If the Pope wanted to get from the UK to Avignon, he’d be advised to catch a train. Not only would all his regalia cost a fortune in airline excess baggage, but the old papal city – 14th-century capital of the Catholic church – is just better reached by rail.
It takes from just 5.5 hours to whizz down to the Provençal hub from St Pancras: a greener, swifter more scenic option than flying, since there are almost no direct flights from the UK to Avignon’s airport. Leave London before sunrise and by lunch you can be drinking a glass of Côtes du Rhône by the banks of that very river.
Tucked into a bend on the right bank of the Rhône, Avignon has been occupied for around 5,000 years. Its strategic position made it a key Roman trading post, but it was a pack of popes who really put it on the map. In 1309, with Rome in political chaos, Pope Clement V decamped from Italy to the safety of southern France. Six subsequent popes used the city as their base until 1378, when a split in the church ended the Avignon Papacy, although the city remained papal property until 1791’s revolutionary upheaval.
Those men in cassocks left quite a legacy. Their residence, the Palais des Papes – begun in 1335 and constructed in less than 20 years – is the biggest Gothic palace in Europe. Now the city’s must-see sight, its 15,000 sq m of floorspace is enclosed within bulky crenellated ramparts that still dominate the city today.
However, it’s a city of several parts. Labyrinthine old Avignon intramurros, protected within still-intact medieval walls, is home to the Palais, many museums and innumerable bars and restaurants – ranging from tourist-bland to Michelin-starred.
There’s also a profusion of theatres, though cultural activity really peaks during July’s three-week-long Festival d’Avignon, when 1,000 performances are held across the city.
On the opposite bank of the Rhône, and in a different region of France (Languedoc-Roussillon rather than Provence) is Villeneuve-lès-Avignon – only this ‘new’ town is pretty ancient too. It was granted city status in 1293 to guard the western side of the 900m-long Saint-Bénezet Bridge – the famed 22-arch ‘Pont d’Avignon’ that once spanned the river.
The popes would retreat here for some peace; indeed, Pope Innocent VI founded an impressive monastery here. Villeneuve is still a quiet alternative to Avignon, though the bridge has mostly gone – just four of its arches still stand – and modern Avignon suburbs now sprawl around these two old centres.
Further beyond that is a landscape striped by vineyards and dotted with hilltop towns. Plenty to fill a fine short break, with some added romance of the rails.
Essential info When to go:
The annual Theatre Festival means the city is heaving in July. Spring and autumn are best for sightseeing. Getting there:
Travel by train. London-Avignon requires a change in Lille or Paris – except in summer when there’s a weekly direct service – but it’s a fast journey (from around 5.5 hours). Returns cost from £119, booked through Rail Europe
(0844 848 5848). Few airlines fly direct from the UK to Avignon Caumont Airport (8km away). Getting around:
Old Avignon is walkable. Buses (singles €1.30) run from outside the city walls to the TGV train station (3km) and Villeneuve-lès- Avignon (3km). There’s a free (seasonal) ferry across the river, from near the Pont d’Avignon, to Barthelasse Island. Where to stay:
House Trip offers a range of local apartments
(from £21pn). Hôtel de Garlande
is a charming small hotel (doubles from €74). For something swankier, try the Hôtel d’Europe
(doubles from €214).
Where to eat: Grab a tartine (open sandwich) at Ginette & Marcel (25 Place des Corps Saints). Eat excellent French dishes at Fou de Fafa (17 Rue des Trois Faucons, above). Le Barrio (13 Rue des Infirmières) is a good local joint.
Day 1: Avignon
Stroll around old Avignon. The prime pleasure of the walled medieval city is getting lost down its backstreets – though the tourist office (41 Cours Jean Jaurès) has helpful walking-tour maps. The canal-lined Rue des Teinturies (Dyers’ Street) and Rue Peyrollerie (squeezed under the Palais des Papes) are just two worth finding.
Fuel your walking at Les Halles (open Tues-Sun, from 6am), the main market hall, which has a living, plant-draped facade and an interior packed with fresh produce. Next, acquire a free Avignon Pass – from the tourist office or a participating venue. With this, you pay full price to enter your first museum, then get up to 50% off every subsequent entrance fee.
Top tip: visit the Musée Lapidaire first – this repository of local archaeological finds, housed in a 17th-century Jesuit college, only costs €2 to enter: the cheapest place to pay full price. Other museums worth a look include the Calvert (for art) and the small but atmospheric Louis Vouland.
However, the main draw is the domineering 14th-century Palais des Papes
(€10.50). This enormous Gothic pile was once the seat of the Catholic church, and is suitably grand. An audio guide explains the stories behind the frescoed chambers and vaulted chapels.
After the palace, walk up nearby Rocher des Doms – this lofty park has fine views over the river. Then drop down to Rue des Escaliers Sainte-Anne for a drink at Utopia-La Manutention, a hip cinema-bar-restaurant just outside the palace walls.
Day 2: Explore the new-old city
Explore Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, the ‘new’ city – which isn’t new at all. To get there, walk or take Bus 5, which leaves from Avignon’s Porte de l’Oulle; disembark at the F Mistral stop. Walk down Rue de la République.
Browse the gifts and olive oils (pressed on site) at Moulin à Huile before visiting La Chartreuse, the 14th-century monastery founded by Pope Innocent VI. This atmospheric complex of cloisters, cells and gardens now hosts theatre performances. There is a walking trail from here up to Fort St-André. This formidable walled bastion once protected 190 dwellings; most are now in ruins, but there are great views over Avignon and Provence – on a clear day you can see Mont Ventoux.
You can also visit the Benedictine abbey. After this lofty lookout, wind down the pretty old streets to the main square (lined with pleasant cafés) and pass Notre Dame church. Continue south to the medieval Tour Philippe le Bel, which once marked the western end of the Pont d’Avignon. A steep climb up the 39m-high tower yields more good views.
Walk back over the Rhône to old Avignon. Or walk halfway – to Île de la Barthelasse – to enjoy a stroll alongside the river and to ride the free shuttle boat over to the stunted Pont d’Avignon. Here, a visit to the bridge’s museum details its history and lets you dance upon its remaining arches, made famous in an (irritatingly catchy) children’s song.
Day 3: Head into wine country
The Provençal countryside beckons, a land of abundant vineyards and precariously perched hilltop villages, dominated by that nemesis of many a Tour de France cyclist, 1,909m Mont Ventoux. You could take a bus or train (40/20mins) to Orange, to explore the small, lively city’s well-preserved Roman theatre and triumphal arch. Buses also connect Orange and Avignon to Châteauneuf du Pape – the village capital of the renowned wine region, which is dominated by a ruined papal castle.
The Châteauneuf du Pape appellation is one of France’s most revered, so this is the place to swill, sip and slurp: many local wine shops offer dégustation gratuite (free tastings), as does the informative Musée du Vin. As buses are infrequent (and it would seem a waste to self-drive), it’s easiest to book a taxi or a tour.
Avignon Tourism offers a half-day Chateaux & Domaines trip, including two tastings at Châteauneuf vineyards (from €60pp); Viator’s five-hour Orange & Châteauneuf small-group tour
combines Roman ruins with tipples in the terroir (from £50pp). For a more intimate interaction with the landscape, hire a bike
(from €12 a day), to velo around the vines or take a pedal along the banks of the Rhône.
Main image: Old town of Avignon (Shutterstock)