Hamish Scott visits Avignon, once venue for France's own Vatican
Avignon is a dramatic city. Its ramparts, towers and turrets soar above the river Rhone, a jagged skyline that, depending on the wind and light, can promise either Disneyesque enchantments or the horrors of de Sade. Once the seat of papal power, and independent from the rest of France until the Revolution, Avignon still retains the aura of a city state, boastful of its ancient splendours and electric with the energy of metropolitan excitement. Though famous for its summer festival of arts, it is a city that is at its best in spring. Before the camera-toting crowds arrive there is time and space to watch its citizens perform their own unscripted theatre.

The show begins early in the morning, when the market in Place Pie opens. A cast of hundreds mills around the stalls, arguing and gossiping, sniffing truffles, stroking hairy shanks of goat, embracing friends and inspecting lobsters. Buying groceries in a supermarket could never be this much fun. In a maze of nearby streets, shoppers throng the fashionable boutiques and, at the merest hint of spring sunshine, bars and cafes spill out on the pavements.

Despite its prosperous exuberance, its trendiness and well-conserved facades, Avignon is still haunted by the ghosts of its extraordinary history. Just minutes from a busy boulevard, you inevitably get lost in dark, deserted lanes of ancient shuttered houses. Mutilated saints above the entrance to a church testify to old atrocities. High above the rooftops, standing sentinel over the city, the river crossing and the plain, looms the Palace of the Popes, the magnificent and monstrous embodiment of Avignon's strange soul.

The palace dates from the 14th century, when Avignon enjoyed its golden age as the seat of seven popes, plus a brace of anti-popes. This massively intimidating fortress commemorates the darker side of European Christianity. It was stripped and plundered in the Revolution, and its stark, cavernous austerity conjures up a world of Mervyn Peake or Kafka. Labyrinthine corridors link chapels and vast halls where ambitious clerics mingled with princes, artists, alchemists and heretics in Avignon's anarchic court 600 years ago. Now only ghosts remain. The kitchen that could feed 3,000 guests is silent. The treasury is bare. A hint of papal indulgence can still be glimpsed, however, in a few surviving murals, particularly in the Chambre du Cerf. Decorated with delightful hunting scenes and other such secular pursuits, this was the pontiff's private study, designed as a reminder of life's pleasures in contrast to the daily grind of acting as God's representative on Earth.

Fascinating though the palace is, it comes as a relief to escape from its grim shadows, stepping out into the sunshine. Rising up above the Place du Palais, the gardens of the Rocher des Doms provide a hawk's-eye view across the city's red-tiled roofscape and the valley of the Rhone. From here a short, though steep, descent leads down to the famous bridge, the Pont St Benezet, shortened to just four spans by floods in 1680 and now a stage for giggling lovers, waltzing for a moment before the baffled gaze of a Japanese coach party.

Confined by its medieval walls, Avignon is small enough to be explored on foot, though a street-plan is essential. The Office de Tourisme, on the main north-south thoroughfare, is a useful source of help and information. Back streets behind the tourist office meander towards Avignon's most intriguing quarter, around the rue des Teinturiers. This quiet cobbled lane, shaded by old plane trees, runs beside a little stream complete with water wheels and toy-town bridges.

Away from such quiet, idyllic spots, Avignon dances to a lively beat, with music throbbing from its bars and clubs deep into the night. For those aspiring to the higher slopes of culture there are churches and museums aplenty, and an ever-changing round of concerts, plays and operas stimulated by the reputation of the city's annual festival. At Utopia, in rue Figuiere, English-language films can often be seen before they are released in Britain, and the cinema is worth a visit simply for its restaurant. Cavernous enough for any Pope, and decorated with enormous, faded mirrors, its shabby glamour is no doubt exquisitely ironic, but the food is everything one might expect of a genuine, old-fashioned brasserie. Just beyond its doors, the palace forms a dark and massive silhouette against the stars. Laughter echoes from a narrow alley cut into the living rock. The stage is set, the scene is Avignon. Anything might happen next.

Vers le pont d'Avignon

Getting there Flying from Britain to Avignon requires a change of plane in Paris - and since all flights to Avignon depart from Orly airport, it will probably also involve a change of airports. If you travel from London on Air France (0181-742 6600), you have to transfer from Charles de Gaulle. The lowest fare is pounds 171.60, which includes the coach trip between Paris airports. A cheaper alternative is to use Eurostar from London Waterloo, changing at Paris or Lille for a direct service to Avignon. The journey time is about nine hours, and the fare is pounds 109 return through BR International (0171-834 2345) or the Rail Shop (0990 300003 or 0990 717273); note that our researcher spent 25 minutes holding in a phone queue before a Rail Shop operator answered - pounds 2.20-worth of waiting.

Staying there Small, central and good value hotels in Avignon include the Hotel Garlande (00 33 4 90 85 08 85), where a double room is 300F with breakfast 40F per person extra; and the Hotel de Blauvac (00 33 4 90 86 34 11), where a double room with bath is 295F with breakfast 38F each.

More information The tourist office in Avignon, at 41 Cours Jean-Jaures, is very helpful, whether you call in (it's a five-minute walk straight down the road from the railway station) or telephone (00 33 4 90 82 65 11 from the UK). The French Government Tourist Office in the UK is at 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0891 244123, a premium-rate number).