AVIGNON , the great city of the popes, and for centuries one of the major artistic centers of France, can be dauntingly crowded in summer and stiflingly hot. But it’s worth braving for its spectacular monuments and museums, countless impressively decorated buildings, ancient churches, chapels and convents, and more places to eat and drink than you could cover in a month. During the Festival d’Avignon in July and the beginning of August, it is the place to be. Immaculately preserved, central Avignon is enclosed by medieval walls, built in 1403 by the Anti-Pope Benedict XIII, the last of nine popes who based themselves here throughout most of the fourteenth century. The first pope to come to Avignon was Clement V in 1309, who was invited over by the astute King Philippe le Bel (“the Good”), ostensibly to protect Clement from impending anarchy in Rome. In reality, Philip saw a chance to extend his power over the Church by keeping the pope in the safety of Provence, during what came to be known as the Church’s “Babylonian captivity”. Clement’s successors were a varied group, from the villainous John XXII (of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose fame), to the dedicated Urban V, and later Gregory XI, who managed to re-establish the papacy in Rome in 1378. However, this was not the end of the papacy here. After Gregory’s death in Rome, dissident local cardinals elected their own pope in Avignon, provoking the Western Schism: a ruthless struggle for the control of the Church’s wealth, which lasted until the pious Benedict fled Avignon for self-exile near Valencia in 1409.
As home to one of the richest courts in Europe, fourteenth-century Avignon attracted hordes of princes, dignitaries, poets, and raiders, who arrived to beg from, rob, extort money from and entertain the popes. According to Petrarch, the overcrowded, plague-ridden papal entourage was “a sewer where all the filth of the universe has gathered”. Burgeoning from within its low battlements, the town must have been a colorful, frenetic sight.
Avignon’s low walls still form a complete loop around the city. Despite their menacing crenellations, they were never a formidable defense, even when sections were girded by a now-vanished moat. Nevertheless, with the gates and towers all restored, the old ramparts still give a sense of cohesion and unity to the old town, dramatically marking it off from the modern spread of the city.
Rue de la République, the extension of cours Jean-Jaurès and the main axis of the old town, ends at place de l’Horloge , the city’s main square. Beyond that is place du Palais , with the city’s most imposing monument, the Palais des Papes , the Rocher des Doms park and the Porte du Rocher, overlooking the Rhône by the pont d’Avignon , or pont St-Bénézet as it’s officially known.
Food & Drink
Good-value midday meals are easy to come by in Avignon and eating well in the evening needn’t break the bank. The large terraced café-brasseries on place de l’Horloge, rue de la République, place du Change and place des Corps-Saints all serve quick basic meals. Rue des Teinturiers is good for menu-browsing if you’re on a budget, and the streets between place de Crillon and place du Palais are full of temptation if you’re not.
Le Belgocargo , 10 place des Châtaignes (tel 04.90.85.72.99). Belgian restaurant, specializing in moules frites and beer; lunch menu with drink for under 50F/¬7.53. Closed Sun out of season. Brunel , 46 rue Balance.
Cafés, bars and salons de thé
Bloomsbury’s , 11 rue de la Balance. As English a teahouse as you could find on this side of the Channel. Excellent cakes, and a good, quiet place to read the paper. Mon-Sat 1-6pm. Les Célestins , place des Corps-Saints.
Nightlife in Avignon
There’s a fair amount of nightlife and cultural events in Avignon: the Opéra , on place de l’Horloge (tel 04.90.82.23.44), mounts a good range of productions; Le Chêne Noir, 8bis rue Ste-Catherine (tel 04.90.86.58.11), is a theatre company worth seeing, with mime, musicals or Molière on offer; and plenty of classical concerts are performed in churches, usually for free.
For live music, AJMI Jazz Club , La Manutention, rue Escalier-Ste-Anne (tel 04.90.86.08.61), hosts live jazz every Thursday night and feature major acts and some adventurous new groups. Le Bistroquet , quartier du Mouton on Île de la Berthelasse, is a rock bar with live gigs except in June, and the restaurant La Tache d’Encre has some good live sounds on Friday and Saturday nights. Gay venues include L’Esclave Bar , 12 rue du Limas (daily 10.30pm-5am; shows Wed & Sun), a bar and disco popular with gay men, and The Cage , a club in the gare routière building, with a gay and lesbian clientele. To find out what’s on, get hold of the tourist office’s free bi-monthly calendar Rendez-Vous . They may also have the weekly arts, events and music magazine César (also free), which is otherwise found in arts centres.
Festival of Avignon
Unlike most provincial festivals of international renown, the Festival d’Avignon is dominated by theatre rather than classical music, though there is also plenty of that, as well as lectures, exhibitions, and dance. It uses the city’s great buildings as backdrops to performances and takes place every year for three weeks from the second week in July. During festival time everything stays open late and everything gets booked up; there can be up to 200,000 visitors, and getting around or doing anything normal becomes virtually impossible.
The 2000 festival, which coincided with Avignon’s turn as European Cultural Capital, saw theatrical interpretations as diverse as Euripides and Gogol, performed by companies from across Europe. As ever, heavyweight productions under the direction of figures such as Jacques Lasalle were balanced by the kinetic buffoonery of groups like the Footsbarn Travelling Theatre. The program also included dance performances and lectures. The spotlighted culture of that year’s festival was Eastern Europe; the program From the Baltic to the Balkans was the debut of THEOREM (Theatres from the East and from the West), a European cultural venture designed to bring together the two halves of Europe on the stage, and it included theatre and dance groups from Lithuania to Romania, with strong Hungarian and Russian showings. As well as the mainstream festival, there’s a fringe contingent known as the Festival Off , using a hundred different venues and the streets for a program of innovative, obscure or bizarre performances.
The main festival programme , with details of how to book, is available from the second week in May from the Bureau du Festival d’Avignon, 8bis rue de Mons, 84000 Avignon (tel 04.90.27.66.50, www.festival-avignon.com ), or from the tourist office. Ticket prices are reasonable (between 130F/¬19.83 and 200F/¬30.50) and go on sale from the second week in June. As well as phone sales (11am-7pm; tel 04.90.14.14.14), they can be bought from FNAC shops in all major French cities. During the festival, tickets are available until 4pm for the same day’s performances. The Festival Off programme is available from the end of June from Avignon Public Off BP5, 75521 Paris Cedex 11 (tel 01.48.05.01.19, www.avignon-off.org ). During the festival, the office is in the Conservatoire de Musique on place du Palais. Tickets prices range from 50F/¬7.53 to 90F/¬13.73 and a Carte Public Adhérent for 75F/¬11.44 (50F/¬7.53 during the festival) gives you thirty percent off all shows