last year (00 33 4 90 14 14 14; www.festival-avignon.com). Prices range from €5 (£3.60) to €33 (£24).


From 10 July until 11 September, Eurostar will run direct trains on Saturdays from London and Ashford to Avignon. The journey takes about six hours. If you're just going for a weekend, you can travel one way direct and come back using TGV and Eurostar connections. Prices start from £109 return for adults and £94 return for children (08705 186186; www.eurostar.co.uk). If you'd rather fly, Air France has services from a wide range of UK airports to Avignon via Paris, with return fares starting at around £175 (0845 359 1000; www.airfrance.com/uk). Cheaper alternatives include flying with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted to nearby Nimes, or easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyJet.com) from Gatwick to Marseille. Links from both these airports to Avignon by bus or train are easy.


Avignon is a small and elegant city, most of it still contained within the atmospheric medieval town walls with the River Rhône curving round them to the west. To the north is the celebrated Pont d'Avignon and the Papal Palace. To the west, across the river, are the Ile de la Barthelasse and the pretty suburb of Villeneuve lez Avignon. And, in the south, is the bus station and Avignon Centre rail station, where trains from London arrive. Just north of here is Avignon's main tourist office, at 41 Cours Jean Jaures (00 33 4 3 274 3274; www.ot-avignon.fr). It opens 9am-7pm from Monday to Saturday (9am-5pm in August), 10am-5pm on Sundays.


La Mirande, at 4 place de la Mirande (00 33 4 9 085 9393; www.la-mirande.fr), is the classic Avignon hotel. Set opposite the Papal Palace, it boasts a stunning, 17th-century stone façade and a gourmet restaurant. Luxurious double rooms here start from €280 (£200) per night, without breakfast. Avignon is also home to more than its fair share of upmarket B&Bs. The cosy La Banasterie, set in a 16th-century building at 11 rue de la Banasterie (00 33 4 3 276 3078; www.avignon-et-provence.com/bb/banasterie), is run by a friendly Parisian couple and has decadent rooms from €90 (£64) per night, including breakfast. The Hotel de L'atelier, across at 5 rue de la Foire (00 33 4 9 025 0184, www.hoteldelatelier.com) in Villeneuve lez Avignon is further from the centre but cheaper; simple doubles start from €56 (£40) per night, including breakfast.


... from the Pont d'Avignon, officially known as Pont St-Benezet. The bridge is really nothing of the sort as it ends halfway across the Rhône - the locals eventually stopped trying to rescue it from the river's relentless assault in the 1600s. But what remains makes a great spot to stand back and admire the medieval town walls. The bridge (00 33 4 9 027 5116) opens 9am-6.30pm daily, admission €4 (£2.90). If you plan on doing a few sights, pick up a free Avignon Passion pass here. Once you've paid your first full entrance fee to one of the city's main attractions, you qualify for a discount on the others.


Meander through the old dyers' district in the eastern part of the city. The area's main artery is the pretty, cobbled rue des Teinturiers, which snakes a course beside the River Sorgue as it dribbles its way over water wheels, under bridges and past tiny chapels and an avenue of plane trees. This is one of the most bohemian parts of Avignon - full of artists studios, funky cafés and quirky boutiques. It's a good place to get lost.


Plenty of cafés and restaurants can be found around the rue des Teinturiers. Many offer good-value lunch menus and specialise in Moroccan dishes. The best approach is to keep wandering until you find one that you like but, if you want some direction, try Woolloomooloo at 16 rue des Teinturiers (00 33 4 9 085 2844). Here the "global cuisine" includes everything from Senegalese yassa chicken to crab-stuffed Caribbean squash. A lazy lunch costs around €13 (£9).


The Palais des Papes is a massive Gothic monument, built from the 14th century onwards as a pontifical court. It acts as the city's main landmark, soaring above the rest of the skyline, and it's definitely worth whiling away an afternoon here. Don't come expecting elaborate artefacts, though - standing almost completely empty today, it's the rooms, chapels and cloisters rather than their one-time contents that you come to see. The palace is at 6 rue Pente Rapide (00 33 4 9 027 5000, www.palais-des-papes.com). It's open from 9am to 7pm daily and entrance costs €9.50 (£6.80).


Head to Le Bistrot d'Utopia, a funky bar tucked away behind the palace at 4 rue des Escaliers Sainte-Anne (00 33 4 9 082 6536). Try the local Côtes du Rhône, a bargain at €2.80 (£2) a glass.


L'Epicerie, set on a quiet square (10 Place Saint Pierre; 00 33 4 9 082 7422) is a quintessential French bistro, boasting wooden tables, colourful old adverts for Pernod taped to the walls and no-nonsense service. It's always packed, and you may have to wait for a slot. Typical dishes include cassoulet and steak frites but they do good, hearty salads too. Main courses cost around €15 (£11). For something more upmarket, try La Compagnie Des Comptoirs at 83 Rue Joseph Vernet (00 33 4 9 085 9904). It is set in a 15th-century cloister spectacularly re-worked by architect Imaad Rhamouni (his other credits include Vong in London) and run by Michelin-starred chefs. The food is fairly pricey: count on paying around €70 (£50) for dinner for two, without wine.


The Notre Dame des Doms is a huge, Romanesque-style cathedral dating back to the 12th century. It has a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary on its tower, and boasts the tombs of Pope Benedict XII and Pope John XXII. The cathedral is open every day from 8am to 6pm, with services at 10am on Sundays.


The Puces in Paris may be France's best-known flea market but L'Isle sur La Sorgue, outside Avignon, is a much gentler place to browse. From upmarket antiques to cheap bric-a-brac, its 400 or so stalls are strung out between mossy water wheels and stone bridges. Even if you're not into interiors you'll probably still come away with something, even if it's just a bar of lavender soap. Most shops are open on Sundays from around 10am to 7pm, the stalls only until lunchtime. To get there take the shuttle bus from Avignon's TGV station (about 30 minutes), or one of the regular and slightly quicker trains from Avignon station (around €7 (£5) return).


The bohemian Village des Antiquaires de la Gare, a jumble of different stalls under the roof (and on two floors) of an old carpet factory, is also home to a lively café that serves good salads and cakes. The café's antique-filled interior and sunny outside patio should give you plenty of inspiration for further shopping, since the tables and chairs are as collectable as what's being sold around them. A plate of smoked salmon costs around €10 (£7), or they do a three-course menu for around £13 per head (00 33 4 9 020 7231; www.villagegare.com).


... downriver. From Avignon you can venture by water as far as Arles, the Camargue or, for wine buffs, to Chateauneuf du Pape. If you are pressed for time, take a one-hour, €7.50 (£5.35) trip around the city with Compagnie Grands Bateaux de Provence (00 33 4 9 085 6225; www.avignon-et-provence.com/mireio). Starting from the Allees de l'Oulle, you pass the half-bridge, the Rocher des Doms and Fort St Andre across in Villeneuve lez Avignon. Trips cost €7.50 (£5.35).


Take a bus out to the Pont du Gard (00 33 82 090 3330; www.pontdugard.fr) - the remains of a bridge that once formed part of a 50km-long Roman aqueduct. Built in around AD50, its double-decker arches still form a spectacular link across the site's landscaped grounds. Access to the bridge itself is free; there is also a museum, café and shop on site.

You can get there in about half an hour by bus from Avignon's station (around €4/£2.70 return), although you have to be organised since only two buses run on Sundays.