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Avignon the ancient entry to Provence

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Avignon is famous around the world for a certain song. But as Gareth Huw Davies found, there is much more to this handsome gateway to Provence than dancing on the bridge. His list includes the direct train from London, a magnificent palace of the Medieval popes, a new way to taste old wine, and a vertical garden on the covered market. (The photo is of Le Vin devant Soi - see item 6.)

Take the train

The nearest airport to Avignon with regular services from the UK is Marseille Provence Airport (51 miles). I recommend the direct Eurostar train from London every time. The journey becomes part of the holiday. It’s a bearable 7.19 am from St Pancras, into Avignon at 14.08. The return train (15.58) reaches London at 22.12. If you stay outside the city, use Parking des Italiens (free). There’s a shuttle bus to the centre. All the main attractions are inside the 2.6 miles long city ramparts. The best overview of the city is from Rocher des Doms – an elegant park above the old roofs, looking over the Rhône, that truncated bridge and the wider Provençal landcape. For a picnic, stock up in Les Halles (covered market). Its facade, the “vertical garden”, is a riot of greenery.

Bridge of dance.

It is a bridge to nowhere, yet its theme tune “Sur le pont, d’Avignon…” is on the lips of the world. As the song says, it is still possible to dance, or simply walk, on the short form - only four of its original 22 arches survive - of Le Pont Saint Bénezet, to give it its proper name. Built in the C12th, it served for centuries as the last crossing on the Rhône river before the Mediterranean. Floods gradually took it apart until, in 1669, they figured it wasn't worth repairing. At that time the dancing location in the old song was probably “sous' (under) the bridge. It was relaunched in 1853 with the preposition changed to “sur” (on). Entry is 11€. There’s a good close-up from the shuttle boat to La Barthelasse Island.

Proud palace

Avignon was once one of the world’s great power bases. The papacy moved here ingin the 1300s, as war threatened Rome. Clement V and his successors built the mighty Palais Des Papes (Palace of the Popes), Today the Palace, grand, and extravagant and still the greatest of all Gothic buildings, is one of the main components of the city centre UNESCO World Heritage site. The popes lived well and decadently. Inside the 27 rooms hang tapestries and frescoes of dragons and unicorns, of flowers and forests and hunting scenes. The Banquet Hall and Great Chapel are vast. In the summer, the Palais is backdrop for a nightly 3-D light and sound show, projected onto its powerful facade.

Wander on

The charm of this city is anchored in its little squares and haphazard winding, narrow, cobblestone ways, named according to some ancient purpose or function. such as Rue Bonnetterie (hosiery) and Rue Petite Fusterie (carpentry). In Rue des Teinturiers (dying) the Le Zinzolin, l’Offset and l’Ubu restaurants are just three of many choices. I pick out l’Agape - home cooked
food “inspired by the classics of French gastronomy” - on Place des Corps Saints. (24€ for three course lunch). Pause at any cafe in the central square, Place de l’Horloge. Its big attraction is the gorgeous Carrousel Belle Époque, from France’s golden age before World War 1.

Small wonders

Avignon’s smaller-scale historical marvels include the Cathedral of Notre-Dame-des-Doms, and the museum of the Petit Palais. The star among its Renaissance paintings is Botticelli's Virgin and Child. The churches of St. Agricol, St. Didier and St. Pierre date from pre-papal times. The Collection Lambert, housed in an C18th mansion, one of France’s largest collections of contemporary art, holds works by Andy Warhol and fellow American painter Cy Twombly. The Musée Angladon shows paintings by Van Gogh, Cézanne, Modigliani, Picasso and Degas. The annual Avignon Festival, with 40 plays, dance recitals and concerts, is in July. Its main open-air venue is the grand Cour d’honneur (main courtyard) of the Popes' Palace.

Fine wine

The deep complexity of French wine can be daunting. One easy way to learn as you taste is to visit Le Vin devant Soi (4 Rue Collège du Roure). They have one of the new enomatic wine-preserving machines. Customers buy a card with a certain amount of credit. They serve themselves small tasting measures from the 32 available wines from the surrounding Côtes du Rhône region. The virtue of this system is that the remaining wine, under a protective layer of inert gas, does not oxidize in the bottle and stays drinkable for several weeks. And you can afford to sample some distinguished vintages. On a quiet Monday morning, the proprietor shared his wide knowledge, and advised on real bargains.

Gareth stayed at Hotel Crillon le Brave, 24 miles by road.

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