Avignon is the capital of the French département of Vaucluse in Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, and is on the banks of the Rhône river. Avignon was one of the European Cities of Culture in 2000 and its historical centre has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Prior to the latter's annexation by France in 1791, Avignon was the papal capital of the independent Comtat Venaissin.
Avignon is famous as the city to which the Popes fled when leaving the corruption of Rome in the 14th century. Le Palais des Papes (Palace of Popes) which was built then is the world's largest Gothic building. It was largely emptied over the centuries, and its vast stone rooms are filled with little more than old frescos, but it is still an imposing building. The Ramparts themselves were erected to keep the plague and invaders out during the turbulent Middle Ages, when Avignon belonged to the papacy and not the French crown.
Its early history is much older than the popes, however. Avignon occupies a strategic location for several reasons - it is at the confluence of two once-mighty rivers: the Rhône, still one of the biggest rivers in France, and the now largely-dammed Durance. Both were important routes of trade and communication even in prehistoric times. In addition, there is a long island in the Rhone that made it possible to ferry people and goods across, and later bridge the river, more easily than in other places.
The city has a population of 92,000 people (2017), 16,000 of which live 'intra-muros,' or within the ramparts built in the 14th century.
The city is now sprinkled with buildings and monuments ranging from the new to the old, the very old, and the ageless.
Avignon has been continuously inhabited since the stone age, when inhabitations were built in caves in the “Rocher des Doms”, a massive outcropping of rock rising over the banks of the Rhône. Today, a public park with benches, views over the surrounding countryside, a café and playground is on top of the Rocher.
The Romans had a presence in Avignon, though the walls they built lie buried somewhere under the modern streets. Vestiges of the forum can still be seen, lying unassumingly near the Rue Racine and the Rue Saint-Étienne, to the west of the city.
Then, in medieval times, the town grew to an important center of communication and trade. The stone bridge spanning the Rhone was one of only three between the Mediterranean and Lyon. It was undoubtedly for its strategic location and ease of travel that it was chosen by the papacy as home within the then kingdom of Provence. The presence of the papacy made Avignon into a city of great political and economic activity. The old city wall, now visible only as a street that circles the centre of the town (changing names 5 times in the process!) was much too small and a larger wall, still visible today, was necessary to protect its bulging population. Wealthy Cardinals built extravagant palaces known as livrées both within Avignon and across the river, in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon.
The city teemed with activity and building as architects, builders, artists flocked to the town. At that time, within the city walls there were over 100 churches and chapels - many of which have been transformed since then into everything from shops to a movie theatre! The wealth and activity generated by the presence of the papacy spilled out into the region, so that even small villages nearby boast a rich architectural past.
- 1 Office de Tourisme d'Avignon, 41, cours Jean Jaurès BP8, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Apr-Oct: M-Sa 09:00-18:00, Su holidays 10:00-17:00; Festival: daily 09:00-19:00; Nov-Mar: M-F 09:00-18:00, Sa 09:00-17:00, Su 10:00-12:00. In the season there is also an information point at the TGV Station
- 2 Gare d'Avignon Centre (Avignon central station), Boulevard Saint-Roch. Local and regional trains call at the central station, just outside the walls on the southern edge of the old town.
- 3 Gare d'Avignon TGV (Avignon TGV Station), Avenue de la Gare, 84000 (about 2 km out of town; a regular shuttle train to the Avignon central station). Avignon lies on the TGV line from Paris (2½ hr) to Marseille. It is also served by numerous local and regional services. Eurostar operates several services a week from London St. Pancras International, with a journey time of around 6 hours
Avignon is connected to most other European cities with Eurolines. For regional travelers, following your common source, you can take: the Vaucluse département cars circulating in the appelation "TransVaucluse Network"; departmental cars Bouches-du-Rhône, whose schedules are available on Lepilote; departmental cars du Gard, working under the name of "Edgar". All lines to the terminal bus station Avignon, which is near the train station and the walls surrounding the city center.
While there is no regular boat line in Avignon, you can arrive by boat in Avignon via river cruises.
From Paris or Lyon, you can reach Avignon by the Autoroute du Soleil and take the Avignon-Nord exit and follow the N107 then the D225 towards AVIGNON Centre. This urban road leads straight to the famous Avignon bridge just before where you have a large pay car park (car park the Palais des Papes), which leads directly onto the Place du Palais des Papes in the heart of the city.
