You've sung the song, now visit the city

Fred Herbert finds out why the medieval town of Avignon is leading the way as Europe's top city of culture

Avignon. An autumn night. On our first visit, we drove round the floodlit ramparts girdling the city, then in via Porte de la République. We curb-crawled respectably along rue de la République, history on our right, glitz on our left. The buzzing cafés seemed to have beamed down from boulevard St-Michel in Paris.

Avignon. An autumn night. On our first visit, we drove round the floodlit ramparts girdling the city, then in via Porte de la République. We curb-crawled respectably along rue de la République, history on our right, glitz on our left. The buzzing cafés seemed to have beamed down from boulevard St-Michel in Paris.

At Place de l'Horloge, with its imposing Hÿtel de Ville and Gothic clock tower, its terraced restaurants - French, Italian, Vietnamese - its buskers and punters, we had to swing right, bumping along tight, centuries-old streets that seemed to expand to let us pass. Into rue Peyrollerie - a gorge topped by the Popes' Palace. Out again, with the Palace gleaming behind us and the Place du Palais still thronged with sightseers. Into the rock and out of the ramparts past that bridge, the soft lights under its arches reflected in the Rhÿne, and we were completely seduced.

This May, returning 15 years later, nothing had changed. It had just got better.

When to go

For a romantic break, a taste of history and some up-market window-shopping around rues Joseph-Vernet and Bonneterie, go in spring or autumn when tourists and temperatures have thinned out and figs are ripe. Take a Saturday stroll along the vegetable markets lining the ramparts. Breakfast on a terrace in Place Pie. Buy some Cavaillon melons in Les Halles. Pick up a trinket at Sunday's fleamarket in Place des Carmes. Do what any self-respecting tourist does - pretend you're a local.

But to find out what has rocketed this medieval town into the 21st century, heading AD2000's list of nine European Cities of Culture, stand the heat and step into the kitchen between 6 and 30 July. Feel the temperatures rise during the Avignon Festival, the 53rd since actor-director Jean Vilar started it all back in 1947.

Vilar and fellow-actor Gérard Phillipe blew away what was left of Nazi and Pétainist philistinism with a celebration of creativity and popular theatre. This year, Pina Bausch's wonderful Tanztheater of Wuppertal is back. Other treats include the Zingaro Equestrian Theatre, and Euripides' Medea with Isabelle Huppert.

Performances are enhanced by their settings, the Carmelite cloister in Place des Carmes, for example. Festival information is available from 8 bis rue de Mons, 84000 Avignon (tel: 0033 4 90 27 66 50; net: www.festival-avignon.com).

For some glorious knockabout and off-beat stuff - young performers busting everything to tickle or move you, there are 300 Festival Off (fringe) shows. Some take place in spaces so tiny they might be the cast's bedsit, so be warned - actors occasionally fall into your lap.

Whether it's a main or fringe event, your rusty French won't be a problem. Everyone caters for international audiences. Performances are high on beauty, drama and visual wit. For Festival Off information (tel: 0033 1 48 05 01 19; net: www.avignon-off.org).

And if it all gets too hot for you, there is always Utopia, 4 rue des Escaliers St Anne (tel: 04 90 82 65 36) - one of the best picture-palaces in the world which shows the goldenest of golden oldies and the very best of what's new.

Getting there

Ryanair (tel: 0870 1569569; net:www.ryanair.com) does it again: Stansted to Nîmes, flight time two hours but a dauntingly early take-off (6.45am). Book online and you can find returns for £60. Phone and you can still do it for £80 return. Take the shuttle(£2.50) to Nîmes and the train to Avignon (£9 return), which takes half an hour. Alternatively, there's a Gatwick-Marseille flight with British Airways (tel: 0845 773 3377) from £190 return. Marseille to Avignon by train costs £19 return and takes 60 minutes. Or take the Eurostar (tel: 0870 1606600) to Lille and then another direct train to Avignon, from £120 return. Contact Rail Europe (tel: 0990 848 848). Journey time takes seven to eight hours.

Where to stay

In spring or autumn, for a real treat, the gorgeous Hÿtel d'Europe, Place Crillon (tel: 0033 4 90 14 76 76; e-mail: reservations@hotel-d-Europe.fr). (But if you're coming for the festival, don't bother - July is booked out.) Once a 17th-century aristocrat's residence, its prices are pretty gorgeous too, from £69 for a room to £330 for the elegance of Jacques Chirac's favourite suite.

