The first thing to be clear about Avignon is that it is very much bigger than it looks. It is tempting to imagine the area within the ramparts as roughly circular, but it is not. The shape is more rhomboidal, which is to say it is more like that of a calisson, the sweet almond biscuit of Aix-en-Provence. Moreover, the north-south spine is much further west than it appears at first sight.
The result of all this is to make what seems quite a compact area far too big to encompass in the course of a single walk. The Michelin Green Guide offers four separate itineraries and these are far from exhaustive. Since 2004, the municipality has provided its own four tours which, confusingly, do not coincide with Michelin’s but do have the advantage of being colour-coded and having information displayed on a series of large boards and, for individual buildings, graceful oar-shaped signs along each route. Since on a first trip one can do little more than scratch the surface of this fascinating place, for the purpose of this excursion I have chosen a route of my own which will, I hope, show enough to make you want to come back and explore more. Although we shall pass many famous buildings, churches and museums, I shall not dwell on their contents but leave you to pick whichever may appeal to your tastes and interests.
The directions should be easy enough to follow but you might find it a good idea to download a street map from one of the specialised websites to help keep your bearings.
It has always seemed to me that Avignon was one of those specially blessed places that everyone seems to enjoy – but there are always exceptions. Petrarch, the 14th century Italian scholar who spent most of his life in the city, ended by turning against it to the point of urging the Popes to return to Rome. ‘It is,’ he said, ‘a sewer, where all the filth of the universe gathers.’ More recently, the British writer Bernard Levin in his book describing following Hannibal’s Footsteps from the Mediterranean over the Alps to Rome was disgusted by filth of another kind: quantities of litter that he saw blowing across the place de l’Horloge. I think Avignon is no worse in this respect than most French towns and, indeed, better than many, but he may have been there on a day when the Mistral was blowing. It has to be admitted that, even within its walls, Avignon gets the full force of the Mistral as it is channelled down the Rhône valley – and that is quite enough to find out every last scrap of litter and send it all swirling about.
Whichever way you come to Avignon, you will emerge on to the inner ring road with a sight of the ramparts before you that can hardly fail to impress. Although much restored in the 19th century by Viollet-le-Duc and cluttered as they often are with scaffolding in the never-ending process of upkeep and repair designed to make them last even more centuries, these ramparts still retain an air of authenticity. In this they contrast with those of Carcassonne which from a distance look magnificent but closer up reveal a distinctly Disneyland sort of pastiche.
I recommend parking at the main town railway station (as opposed to those for the TGV or the autorail, both of which are farther out). From the south, even if you come by the A7 autoroute, you will enter the outskirts on the much renamed road which locals still call the RN7. This reaches the ramparts opposite the Porte Limbert. Follow the ramparts round to the left and the station is four gates further on, opposite the Porte de la République. The advantage of the station car park is that there are both a flat parking area and a multi-storey park beyond in which your car can stay cool in hot weather.
Within the city walls
Enter the town by the Porte de la République and you are at the southern end of the north-south spine I mentioned earlier, at this stage called the cours Jean Jaurès. On either hand there are open spaces, although at present the one to your right is probably still fenced off for the construction of an underground car park, although beyond it you should be able to see the imposing offices of the Vaucluse department. As we go up the cours and see it continue as the rue de la République, remember to look up to the higher floors of the 18th and 19th century buildings on either side. As with many old towns, the shops and displays at ground level can all too easily distract one’s attention from the fine old buildings above. This advice holds good through many of the other streets we shall follow.
Off the cours Jean Jaurès on the right is an attractive public garden, housing what remains of the cloister of St-Martial. (Just beyond this is the Tourist Office, where you can pick up a town plan if you forgot to bring one.) Follow the path through the gardens and you come out on the place des Cours Saints, an attractive triangular space recently restored by the municipality, in which a former church now serves as a pleasant art gallery. Turn left and at the crossroads turn right on to the rue des Lices, a street that follows the line of the old curtain wall that predated the present 14th century ramparts. On the left were the 18th century almshouses, whose galleried façade now fronts the Fine Arts School..
Pause at the next crossroads to look right down the rue des Teinturiers. This picturesque street follows the river Sorgue whose waters the cloth-dyers used in their work: you may be able to spot one of the paddle-wheels still in place. Turn left up the rue Bonneterie: this brings you to the covered market, one of the biggest in this part of France.
A vertical garden
The north front, facing on to the place Pie was the subject of an interesting horticultural experiment prompted by the mayor of Avignon, Marie-Josée Roig. Three years ago she asked the famous botanist Patrick Blanc whether planting on the vertical surface would be a feasible way to cheer up the appearance of the building. Blanc rose to the challenge, designing a pattern of 400 different plants and shrubs that would change colour across the seasons, the whole 300m2 surface being watered and fertilised from vats in the basement. Unique in France at the time, the idea has more recently been used in Jean Nouvel’s museum of primitive art, the Musee du quai Branly, in Paris’s seventh arrondissement. The Blanc version is so attractive that it is a pity that, being on the north side, the display is always against the light, making it difficult to photograph successfully.
