Travel Story A day in Avignon, Provence

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

When it comes to exploring this French city, it pays to follow your nose.

It would seem fitting to start by drawing a cross, with Avignon, in the Provence region of the south of France, in the centre.

At the northern tip is Paris, at the southern one the Mediterranean Sea. Avignon sits at a junction of the busy Autoroute du Soleil — the freeway to the sun down which Parisians, the French, and pretty much the rest of Europe pour in summer.

To the east is northern Italy; to the west Spain.

Avignon is at the crossroads of a contemporary mass migration but that is nothing new for this engaging medieval town. For it has sat at an intersection for 20 frequently tempestuous centuries.

The modern migration is seasonal now, as visitors start arriving in spring (April’s a good month), peak in June and July, and tail off through what can be pleasant autumns.

Avignon is a key spot on the itineraries of tour groups and river cruises, which tie up opposite the entrance to the city, and with good reason.

It is contained within a 14th century wall which is surprisingly intact. I walk through the familiar l’Ouille gate (I know Avignon quite well), turn left and quickly do an errand, buying French socks at my favourite sock shop in, well, the whole world.

Now it’s simply a question of following your nose (or tour leader with a flag), up the agreeable Rue St Agricol, with its heritage shopfronts and apartments, to Republic Square (or “l’Horloge”) with its classic town hall flanked by tricolour flags. Vive la France!

At the south end of the square is Rue de la Revolution, leading to Cours du President Kennedy — both worth writing here in their self-explanatory French versions. John F. Kennedy had a long dalliance with France.

But I turn north, across the square, past the carousel, and then up the narrow lane leading to the Palace of the Popes. It is a magnificent building, imbued with a powerful story, and best seen lit by morning sun. 

For many Roman Catholics in the 15th century, this was the new spiritual centre of the world. For nearly 40 years, there were two popes, one in Rome and the Avignon popes here — a breakaway struggling for ascendancy in The Great Schism of the Catholic Church.

It was the third Avignon pope who started to build the Palace of the Popes, the world’s biggest Gothic palace. It took 1000 skilled craftsmen and labourers two decades, completing the work in 1334. More than half a million visitors a year walk through 25 of its rooms.

But I have a couple more treats today. I walk over the square to the Museum of Petit Palace, which holds wonderful artworks and painted icons.

And after this, I climb the hill to the Promenade of the Popes and the Garden of the Doms, looking back not only towards the Palace of the Popes but then over the Rhone and the countryside of Provence. 

I lean on the wall, lost in the thought of being at this centre of the cross — this historic intersection of trade and migratory routes.

“Merde!” the lady beside me proclaims, then streaming indignant French syllables at her selfie stick which seems to have jammed. 

She turns to me, switches on a smile “tres irresistible”, hands me her jewel-encrusted gold iPhone and pouts cutely and entirely unabashed in front of it. “S’il vous plait?”

She throws open her jacket to reveal a clinging T-shirt with a depiction of the crucifix on it.

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