|Avignon, situated in
the heart of the Vaucluse region in the south of
France, is famed for two celebrated attractions, Le Palais
des Papes (Popes’ Palace) and Pont St Bénezet
(the bridge made famous in the ditty ‘Sur le pont d’Avignon,
on y danse, on y danse…’).
But the city has so much more to offer. The Palais des Papes marks
the skyline with its graceful spires, an exterior more awe-inspiring
than anything inside. Fire destroyed many of the rooms and only
a single bedroom remains fully furnished to impress visitors. The
famous bridge, erected in the 12th century, to carry St Bénezet
to the neighbouring village of Villeneuve, nowadays
retains only 4 of its original 22 arches.
Flood, fire, pillaging, plague and Le Mistral have all ravaged Avignon.
Allegedly, the town got its name from the Celts, who dubbed the
area ‘Avenio’ (‘the
town of violent winds’), in the Bronze Age. Despite this,
most of Avignon amazingly has remained intact. Around every corner
of the narrow, winding cobbled streets, elaborately decorated chapels,
churches and convents are revealed. Most date from the 14th century,
when Avignon became the centre of Christendom and the Palais des
Papes was home to a series of 7 popes, often more interested in
plotting and partying than religion.
Located on the River Rhône, the setting of
Avignon is as colourful as its history, with images straight out
of a Van Gogh painting. Quiet streets, secluded courtyards and secret
gardens, cosy pavement cafés and fantastic restaurants frequented
almost entirely by the locals make Avignon the perfect place for
a lovely romantic weekend away. Nevertheless, the city is rarely
completely at peace. In the 13th century, Avignon became known as
the ‘ringing town’ because of its proliferation of bells.
Today, during the summer months, the population of some 88,000 is
almost doubled by visitors.
Although subject to some violent winds (the most famous being Le
Mistral, a cold, dry and northwesterly wind) Avignon’s
climate is otherwise pleasant, with warm summers, perfect for alfresco
activities. The annual Avignon Festival runs throughout
July and attracts aspiring performers and aficionados of the arts.
The official festival usually numbers over 40 different acts with
most of them performing in the evocative courtyard of the Palais
des Papes or in old churches and cloisters around Avignon.
There is also a local ‘fringe’, known as the ‘Off’
Festival, which comprises 400 acts running non-stop from
dawn through to the early hours. Every lamppost and railing is covered
with signs advertising some performance, every café has a
resident musician and every square is crammed with minstrels, clowns
and artists. The scene could be straight out of medieval times,
if it were not for the tourists.