You can always peek into the enticing courtyard, with its enormous plane tree offering shade. It's obvious why Napoléon, Victor Hugo, Picasso and Tennessee Williams stayed here. So book a room for next year, or check out the equally sumptuous Mirande (tel: 0033 4 90 85 93 93; net: www.la-mirande.fr), next door to the Popes' Palace. At least pop in for an apéro and compare gardens.

It's the same story in July for most hotels within the ramparts, but there are plenty of handy places beyond them. The three-star Mercure Avignon Sud, 2 rue Marie de Medicis (tel: 0033 4 90 89 26 26) has vacancies (doubles from £50) from 15 July. Excellent value with a good restaurant, parking and a pool.

The two-star Campanile (tel: 0033 4 90 32 94 94) at St- Tronquet is typically reliable and still has rooms (from £20) during the second half of July.

For a peaceful setting, try La Ferme Jamet on l'Ile de la Barthelasse, a lovely 6th-century farmhouse with its own park and pool (doubles from £48 with continental breakfast).

If you're on a tight budget, there's Hameau Champfleury (tel: 0033 4 90 85 35 02), a social centre which offers individual rooms - singles £14, doubles £10 - a five-minute walk from Porte-St Roch.

What to see and do

Start with the Popes' Palace. Built by France's seven popes in the 14th century, the palace has been called "the biggest and most beautiful house in the world". Inside, check out the papal portraits. They look suspiciously identikit, despite added beards etc. Swoon over the beautiful but vandalised frescoes in the chapels. My favourite room is the "Chambre des Cerfs". William Morris would have gazed at it and whispered, "Jane, I'm thinking of going into wallpaper".

If your legs aren't wobbly after all those courtyards and cloisters, climb up to the Rock Garden rising beside the Cathédrale Notre-Dame des Doms. The tranquillity of the place, the views of the city, the Rhÿne and the delightful Provençal countryside will make a welcome break.

Musée Calvet in rue Joseph-Vernet is also a relief from the heat of the streets, as well as housing fine works of art. Take in David's stunning The Death of young Barra, then sit in the shade of the plane trees in the courtyard Stendhal found so restful.

Finally, if you want to know about that celebrated bridge and how St Bénézet hefted a stone 30 men could not lift to lay the foundation, visit Eglise St-Didier, where you'll find a comic-strip stained glass version of the story near the altar (and take a look at the powerful tableau, depicting Mary's pain, known as "Notre-Dame-du-Spasme", just inside the door to the right.

Alternatively, just wander the streets and enjoy the sublime marriage of serene antiquity and jazzy modernity - that's Avignon.

Food and drink

Go mad choosing. Otherwise, starting from the top, Christian Etienne, 10 rue Mons (tel: 04 90 86 16 50), close to the Palace, is high on any gastronome's list, with Provençal dishes and a wonderful way of serving lobster. Menus range from £18 to £50 a head, with some excellent wines (£10-£40 a bottle).

Les Apprentis de la Bonneterie, 28 rue de la Bonneterie (tel: 04 90 27 37 97), offers more traditional Provençale cuisine and is very popular with les Avignonais. Menus at £8-£10. Try the delicious aioli de lapin.

The Woolloo Mooloo in rue des Teinturiers (tel: 04 90 85 28 44), with its little canal and watermills, is great fun. Global cuisine, a different exotic theme every night. But for the lushest ambience, Le Bercail, with its terrace on the banks of l'Ile Barthelasse, gives you a grand view of the river, the Rock Garden and the famous bridge to aid your digestion.

Out of town

Obviously Orange is well worth the half-hour drive north-east on the D225. The Roman amphitheatre is impressive, inside and out. In the opposite direction, the Pont-du-Gard is another extraordinary relic of Roman Provence. Picnic beside the river and take a dip. The drive back gives you a grand sight of le Palais des Papes, and you could take a detour via Villeneuve-lÿs-Avignon for a look at its castle.

Deals and packages

Travelscene (tel: 020 8427 8800) offers three-night breaks at the four-star Cloître St-Louis for £349 per person based on two sharing, including Eurostar standard class from Waterloo to Lille, and the Lille-Avignon TGV (total journey time eight hours). Other good packages are available from Creative Tours (tel: 020 7495 1779) and Cresta Holidays (tel: 0870 161 0900).

Further information

The Office du Tourisme is at 41 cours Jean-Jaurÿs, 84000 Avignon, France (tel: 0033 4 90826511; e-mail: information@ot-avignon.fr; net: www. avignon-tourisme.com). In the UK, contact the French Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V OAL (tel: 0891 244 123, premium-rate number).

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