If you like spending sun soaked days exploring narrow cobbled streets and leafy squares populated by chattering cicadas, then you’ll love Avignon. The medieval walled town in the south of France has been on my bucket list since I read a Mary Stewart thriller set there when I was teenager. And it was every bit as picture perfect as I’d imagined.
We stayed at Hotel Magnan just inside Avignon’s 800 year old stone walls and as soon as we arrived we knew we’d like starting our days having breakfast in its pretty courtyard garden. With plenty of trees and Provence’s abundant oleander bushes it looked just as I’d imagined the hotel courtyard in my book, so we were off to a great start.
It was Sunday, which was actually a really good day to arrive as most of the shops were closed and there were very few cars around. On the recommendation of our hotel manager we strolled through the quiet streets to nearby Place de Corp Saints, a lovely square shaded by plane trees.
There are lots of places to eat and stacks of alfresco seating in the square, but on a guide book recommendation we went for Ginette et Marcel, a cool vintage cafe styled like a 1950s grocery. The specialty of the house is tartines – open sandwiches that looked and tasted delicious. A perfect light lunch alongside our first Provence rose of the trip. Did I mention we were here for the wine?
As well as being motivated by the novel I’d read, the other big factor in deciding to visit Provence was its pale pink rose wine. We did a full day wine tasting tour which I’ve written about separately, but there was plenty to taste in Avignon itself, including at Le Vin Devant Soi. This rather fab shop in Rue Collège du Roure has 32 wines and spirits you can taste with different pour sizes to choose from. So to stretch the budget you can taste a small amount of the more expensive ones!
Of course what Avignon is most famous for is the bridge that everyone is dancing on in an old French nursery rhyme, and the spectacular Palais des Papes. A Unesco World Heritage Site, it was built in 1309 when Pope Clement V fled political unrest in Rome and is the world’s largest gothic palace.
It’s an enormous place with thick stone walls and vaulted ceilings. The rooms are vast empty caverns but they’ve been ‘filled’ by a smart multi-media guide called a histopad. It’s like an iPad that you hang around your neck and has headphones plugged into it. As you walk around, it knows where you are and displays maps to locate you and show you the layout of a room.
But the best bit is when you go into a room with a time portal. Hold your histopad over it and it cycles back in time to show you visuals of what the room looked like when the popes were in residence. Very cool and clever.Next to the palace is Avignon’s Notre Dame des Doms cathedral, the dome of which is topped by a 4.5 tonne gold statue of the Virgin Mary. On the other side of the square, Place du Palais, is the former mint, Hotel des Monnaies, which has some wonderful carvings of fruit and animals.Just behind the cathedral is the hilltop Rocher des Doms gardens which was a key location in the early part of my book and really reminded us of the hilltop parks in Santiago. Perfect for a quiet walk above the city and with great views of the Rhone river and that famous bridge.
After an alfresco lunch at Hotel Palais des Papes on the edge of Avignon’s biggest square Place de l’Horloge, we headed down Rue de la Balance to see the bridge up close and passing through what must be lavender shop central. Pretty much every store was selling products made from Provence lavender.
The Pont St-Benezet (also known as Pont d’Avignon) isn’t as impressive as the Palais. but definitely worth a visit. Not least as its interesting to walk across a bridge that finishes in the middle of the river! The rest of it washed away many years ago.
Apart from those main sights there are a few museums and plenty of shops to check out and lots of nice restaurants and bars. Place de L’Horloge has loads ot places to eat, but they’re pretty touristy so better to go to the smaller squares and streets. We had a great dinner at Le 26 in Rue de Trois Faucons. The camembert starter and fish main course were both delicious. It’s just across the street from Fou de Fafa which gets amazing reviews, but it’s tiny so you need to book it well ahead.
We also ate at a new restaurant, Le Lapin Blanc in Rue de Bonneterie which describes itself as French Fusion. Don’t know about that but the food was great. This road turns into pretty Rue des Teinturiers, a pedestrianised canal-side hub of restaurants and bars that looked to be popular with locals as well as tourists. It was described in our guide book as edgy and bohemian which I didn’t think we were, but we really liked it there so maybe we are!
There are also boat tours from Avignon along the Rhone and you can book wine tasting tours to nearby areas, including the home of famous red wine Chateauneuf-du-Pape. As mentioned we were more interested in rose wine so we did a full day tasting tour to the Luberon valley with the inimitable Francois Marcou, but as as I said earlier that unforgettable day is the subject of a whole other blog post!
Click on an image below to scroll through more photos in the gallery and visit the France section of my blog for future posts about my trip to Provence and the Languedoc.