Other parking solutions, the municipality has set up 2 "relay parking + free shuttle" lots, with one bus every 10 minutes from 10:00 to 22:00. The first "Parking Italians" , accessible the D225 road which runs. Circuit the shuttle drops users in the intramural centre, near the Town Hall Square; the second is located on the Ile de la Barthelasse (head Villeneuve lès Avignon and follow the signs). The shuttle drops users at Gate Oulle, about 200 m from the bridge of Avignon (Saint Bénézet bridge).
The old city centre is not very big and can be easily explored on foot. An automatic bike sharing scheme called Vélopop' allows you to ride along. Smartcard needed.
- 1 Papal Palace (Palais des Papes), Place du palais des papes. This is the palace where the Popes of Avignon ruled, during a period when the Papacy was divided, with a Pope in Rome and another in Avignon. Most of the artwork inside (statues, frescoes) was destroyed during the French Revolution, but the impressive building still stands, and little bits of artwork, such as those that were too high to be convenient to ruin, remain.
- 2 Le Pont Saint-Bénezet (Le Pont d'Avignon). It is a ruined bridge not far from the Palais des Papes. The bridge was built in the Middle Ages — before the arrival of the Papacy — perhaps partly to allow the local bishop to cross the river to Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, where the church authorities had installed themselves because of Avignon's then-infamous dirt and lawlessness.
The legend of the bridge's building is that a local shepherd, Benezet (a dialect form of Benedict) was inspired by angels to build a bridge. When his appeals to the town authorities proved fruitless, he picked up a vast block of stone and hurled it into the river, to be the bridge's foundation stone. Convinced by this demonstration of divine will, the bridge was swiftly built. The poor shepherd boy was canonised, and his chapel remains on the surviving portion of the bridge.
If the bridge was divinely inspired, the Deity must have quickly changed his mind, because before long the bridge became unsafe and, following numerous floods, mostly derelict.
The bridge was built with 22 arches, reaching across to the tower of Philippe le Bel via the mid-stream île de la Barthelasse. Only 4 of the 22 arches remain. A multilingual audio tour of the bridge explains some of the local history.
A well-known song "Sur Le Pont D'Avignon" (on the bridge at Avignon) refers to the bridge. The bridge is far too narrow for dancing or festivals - the original text of the song was "Sous (under) le pont d'Avignon", referring to the festivals and entertainments staged on the île de la Barthelasse. The current version was popularised by a 19th-century operetta, whose librettist clearly assumed that 'sous le pont d'Avignon' would have meant in the river.
Other popular tourist destinations include: the 3 Place du Palais, just next to the 4 Place de L'horloge, though someone may find these places shockingly expensive, and overcrowded in season. Within a short distance in just about any direction are some smaller squares frequented by the locals, and much lower prices. Like 5 Place Pie, with its covered market (open 06:00 to 13:00 everyday) which sells fresh produce, cheeses, wines, and produits du pays.
Avignon has its share of museums, ranging from modern art museums to museums housing artefacts from the Roman and pre-Roman days.
If you are confident about biking, there are a lot of places to bike to.
- Theatre Festival (Festival d'Avignon). Avignon is famous the world over for its annual theatre festival. For three or four weeks in July the city is virtually swollen with street performers, actors, musicians, and of course the ubiquitous tourists. The festival is an excuse to turn any room with enough seating into a 'salle de spectacle' and the city is host to a wide variety of entertainment. The gem of this festival are the performances which take place inside the Pope's Palace itself. Tickets are expensive, but this is considered by many French and European thespians to be a crowning achievement of their career. The vast majority of performances are, of course, in French but a number of foreign companies perform in other languages including English. Even without attending any events, the atmosphere and street theatre give the city a marvellous feeling.
- The International Congress Center. Was created in 1976 within the outstanding premises of the Palace of the Popes and hosts many events throughout the entire year.
- Avignon Fair, Chemin des Félons, ☏ , . mid-April. A modern-style fair. The wine competition of the Rhone Valley, organised upstream since 1980, gives its official results at this fair.
- 1 Flea Market, Place des Carmes. Every Sunday morning. Browse the tables looking for your hidden treasure.
- 2 Food Market, Les Halles d'Avignon, place Pie. Every morning except Monday. Local specialties like olive oil, tapenade, local wines, cheeses, and pastries can be found at the market along with fresh local produce. Cooking classes are available on Saturday mornings.
- 3 Pure Lavande, 61, rue grande Fusterie, ☏ . This boutique specializes in lavender and lavender products.
