Approached from its surrounding boulevards, the 14th-century walls of the inner town of Avignon look low enough to climb over with a step ladder. Twenty-five feet high and 2.5 miles long they no longer signify the security of the Popes who would rather live here than in the turmoil of Rome, but instead herald the entrance to a vibrant old town that is an excellent place for a taste of Provence, particularly for travelers without the time or the transportation to explore the countryside. Of the 92,000 inhabitants of Avignon, the Avignonais, 14,000 live within the walls, an area referred to as Avignon intra-muros.
Avignon is 2:40 by direct train from Paris (Gare de Lyon) and is served by two train stations:
1. Avignon TGV. Most high-speed trains arrive here, four miles from the center of town. From the station there’s a light rail line that connects with Avignon Centre station in 6 minutes, making 35 round-trips per day. There’s also regular bus to/from the city walls. Take it to the final stop, “Avignon Poste,” about a 12-minute ride. Avignon Poste is actually just a hundred yards from the Avignon Centre station. The Popes’ Palace and the intra-muros hotels are within a 10-minute walk from there. Taxi service is also available from the station.
2. Avignon Centre, across the street from the city walls. From here it’s easy enough to walk to any of the hotels intra-muros, though taxis are also available.
In summer, there’s a direct Eurostar to Avignon from St. Pancras as well as direct flights from Birmingham, London and Southhampton.
Having your own wheels—bike, car, a chauffeur—is naturally the best way to explore Provence, but on a brief visit with a limited radius one can do surprisingly well with public transportation.
The official site of the Avignon Tourist Office is www.avignon-tourisme.com.
Avignon is capital of the department of Vaucluse, which lies east of the Rhone River and includes Orange, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Carpentras, Cavaillon, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Gordes, the Abbey of Senanque, many vineyards and lavender fields and much of the Luberon Natural Regional Park. The official site of the Vaucluse Tourist Office is provenceguide.com.
To the west of the Rhone River and easily accessible from Avignon are Villeneuve-lès-Avignon (just across the river) and the Pont du Gard, which are located in the department of Gard whose official tourist information site is tourismegard.com.
Avignon Theater Festival
During three weeks in July Avignon holds a major international theater festival, le Festival d’Avignon, with venues throughout the town, most prestigiously in the Court of Honor of the Popes’ Palace. Playing at Avignon during the festival signifies a major stamp of approval for a production, a director or a troupe, even if the best of the new productions presented here aren’t necessarily French. For more information see the official festival site.
Video intermission (33 seconds): A view from the edge of the Rock of Avignon overlooking the Rhone River and accompanied by the sound of cicadas.
Choice Accommodations in Avignon
4 place de l’Amirande. Tel. 04 90 14 20 20.
Situated in the shadow of the fortress wall of the Popes’ Palace, this former cardinal’s palace, transformed into a hotel by the Stern family in the early 1990s, provides Avignon’s most luxurious accommodations. The view from most of the rooms may be stopped short by that imposing wall but it is a view that’s long on history. The 26 rooms (sizes vary) of this 5-star boutique include 20 rooms in the older palace building decorated in 18th-century styles and 6 rooms that opened in 2012 in an adjacent building decorated with Empire-style furnishings. Handsome Zuber wallpaper provides an elegant touch throughout. Contributing to the hotel’s feeling of intimacy, an array of charming settings—in the garden, in the inner patio, in the “Red Room,” in the “Chinese Cabinet”—are available for tea, cocktails or an after-dinner drink.
The hotel’s restaurant (not tested for this article) has reportedly had its ups and downs in recent years, but the great dining pleasure of La Mirande is Jean-Claude Altmayer’s guest table in the basement (see #5 in this other article about Avignon). The hotel also offers cooking classes conducted by various chefs of the region.
12 place Crillon. Tel. 04 90 14 76 76
From its entrance off the square just within the old city ramparts, through the shade of the plane tree in the entry courtyard, into the aura of the ancient walls, past a peek into the large, expectant dining room, up the promise of the grand staircase and into the spaciousness of some of the rooms, the home that the Marquis of Graveson had built in 1580 certainly has the potential for a great hotel. In fact it became one when it opened to the public as the Hotel d’Europe in 1799. So the hotel can boast a fine guest list of celebrated men and women and statesmen that sojourned here over the next two centuries. But during a visit in December 2012 I found the hotel uneven in its physical offerings, green in its staff (admittedly, my site visit lasted less than 30 minutes) and the atmosphere generally lacking in spirit and fantasy. Its 39 double rooms and 5 suites alternate between worn traditional and overly classic renovated, an indication that, like the continent itself, the Europe in search of its soul. These are nevertheless spacious rooms from the “superior” category on up to the presidential suite. This is not to write off the Europe; the hotel’s current owners are apparently striving for more consistent elegance, and this is, after all, a 5-star hotel. The classic grand hotel dining room has a Michelin star in 2013 (not tested for this article).
Hotel de l’Horloge
1 rue Félicien David (corner with Place de l’Horloge). Tel. 04 90 16 42 00.
L’Horloge is a pleasing 4-star ideally set beside Place de l’Horloge, the town’s main square, just a few hundred yards from the Popes’ Palace. Its modest lobby signals a hotel with great pretensions as far service goes but in two stays here I’ve found the reception and cleaning staff friendly and willing to accommodate. The 66 rooms, mostly with bath, some only shower, offer square comfort with an easy décor in tones of brown and off-white. Various categories ensure that the hotel can satisfy a range of budgets and family-friendly accommodates, with attractive off-season prices available online.
Marie Touzet’s Villa de Margot
24 rue des Trois Colombes. Tel. 04 90 82 62 34.
Marie Touzet operates an attractive B&B with three rooms and two suites in an 1820 mansion within easy walking distance of the center of Avignon. The well-maintained rooms and suites of various comfortable sizes are decorated with a nod to various 19th- and early-20th-century styles and run 120-200€, including breakfast. The Suite Royale is a large family suite with a double bed and two single beds for children (supplement) and a terrace with a view at one edge of the Popes’ Palace. Private parking (10€/night) Dog alert: There’s a friendly little mutt named Easy roaming about. Open year-round.
© 2013, Gary Lee Kraut
For more on Avignon read Profiles in Provence: Passionate Purveyors of Fine Food and Drink.
For a glimpse of nearby Orange see Black Diva and the Roman Theater of Orange.