Popes, antipopes, a rather famous bridge and a feted cultural life - what more do you want?



Avignon is one of nine European Cities of Culture this year and is hosting a non-stop series of artistic and musical events, as well as its well-established annual festival (which runs until 30 July). For details, call the Tourist Office on 00 33 4 32 74 32 74. On a less exalted but more practical note, the pound is currently running high against the franc, so British visitors may be pleasantly surprised at the price of accommodation and eating out.


The journey by train from Waterloo takes about eight hours, changing either at Lille or Paris (involving a transfer between Gare du Nord and Gare de Lyon). Booked a week ahead from Rail Europe (0990 848848), a return ticket costs £120. Or fly to Nîmes on Ryanair (08701 569569), daily from Stansted for fares starting at £75 return. A shuttle bus service (about £3) links Nîmes-Garons airport to the city's railway station, where trains leave hourly for Avignon (£7 return). But beware: flights are cancelled from 4-24 August this year.


Everything is within easy walking distance. The medieval city is enclosed by fortified walls and girded to the north and west by the Rhÿne. The focal points of the Palais des Papes (1) and Pont St-Bénézet (2) lie to the north, with streets radiating out from the place du Palais (3) and the adjoining place de I'Horloge (4). To the east are several pedestrianised shopping streets and an impressive concentration of restaurants and cafés. Running due south is the main thoroughfare, the rue de la République, which becomes the Cours Jean-Jaurÿs as it approaches the southern city walls and the railway station (5). The efficient and helpful Office de Tourisme (6) is at 41 Cours Jean-Jaurÿs (00 33 4 32 74 32 74, www.ot-avignon.fr).


One of the loveliest places to stay is the 16th-century Hÿtel d'Europe (7), at 12 place Crillon (00 33 4 90 14 76 76, www.hotel-d-europe.fr), where antique-furnished double rooms cost from £70 to £220. The two-star Hÿtel de Mons (8), at 5 rue de Mons (00 33 4 90 82 57 16) is tucked away in a side street off the bustling place de I'Horloge, and its vaulted breakfast room testifies to its origins as a 13th-century chapel. Double rooms, some questionably decorated, cost from £26 to £30. Good value is offered by the central and friendly Hÿtel Mignon (9), at 12 rue Joseph Vernet (00 33 4 90 82 17 30), where small double rooms start at £18.


The Pont St-Bénézet (2) is the bridge of the famous children's song. It dates from the 12th century but only four of its original 22 arches are intact. It is fun to stand on the bridge and watch the mighty Rhÿne gliding below or to look up at the formidable papal fortifications and a panorama of red-tiled roofs. Don't forget to visit the delicate Romanesque chapel next to it which honours St Nicholas, patron saint of bargemen. It's open 9am to 7pm and costs £1.70.


From the place de l'Horloge it's a five-minute walk past the Palais des Papes to the Rocher des Doms (22), a pretty public park perched on top of a vast rock. The plants are fragrant, the views of the palace and river are magnificent, and because many lazier tourists are discouraged by the steep steps that lead there, it's very peaceful.


Brunch isn't really a French concept, of course, but lunch is served early enough in the many outdoor restaurants on the place de l'Horloge. Expect to pay around £8 for a simple two-course lunch while you sit back and enjoy the view of the ornate town hall and a beautifully decorated children's roundabout.


Avignon's modern-looking buses move slowly through the busy central streets. If you're not concerned about looking cool, you could catch the miniature railway that trundles around the main tourist sites (30-minute trips cost £3.50, from the Office de Tourisme and the Palais des Papes). Rather more stylish are the Grands Bateaux de Provence's Rhÿne cruises, ranging from a two-hour river trip around the city to an all-day outing to Arles. Prices average £35 per head for a trip with lunch, and boats leave from the Port St-Bénézet (10) (00 33 4 90 85 62 25).


Off the hectic main streets there are plenty of quieter places for a stroll. The rue Joseph-Vernet has some of the city's most stylish shops, but also a number of old hotels with peaceful courtyards and gardens. A visit to the Musée Calvet (11) (open 10am-1pm, 2pm-6pm, £3 entrance) is certainly worth considering, as much for the lovely 18th-century palace buildings as for the fine collection of paintings and sculpture on display inside.


As befits an erstwhile centre of Christianity, there are many churches in Avignon, not least the imposing cathedral, Notre-Dame des Doms (19), by the papal palace, where Mass is celebrated at 10 and 11.30am. Catholicism has a near monopoly, but there is an ancient synagogue on place de Jérusalem (20). Non-believers may prefer the flea market held every Sunday morning at the place des Carmes (21).


At the top end is La Vieille Fontaine at the Hÿtel d'Europe. Dinner under the chandeliers (and with a tie) will set you back about £40 per person, plus wine, and specialities include Breton lobster. Less pricey and formal is the Apprentis de la Bonneterie (17) (28 rue de la Bonneterie, 00 33 4 90 27 37 97), which has a school theme (menus as exercise books). The food includes Provençal specialities and good meat and fish and costs £12 a head, including wine. Nearby, La Goulette (18) (5 cloître St-Pierre, 00 33 4 90 86 06 67) is recommended for its couscous and costs around £10 a head.


The Café La Régence (12) (32 cours Jean-Jaurÿs, 00 33 4 90 82 67 16) does good-value plats du jour and salads for about £5, while the nearby Le Cintra (13) (44 cours Jean-Jaurÿs, 00 33 4 90 14 03 85) serves traditional brasserie snacks and sandwiches. The Provençal speciality of the pan bagna (a sort of ciabatta bap filled with tuna, tomato, olives and olive oil) is widely available at sandwich bars for about £2.50. If the heat starts to get to you, make a beeline for the Glacier Igloo on rue de la République. It has 30 delicious flavours of ice cream to choose from, at £1.20 a cone.


There's a bar or café on just about every street corner in Avignon, but the Place Pie (16) is as good a place as any to enjoy watching the sun setting from one of the dozen or so cafés that surround it. You can watch the late shoppers and groups of students while sipping a pleasantly poisonous pastis (£1) or perhaps a chilled local rosé from the Cÿtes du Rhÿne (£1.50).


The rue de la République has some good chain stores, but more relaxed is the pedestrian district around rue de la Bonneterie (14) and parallel streets. Here, you'll find a good selection of shops, both traditional and trendy, selling everything from kitchenware and cutlery to the latest Pokémon accessories. The Coupe d'Or on place de Jérusalem (15) is an upmarket wine shop, specialising in Rhÿne wines, while the Coutellerie Chanoni on rue de la Bonneterie sells an astonishing array of kitchen knives.


The city's main attraction is the Palais des Papes, home to seven popes and two antipopes between 1309 and 1417. This vast Gothic fortress testifies to the military dimensions of 14th-century Christianity and looms impressively over the medieval city. Inside, however, enormous empty rooms demand imagination, despite a detailed commentary on a hand-held tape recorder. Centuries of neglect, followed by the French Revolution, destroyed most of the interior detail, it seems, and chapels and private apartments are bare. Even so, the huge courtyards and views from the battlements make the tour worthwhile at £4.50. It's open daily from 9am to 7pm (more information on 00 33 4 90 27 50 74).