- 1 D'Ici et d'Ailleurs, 4, rue Galante, ☏ . "Fresh products on a sunny terrace."
- 2 Fou de Fafa, 17 Rue Des Trois Faucons, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. dinner from 18:30. Quality French food with an international twist.
- 3 Restaurant l'Orangerie, 3 Place Jerusalem (A few minutes walk from the tourist-centre Place de l'Horloge), ☏ . This is a small restaurant and the style is Provençal/Corsican. In Summer it has tables on the Square, the rest of the year it has four tables and bar on the ground floor and a few more upstairs.
- 4 Terre de Saveurs, 1 Rue Saint-Michel (Just south of Places des Corps Saints), ☏ . Mixed vegetarian and meat menu using fresh local ingredients to produce food highlighting Mediterranean flavours. Main dishes with meat, €14.50, without €13.50. Starters at €8.50 and desserts €6.50. Sit outside on the terrace, or inside in the dining room. They also sell locally made jams and tapenades.
- 5 L'Epicerie, 10, Place Saint Pierre (tucked in a nice little square just south of the Palais des Papes), ☏ . Try the Assiette Epicière for a plate full of provençal specialities such as tapenade, ratatouille, with a salad and some ham. Count around €25 for lunch, more with wine.
- 1 Le Vin Devant Soi (wine shop), 4 rue Collège du Roure (just off of Rue de la République, south of the Place de l'Horlorge), ☏ . Until 19:00 or 20:00. This wine shop has a permanent tasting machine set up with 32 wines. You purchase tasting credit for however much you like, they give you a card that you can put in the tasting machine to select the wine you want to taste. Tastes come in three different sizes, with different prices for different wines. The staff is very friendly, and there is a nice atmosphere.
- 1 Auberge-Camping Bagatelle, Île de la Barthelasse. This hotel, hostel and camp site is on Ile de la Bathelasse in the centre of the Rhone. This is perhaps the best place to stay on a budget. It has great facilities and offers perhaps the best view of the centre of Avignon. Carries a basic menu restaurant. Another benefit is that is placed directly between Avignon and the opposite town Villeneuve-les-Avignon, both begin within 10 minutes walk. €16.56 with complimentary breakfast.
- 2 Hotel d'Angleterre, 29 Boulevard Raspail (10 minutes walk from bus and train station). some rooms with bathroom. Small hotel located within the city walls. Has a small private car park. Its use is free of charge if you can find a place for your car. €40.
- 3 Altera Roma Hotel, 13-15 Avenue Monclar (just behind the central station, which faces the main avenue of downtown and the bus station), ☏ , fax: , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Family-run hotel overlooking a flowered garden, within a private carpark. Internet wi-fi available in the whole building. Renovated rooms with the typical Provencal style. 7 languages spoken. Private taxi service. Double room with en suite shower and bathroom €30-60, studios and apartments from €75, breakfast €7 can be taken in the garden in season 07:30-11:00.
- 4 Hotel Boquier Avignon, 6 rue du portail Boquier (in old city, near the tourism office), ☏ . Check-in: 13:00, check-out: 11:00. A charming hotel in a 18th-century house. 55-69.
- 5 [formerly dead link] Hotel Danieli, Rue de la République. Very central with air conditioning and a good breakfast. €80 per night for a double during the summer, more expensive during the Festival d'Avignon..
- Mas du Clos de l'Escarrat Route de Carpentras chemin de l'Escarrat. €80 Bed & Breakfast
- 6 Hotel Le Colbert, 7 rue Agricol Perdiguier, ☏ . Individual air conditioning room from €78.
- 7 Au Saint Roch, 9 rue Paul Mérindol, 84000 Avignon (South West from the middle age city), ☏ , fax: , ✉ email@example.com. Nice hotel with a very quiet garden. From €48 to €65, €7.50 for breakfast.
The surrounding region is full of interesting sites, There are three sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List
- Arles is full of Roman and Romanesque monuments and worthy of a full days exploration. 17 min from Avignon by TER.
- Orange just a short train ride to the north is home to one of the finest Roman theatres in Europe
- Le Pont du Gard is about 30 km to the west it is probably the finest Roman aqueduct still in existence, and a great place for hiking and canoeing.
Other notable sites nearby are:
- Nimes which has a huge Roman amphitheatre and a famous Greek temple
- Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a short train ride north and is home to some of France's most famous vineyards
- Aix-en-Provence, town of water - town of art, founded by the Romans.