The garden side of the market building fronts on to place Pie, which you should leave to the left, passing the synagogue on your left, then follow the rue des Marchands to the place de l’Horloge. Between the two places, to your left there opens up a network of narrow pedestrianised lanes, full of intriguing shops, bars and bistros. If you choose to explore these now, join us again in the place de l’Horloge, which is also a good place to stop for lunch or a drink.
Time for a break?
The place de l’Horloge is Avignon’s main square and is a continuation of the north-south spine. Much of the surface is covered by the outdoor extensions of the many restaurants and cafes that surround it. Depending on the time of year, these may be fully in the open air or covered with marquees. At the height of the season they are all always busy. That, I think, is more a compliment to their animated surroundings than to their cuisine, although that is usually quite good enough for a simple meal if your expectations are realistic. Avignon has plenty of excellent restaurants if you want something more elaborate, with a wide range of menus and prices to match. One of these is at the northern end of the square, which we shall pass when we move on. If you have brought a picnic, there are a couple of suitable places further on the walk.
Much of the left-hand side of the place is occupied by the Mairie and, after it to the north, the theatre-cum-opera house. When we first visited Avignon, many years ago, this building was notable for the fact that, on the north side, round the corner in the aptly-named rue Molière, was a series of trompe-l’oeuil paintings with famous theatrical figures like Marcel Marceau apparently looking down from windows. These are still there and very well done but they have lost something of their capacity to surprise because similar trompe-l’oeuil decorations have now proliferated all round the square. Opposite the theatre is a carousel which does good business in the tourist season. Like many of its kind in southern French towns, it is decorated in the style of the late 18th/early 19th century, though whether it is authentic or a good facsimile might require an expert to judge.
The Papal Palace
Continuing northward from the place we come suddenly on the spectacular Palais des Papes standing above its own broad open space and, beyond it, the conference centre, cathedral and Petit Palais. Michelin calculates that to ‘do’ the Papal Palace adequately would take an hour and the other buildings plus the attractive gardens on top of the Rocher des Doms (a possible picnic spot if you can face the climb) another two hours, but that must depend on how much time you have and how interested you are in these places.
My recollection of the Palais des Papes was that it was surprisingly empty, a huge series of vast rooms furnished only by the odd chair for the custodians, though this may have changed since. I also remember the visit for the printed guide hilariously translated into a sort of English - though perhaps that, too, will have changed.
If you do want to take in the Palais des Papes, it is worth remembering that you can buy a joint ticket which also gives entry to the Pont St-Bénézet, to which we shall come shortly; also that, on certain Sundays, you can enjoy a guided tour to parts of the Palace that are not ordinarily open to the public. Details of dates and times can be had from the Tourist Office.
A bridge not far enough
Passing between the Rocher and the Petit Palais, we come out through the Porte du Richer on to the embankment alongside the river Rhône, from which we can see the famous ‘Pont d’Avignon’, named after the saint who, as a shepherd boy was said to have been instructed in a dream to build it. Originally the stone bridge was 900m long, spanning the whole river in a series of 22 arches with gatehouses at either end. What remains, following the collapse of the bridge during flooding in the 17th century, is the southern gatehouse and the four surviving arches.
Pedants may like to know that the bridge, designed for horsemen and pedestrians, was far too narrow to permit of dancing, least of all opus en ronde. Such activities would have take place on the Ile de la Barthelasse underneath, so that the nursery rhyme should properly begin ‘Sous le pont …’ A couple of yeas ago the authorities had the bright idea of exploiting the rhyme in an imaginative way. On the bridge is a miniature studio in which you can not only hear samples of countless recordings of the song but, if you wish, you can even make your own DVD, mixing different rhythms, still pictures, movie clips and special effects in support of your own unique rendering. Fun value apart, this highly personalised souvenir seems remarkably reasonably priced at only €5 a time.
Following the outside of the ramparts in an anticlockwise direction, we come to the Porte de l’Oulle opposite the Pont Daladier road bridge. The gardens between the ramparts and the river would also offer pleasant places for a picnic. The gateway leads on to the place Crillon and then the rue Baroncelli to bring us into the rue Joseph Vernet. This street follows the lines of the earlier ramparts, which were razed to the ground following the siege of 1226: the current battlements date from the 14th century. Following the road to our right we pass a number of museums, particularly the Musée Calvet of arts and antiquities and the Requien natural history museum, educational establishments and elegant 17th and 18th century mansions, notably numbers 53, 83 and 87.
The street curves round to our left as it goes on to join the junction of the rue de la République and the Cours Jean Jaurès opposite the tourist office. Turning right at this point takes us back to our starting point of the Port de la République and thence back to the station car park.