There is a mystique about Avignon, what academics would call a place-myth. Its antiquity, its history and heritage is well documented, but there is no synergy here. Avignon is not greater than the sum of its parts...but you wouldn't want to miss it.
© Atout France/Martine Prunevieille
Even so, its parts are well worth exploring, and anyone visiting Provence would be doing themselves an injustice if they didn't spend at least a day here.
Start at the southern ramparts, and walk up the main street, flanked by shops, hotels and chic restaurants, as well as some un-chic ones. Cross the main square in front of the Palais des Papes to access the Rocher des Doms (see below), and to onto the ramparts and a visit to a legendary bridge.
© ATOUT FRANCE/Jean Malburet
For some the capital of Christendom in the Middle Ages, this sun-blessed town retains the indelible hallmark of its complex calling: the Palais des Papes, the Saint-Benezet bridge, the so-called Pont d’Avignon of worldwide musical fame celebrated in song, and the town ramparts comprise an extraordinary litany of monuments acclaimed by UNESCO as World Heritage sites. In addition, dozens of churches and chapels, all remains of a past rich in history give the city an inimitable atmosphere.
Birthplace of the prestigious festival of contemporary theatre, European Capital of Culture in 2000, the town has many museums, an opera house-theatre, an exhibition hall and a congress centre with installations at the cutting edge of technology.
© Couleurs Nature "Did'Art"
The central core, protected by a ring of ramparts, is today a lively art and cultural centre, and for almost 70 years, this was the Papal seat. That aspect is less appealing for many than the fundamental history and development of what is a very old town.
The modern town is a powerful cultural centre, with events almost every week founded on the prestigious annual Festival. Since 2013, the Palais des Papes has been summertime host to a fabulous Son et Lumière show – Les Luminessences d'Avignon – which from 2015 offers shows in English.
Sending a probing, but somewhat amputated finger in the energetic waters of the Rhone, the Pont St Bénézet is accessed via the ramparts for a fee, combined ticket with the Palais des Papes. There must be no child in France, and possibly throughout western Europe, who doesn't know the song 'Sur le pont d'Avignon', although some historians argue that it was originally 'Sous le pont', meaning that rather than being 'on' the bridge, they were 'under' it.
Worth a visit in the hope of a little tranquillity is the Rocher des Doms, a well-laid out garden on a rocky outcrop overlooking the river, and with a lovely view over the surrounding countryside.
© ATOUT FRANCE/Jean Malburet
Less than 3 hours from Paris, 1 hour from Lyon and just 30 minutes from Marseille by TGV, Avignon has plentiful possibilities for sightseeing, activities and events, and a bounty of attractive shops, places where you can discover Provençal cooking, local specialities and, of course, the Côtes du Rhône wines.
All the beauty of Provence is on your doorstep. Villages perched high up in the Luberon and the Alpilles, the Camargue, Roman towns, lavender fields on the plateaux of Vaucluse, the jagged peaks of the Dentelles de Montmirail, foothills of Provence’s highest peak, Mont Ventoux, infamous feature of the Tour de France cycle race.
The city is on the TGV link from Paris, and receives flights for Orly airport in Paris.