Avignon reached its heights in the 14th century; as the temporary home of the Catholic Church, it attracted the wealthy and powerful and the resident popes constructed a massive palace which achieved a size equivalent to four gothic cathedrals.
It’s hard for any city to move on gracefully from such influence but Avignon seems to have found a way to highlight its past without feeling stuck in it.
The city has outgrown its (largely intact) walls. Now one of the principal cities of the French region of Provence, it is a cultural center, hosting a particularly popular theatre festival each July. With good train connections to the rest of France and plenty of basic tourism services like rental cars, it is also a good staging ground from which to visit more of the region.
Photo by Emma Jacobs
During the 14th century, a politically turbulent one for the Catholic Church, the papacy was not based in Rome but in Avignon. The city would be home to seven popes and two “anti-popes” during a period known as the “Western Schism.” In 1335, construction began on a gothic papal headquarters, built in two phases, each with its own distinct style. Today, the Palais des Papes is known for its elaborate frescoes painted by an Italian artist, official “Pope’s painter” Matteo Giovannetti. Otherwise, the rooms open to visitors are mostly echoingly empty. The palace, under nearly-constant restoration for decades, was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995 and is open to visitors every day, playing host to events throughout the year. The adjacent park is not ticketed but makes for a lovely walk with views of the Rhône and the rest of Avignon from above.
Photo courtesy of France Olliver of Avignon Tourism
This historic bridge only takes you part-way across the Rhône these days, as the far end of the 12th century bridge succumbed to floods in 1668. It’s also known as the St. Benezet bridge, for the saint whose visions supposedly inspired its construction, but “Pont d’Avignon” is more familiar to many in the English-speaking world as the subject of a French nursery rhyme that’s made its way into many a high school French curriculum and the repertoire of children’s singer Raffi. Visitors can still walk out over the bridge’s remaining arches from the Avignon side and get a look back at the city from a different angle. While tickets can be purchased separately, you’re better off getting the combination that includes both the bridge and palace.
Photo by Emma Jacobs
While Avignon went without a bridge for many years after the demise of the Pont D’Avignon, it’s now a matter of minutes to Villeneuve-lez-Avignon on the opposite bank. Don’t let the “neuve” in the name fool you. This town is old. At its height, visitors can explore the Fort Saint-André, with its storybook stone towers.
Beside it, the Abbaye Saint-André (pictured above) dates back much further than the existing abbey building. However, its winding garden paths lead to the ruins of two early churches and a cluster of medieval tombs. If you’re looking for an excuse to linger, you can also purchase boxed lunches to eat on the grounds. Inside the abbey, you can view a small exhibition on the unusual cast of characters who contributed to its restoration over much of the 20th century. The grounds have only been open to the public since 1990—a blink of an eye in its long history.
4. The Halles d’Avignon Market
This indoor food market on Place Pie, not far from the Palais des Papes, offers a wide selection of produce and other French (and especially Provençal) products like locally-produced olive oils and seafood fresh from the Mediterranean. The space itself is not stunning; the original hall was unfortunately demolished and rebuilt in the 1970s. However, ten years ago, the front of the building was turned into a giant green wall of plants and mosses designed by French botanist Patrick Blanc, the man behind many similar projects throughout France, including the green wall at the Quai Branly museum in Paris. Chefs visit mid-morning every Saturday to give cooking demonstrations. The market is closed on Mondays but otherwise opens daily at 6 a.m.
Photo by Emma Jacobs
Grab a bite on Rue des Teinturiers, a winding, canal-lined street in Avignon. The cobblestoned street runs up to the city hall and restaurants ranging from tiny nooks to spacious, traditional cafes lead the way. Nearly all provide tables out front, which you should take advantage of in nice weather. At one end, the charmingly-named Cave des Pas Sages or “wine cellar of the unwise” hosts live music performances several nights a week. On the same stretch, you’ll also find the much more sober institution, the Chapelle des Pénitents Gris (grey penitents), sections of which date back to the 15th century.
A short drive or bus ride from Avignon, the Pont du Gard is a three-story Roman aqueduct dating to the year 60 AD. Made from the regional, pale yellow limestone, it remains remarkably intact. Visitors can get up close and walk right across the lower level (and study the tourist carvings that may themselves be centuries old). This destination can be done either as a detour or a full day trip. It’s part of an extensive park with spaces to picnic and restaurants. It can be reached by public bus from Avignon but you can also join bus tours if that’s your jam. There is also parking for vehicles but be advised the site has a somewhat unintuitive pricing system per vehicle or per person if you’re arriving on foot. Also on the grounds, you’ll find a museum with more on the history of the Pont du Gard and, in much much older history, a series of prehistoric grottos.
Provence offers some unusually useful items for visitors to take home. The region is known for a number of signature crops not least of which is lavender but also herbs (think herbes de provence) and soap, largely made in Marseille. Lavender is sold in dried form, as oils, in sachets—the possibilities are endless. You may also notice the prevalence of cicada trinkets, either in pottery form, carved and painted, or on patterned fabrics. The cicada is a part of local mythology and a symbol of the region—although the increasing prevalence of a variety known as the cicadelle, related to global warming, has been blamed for damaging lavender crops over the past decade.
Emma Jacobs is a multimedia journalist and podcast producer based in Paris.