Overview of Avignon
A landmark from across the lavender fields of Provence, the imposing Pope’s Palace stands at the north end of the walled city. Towering above the mighty Rhône, the fourth longest river in France, Avignon was the home of the papacy from 1309 to 1377. Seven French popes ruled the Catholic world at a time when Italy was too dangerous. Between 1334 and 1352, they built this wonderful, extraordinary and rich structure. The largest Gothic palace in the world, it served both as fortress and palace. It’s made up of two buildings: the Palais Vieux (Old Palace) to the north and the Palace Neuf (New Palace) to the south.
Allow 4 hours to wander through the courtyards that lead to the magnificent collection of small and large rooms. Their uses were diverse and necessary for what was a mini city within a city: rooms to store arms and armour, or the copious gold and silver that kept the Papacy going; banqueting halls decorated with tapestries to eat and drink in; chapels to pray in; bedchambers to sleep in, audience chambers to impress both secular and religious visitors, and terraces to admire the view from.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site is very well organized with audio guides in different languages, films and multi-media points to show you the life of the past.
There’s also a good behind-the-scenes tour, called the Secret Palace, that takes you to areas you might not see and includes interpretation in French and English.
The Petit Palace Museum
The Petit Palais was bought by the pope in 1335 as a house but neglected then renovated in the 15th century. Used as a lodging for important visitors (the likes of Cesare Borgia in 1498, Francis 1 in 1533, and the Duke of Orleans in 1660), today it's the Musée du Petit Palais. The delightful palace is a museum full of treasures: Romanesque and Gothic sculpture, and the Campana collection, which shows Italian paintings from the 13th to the 16th centuries.
Walk past the art and you can see how perspective and realism developed from the Siennese School of the early period to the Renaissance. Paintings and sculpture from the Avignon School of the 15th century can also be viewed here.
Walking Tours of the Old Town of Avignon
Old Avignon stretches around the imposing Palais des Papes. Pick up a map from the Tourist Office and set off along the narrow cobbled streets which fill the old town, protected originally by the circular ramparts. This is a picture-perfect medieval and Renaissance town. Don’t miss King René’s house in the rue Roi-René; the rue des Teinturiers which follows the river Sorgue, providing the waters needed by the 18th and 19th century calico cloth–dyers who lived here; the Quartier de la Balance that runs down to the Pont Bénézet, and the Place de l’Horloge, a vast square shaded by trees with the theatre, town hall and numerous pavement cafes to while away the hours.
Stroll a little further to the 15th-century Palace du Roure for the gateway and courtyard which you can walk into. If you're there on a Tuesday at 3pm, take the guided tour which takes you into the rooms of Provençal costumes and textiles, old photographs of the Camargue and more.
The Famous Pont St-Bénézet, Bridge of Avignon
The iconic, instantly-recognizable Pont St-Bénézet was built in the 12th century, according to legend, by a young shepherd boy after receiving a message to do just that by an angel. Whatever its origins, the bridge became the only crossing point on the all-important Rhône between Lyon and the Mediterranean. The arched bridge survived until the 17th century and remains today one of the great symbols of the attractive city. It’s famous for the children’s song Sur le Pont d’Avignon, though it was never big enough to dance across.
But it was a great feat of engineering, which you can appreciate today in the new museum displays, films and interactive media that shows how the bridge changed over the centuries.
Esprit Calvet (1728-1810) was a successful physician who left his considerable collections to a foundation that today runs different museums and institutions in Avignon.
Housed in a beautiful 18th-century neo-classical palace, the Calvet Museum starts with the ancient world and particularly 4th-century BC stelae, upright stones carved with faces. Sculptures, silverware, and faience (tin-glazed ceramicware) sit alongside French, Italian and Flemish paintings from the 16th to the 19th century.
Rocher des Doms Park
You’ll find this lovely park, an oasis of green peace, north of the Palais des Papes. Climb up past the manicured lawns and tinkling fountains to the hilltop for a fabulous view over the city and the river. Directly below you, the gilded Madonna gleams on the tower of the Cathedral Notre-Dame-des-Doms in front of the Pope’s Palace. Buy everything for a picnic in the Halles Market Place and sit eating charcuterie and cheese, fresh bread and pates overlooking the glorious stone city laid out below.
Markets and Special Shopping in Avignon
Avignon has a good selection of shops and some of those great south of France markets.
The modern covered market, Les Halles in place Pie, is the place for serious food shopping. 40 different stalls sell the local produce of Provence from Tuesday to Sunday, 6am to 1pm.
Make for the Place des Carmes for the flower market on Saturday mornings, and the flea market on Sundays. From June to September the 3 rd Monday of each month in the Allées de l'Oulle, a specialist food market brings smaller producers to the city.
The weekends mean numerous food markets on St-Michel and place Crillon.
Start with chocolates at one of the best chocolatiers, Puyricard, which has branches all over the south of France. In Avignon, the shop is at 33 rue Joseph Vernet, tel: 00 33 (0)4 90 85 96 33.
If you're in Provence, lookout for those brightly-colored, classic textiles. Try Les Indiennes de Nîmes, Mistral at 9 rue des Fourbisseurs, tel: 00 (9) 81 44 90 24 for a good selection.
Antiques, including old pottery and Provencal furniture and kitchenware, are on display at Herve Baume, 19 Rue de la Petite Fusterie, tel: 00 33 (0)4 90 86 37 66.
For everything lavender, that most Provencal of plants, make your way to Lavande & Co, 61 Rue Grande Fusterie, tel: 00 33 (0)4 90 14 70 05.
Avignon Festival and Events
Of all the events that this lively city puts on, the Avignon Festival is the best known, both nationally and around the world. It was started in 1947 by the actor-director Jean Vilar whose aim was to bring theatre to the masses with top actors like Jean Negroni and Jeanne Moreau. Held each year in July, the now 3-week-long event takes over the main courtyard of the Pope’s Palace which can hold up to 2000 spectators. It’s a truly international event with over 40 different performances of theatre, dance, and music as well as fine arts exhibitions throughout the city. Companies from around the world perform works from Euripides to Chekhov, Shakespeare to Mikhaïl Boulgakov.
There’s also a fringe-style festival called Avignon Public Off which takes over 100 smaller locations. There are free performances in the place de l’Horloge.
Other don't-miss events include the Avignon Blues Festival in October with musicians from New Orleans to London and Paris.
The annual Christmas Market takes over the central streets with craft stands, musical performances, folk dancers and creche scenes and figurines.