By Rick Steves and Steve Smith
Famous for its nursery rhyme, medieval bridge, and brooding Palace of the Popes, contemporary Avignon (ah-veen-yohn) bustles and prospers behind its mighty walls. During the 68 years (1309–1377) that Avignon starred as the Franco Vaticano, it grew from a quiet village into a thriving city. With its large student population and fashionable shops, today's Avignon is an intriguing blend of medieval history, youthful energy, and urban sophistication. Street performers entertain the international crowds who fill Avignon's ubiquitous cafés and trendy boutiques. If you're here in July, be prepared for the rollicking theater festival. (Reserve your hotel far in advance.) Clean, sharp, and popular with tourists, Avignon is more impressive for its outdoor ambience than for its museums and monuments. See the Palace of the Popes, and then explore the city's thriving streets and beautiful vistas from the Parc des Rochers des Doms.
Cours Jean Jaurès, which turns into Rue de la République, runs straight from the Centre-Ville train station to Place de l'Horloge and the Palace of the Popes, splitting Avignon in two. The larger eastern half is where the action is. Climb to the parc des Rochers des Doms for a fine view, enjoy the people scene on Place de l'Horloge, meander the back streets, and lose yourself in a quiet square. Avignon's shopping district fills the traffic-free streets where Rue de la République meets Place de l'Horloge.
In 1309, a French pope was elected (Pope Clement V). At the urging of the French king, His Holiness decided he'd had enough of unholy (and dangerous) Italy. So he loaded up his carts and moved to Avignon for a secure rule under a supportive king. The Catholic Church literally bought Avignon (then a two-bit town), and popes resided here until 1403. Meanwhile, Italians demanded a Roman pope, so from 1378 on, there were twin popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon, causing a schism in the Catholic Church that wasn't fully resolved until 1417.
The Palace of the Popes in Avignon is two distinct buildings, one old and one older. Along with lots of big, barren rooms, you'll see frescoes, tapestries, and some beautiful floor tiles. The self-guided audio tours do a good job of overcoming the lack of furnishings and give a thorough history lesson while allowing you to tour this vast place at your own pace. The Petit Palace Museum superbly displays medieval Italian painting and sculpture. Since the Catholic Church was the patron of the arts, all 350 paintings deal with Christian themes. Visiting this museum before going to the Palace of the Popes gives you a sense of art and life during the Avignon papacy.
Hike above the Palace of the Popes to the Parc de Rochers des Doms for a panoramic view over Avignon and the Rhône River Valley. You'll get good look at the St. Bénezet Bridge, made famous by the nursery rhyme "Sur le Pont d'Avignon." Its construction and location were inspired by a shepherd's religious vision. Imagine a 22-arch, 1,000-meter-long bridge extending across two rivers to the bridge's former tollgate on the far side. The island the bridge spanned is now filled with campgrounds. You can pay to walk along a section of the ramparts and do your own jig on the bridge. The city's castle, the St. André Fortress, was once another island in the Rhône.
In town, art lovers may be entertained by a pair of small, but fine museums. The Fondation Angladon-Dubrujeaud mixes a limited but enjoyable collection of art from Post-Impressionists (including Cézanne, van Gogh, Daumier, Degas, and Picasso) with recreated art studios and furnishings from many periods. The fine-arts Calvet Museum impressively displays its wide-ranging collection covering prehistory to 20th-century art, but has no English information. You'll find everything from neolithic artifacts to medieval tapestries to porcelain plates to Impressionist paintings.
For a close-up look at Avignon life, meander the backstreets. Join an English-language walking tour offered by the tourist information office. Or do it on your own with the tourist office's city map and descriptions from the Avignon "passion" guide. Venture along Rue des Teinturiers. This "Street of the Dyers" is Avignon's headquarters for all that's hip. You'll pass the Grey Penitents chapel. The facade shows the GPs, who dressed up in robes and pointy hoods to do their anonymous good deeds back in the 13th century (long before the KKK dressed this way).
As you stroll, you'll see the work of amateur sculptors, who have carved whimsical car barriers out of limestone. Earthy cafés, galleries, and a small stream (a branch of the Sorgue River) with waterwheels line this tie-dyed street. This was the cloth industry's dyeing and textile center in the 1800s. Those stylish Provençal fabrics and patterns you see for sale everywhere started here, after a pattern imported from India. At the waterwheel, imagine the Sorgue River — which hits the mighty Rhône in Avignon — being broken into several canals in order to turn 23 such wheels. In about 1800, waterwheels powered the town's industries. The little cogwheel above the big one could be shoved into place, kicking another machine into gear behind the wall.
A few blocks away sits the modern market hall (Les Halles), which sells produce, meats, and fish each morning. If raw fish doesn't grab you, duck into a bakery (boulangerie) for a fresh croissant or a delectable strawberry tart. Finish your tour by strolling the pedestrian streets of Avignon's thriving shopping district.
Steve Smith is the co-author of Rick Steves' Provence & the French Riviera.