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A Backpacker’s Guide to Avignon



The first city built by the Romans has hardly any remains today, after being mostly destroyed by the Goths in the 5th century. The historic city centre we see today has its origins in the 11th and 12th century AD. A walled medieval city with a majestic palace towering over it and the river Rhone flowing beside, Avignon is as magnificent today as it would have been during its hey days in the medieval ages. In 1309 AD, the Pope Clement V moved the Papacy from Rome to Avignon, the Papacy went on to remain in Avignon until about 1377 AD during which period, 7 popes reigned the catholic church. This period has much influenced modern Avignon, which is also called the ‘City of Popes’.


Provence gets its name from the ’Province’ of Julius Caesar after his conquest of Gaul and  Avignon is the heartbeat of Provence.

The Sights


Pont de Avignon (Pont St Benezet)

The broken remains of an old bridge across the Rhone, has come to signify the city as much as its Popes. Being one of only three bridges across the Rhone between the Mediterranean Sea and Lyon, it made Avignon a flourishing trade centre in the medieval era. As it also since been featured in a French nursery rhyme, the Pont St Benezet is a very popular tourist spot for the French families visiting the city. However, whether the walk on the remains of the crowded bridge is worth paying the entry fee of around 5 euros is a different matter altogether. The best way to enjoy its beauty is from either the Pont Eduoard Daladier or the banks of the Rhone.


Palais de Papes


The Palais de Pape from across the Rhone on a summer night

The Palais de Papes (Palace of the Popes) towers over the medeival walled city of Avignon. The old bishop’s palace had been the residence of first few popes in Avignon. After a decision to fortify the palace, construction was started under Pope Benedict XII. A few years later, the city of Avignon sold by the countess of Provence to Pope Clement VI, after the construction of the new palaces expanded to what we see today. The palace had been converted to a prison during the French Revolution. Today, it is open to the public as a museum and is definitely worth a visit when you are in Avignon. The audio guide on offer at the museum is a good tool to learn about the history of Avignon, the Palais and its popes. The palace hosts musical concerts in the courtyard during the theatre festival in the summer. It also features regular classical music performances in the night in the chamber room.


Musee Angladon

Musee Angladon is the result of private collector and fashion designer Jacques Doucet and houses some of the works of Paul Cezanne, Eduard Manet, Alfred Sisley and Pablo Picasso. Vincent van Gogh spent the last few years at nearby Arles, but the Musee Angladon features ‘Wagons de Chemin de Fer’ (Raiway Wagons), the only van Gogh painting in Provence. The museum is a definite visit for any art enthusiast and offers quite a bit for the uninitiated but curious.


Musee Lapidiere

The Musee Lapidiere is Avignon’s tip of the hat to its ancient history. It features exhibitions of Gallo Roman sculptures, Greek and Etruscan pieces and some Egyptian sculptures in a 17th century baroque chapel. The museum is eye catcher in the midst of the number of art museums in Avignon.


Tour Philippe de Bel

Located on the other side of the Rhone in the Villleneuve de Avignon, the new city of Avignon, Tour Philippe de Bel was built by Philippe the Fair in the 13th century to serve as a gateway into the fortified town. Today, it offers a great view of Avignon from across the river, if you can climb to the top.


Experiencing Avignon



Avignon is a city to be experienced in different ways. Avignon is city best explored by foot, the walls are just about 4.3 km in circumference and the city changes with each neighbourhood. Place de la Horloge (Clock Square) is the main square and the heart of the walled city and is full of life through the day and the night. While it can be a little touristy, there is no taking away from its charm, with the whole bouquet of outdoor cafes, ice cream shops, a big lighted carousel, the opera and the city hall.


The city is also very friendly to bicycles, since the number of motor vehicles within the walled city is low and the roads are not conducive to automobiles. Its a good idea to rent a bicycle for an evening or a day and ride around the walls and inside the city. A bicycle is also a good way to get to places like the Tour de Philippe Bell.


There is free boat service to cross the Rhone from near the Pont Benezet to the Isle Barthelasse. The service runs every half hour each way, and takes about 10 minutes to do the crossing. Sitting on the banks of the Rhone in the Isle de la Barthelasse at night and enjoying the view of the walled city in lights with the Palais de Papes shining and the gleaming Rhone in the forefront is an enduring image.


The Jardin des Doms, with its entrance near the Palais des Papes, offers a great break away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The gardens are located on a naturally high spot offering fantastic views of the Rhone and the Isle de la Barthelasse. It is very popular with the locals, and they visit it for walking, meeting friends, having picnics and sun bathing in the summer.


Top 5 Views of Avignon


The view from the Tour Philippe Bel


The 5 best places for grand views of Avignon

Pont Edouard Daladier Banks of the Rhone river on Isle de la Barthelasse Tour Philippe Bel The terrace of the Palais des Papes Jardin des Doms

Best Affordable Accomodation

Avignon is not a place filled options for budget travelers, there are just 2 hostels around the city, Auberge Bagatelle and the YMCA. The YMCA is located in a pretty remote location over 2 km from the city and there are no regular buses connecting to the city. Auberge Bagatelle is located in Isle de la Barthelasse on the other side of the Rhone, just after crossing the Pont Edouard Daladier. At just 10 minutes walk from the walled city, and on the banks of the Rhone, it is a perfect location for a backpacker or a budget traveler. However, it is very basic in its facilities, but you really cant expect more for the price you pay (about 12 euros per night for a dorm bed). While bathrooms and showers and clean and spacious, the rooms are pretty small and the beds are not most comfortable in the world. You would spend almost twice that at YMCA for a much more remote location, hence the Bagatelle is definitely my pick for the best affordable accommodation in Avignon.


Eating

Avignon is a delight for the taste buds, from traditional Provence to classic Italian pizza, you get everything here. The Place de la Horloge is filled with restaurants, but its very touristy and expensive. You would eat here only if you are a typical tourist or a local looking for an expensive night out. Head slightly out of the main square to Place des Corp Saints located in the area behind the main tourism information centre, for a selection of great affordable restaurants, where you would spend about 12 euros for mains plus a drink.


For a more local ambience, head to the Quartier des Teinturiers, close to the south eastern walls of the city, away from the hordes of tourists. This area offers a lot of local restaurants mostly catering to the residents of the city. It offers a little more fine dining experience than the restaurants in Place des Corp Saints, and hence a  little more expensive too.

If you really looking to go cheap, picking stuff from the Carrefour is your best option. There are multiple outlets around town, and most of them offer fresh baked bread, sandwiches and pastries from the early hours of the day onwards.


If you are a coffee lover and you like the idea of sitting in an outdoor cafe and sipping coffee while reading your newspaper, Avignon is your every dream come true. Almost every part of town has its fare share of cafes, but the coffees can set you back by 2-3 euros at the least. But if you want cheap, then McDonald’s has the cheapest coffee and breakfast in town. And the bonus of free WiFi for your iPhones too, but unlike the rest of the world, you cant use their toilets for free. They are open only to paying customers, with the entry access code printed on your receipt.


Hidden Gem

Place Pie is probably the undisputed winner when it comes to a complete Avignon experience. A very pretty neighbourhood filled by cafes, the open square is filled with park benches where the locals sit with their kids playing around. There’s a Carrefour right at one corner, to pick a quick snack while relax on a park bench watching the local life of Avignon play out in front of you. For all the palaces and towers and museums and gardens in Avignon, Place Pie is the one that will remain in your heart forever, wishing that you lived just around the corner.

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