Avignon: France’s elegant medieval mixPosted on: 21 June 2010 by Mark O'haire
Avignon is the ultimate destination in the south of France. Stunningly beautiful yet relaxed and chilled at the same, Avignon is a wonderful mix of chic, elegance and perfectly preserved medieval splendour.
It’s arguably also the best known of all the cities in and around Languedoc – although, strictly speaking Avignon is not in Languedoc, you’d be forgiven for understanding the subtleties of French administration: the River Rhône which laps the city’s walls marks the border between Languedoc and neighbouring Provence.
True, it can get busy with tourists here, particularly during the arts and music festival which takes place in August, but it’s always easy to find a favourite café to get away from the crowds and drink in the atmosphere. And at just over 6hr by direct train from London during the summer months, it’s not hard to see why Avignon is a firm favourite amongst many visitors to the Midi.
Surrounded by completely intact stone walls built by the last of the nine breakaway popes who set up a rival branch of the Catholic church here, Avignon exudes history at every turn. The wall was intended to prevent the Rhône from flooding as much as preventing marauders from entering the city. The centrepiece of Avignon, the hulking Palais des Papes, was indeed originally built as a fortress. Throughout the fourteenth century Avignon was the effective seat of the Catholic church.
Although the Church decided to pull things back to Rome, Avignon refused to give in and for three and a half centuries the city lived under the rule of cardinal legates. It was this period that marked the beginning of the city’s prosperity and many mansions date from this period, gracefully edging the city’s squares.
Avignon’s Top 5
- Palais des Papes. Best appreciated from the outside rather than the inside. This is Avignon at its most impressive: battlements, vaults and the odd sluice or two for pouring generous amounts of boiling hot oil over the heads of unwelcome guests.
- Place de l’Horloge. Rung with cafés and home to a merry-go-round, this exquisite square is framed by the glamorous Hôtel de Ville and the Opera. Definitely worth pulling up a chair and watching the world go by.
- Pont d’Avignon. Made famous through the children’s nursery rhyme, the bridge is actually a bit of a let down. In fact it’s only half a bridge because during the late 1600s, a good part of it collapsed into the river below. Today, just four of the original 22 arches remain.
- Rue des Teinturiers. The place to head for when it’s time to eat and drink lined with cheap eateries and drinking holes. Undoubtedly Avignon’s most atmospheric street, this is where the city’s ink printers used to work their cloth in the Sorgue canal which runs the length of the street.
- Avignon Festival. Beginning in the second week of July and running for a total of three weeks, the emphasis of the festival is theatre in its different guises – arguably the street theatre which takes over the city during the festival is its most interesting.
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