I needed a way to break up the 3 hour drive from Marseille to Lyon. Since Avignon is located in south central France in the French region of Provence between these two cities, I thought it would make a perfect stop. I only made two mistakes:
- Driving: You're an idiot to drive in France. Just take their amazing train system. Gas is super expensive in France, so although the actual car rental is cheap, you'll pay through the roof for gas. A train ticket from Marseille to Avignon will cost you from $35 - $84. You can sit back, sip on some Provence rose and play some scrabble on your half hour trip. Then you can take a taxi into the city proper which is way easier than trying to figure your way into the walled city (and finding parking).
- Not spending more time there: Avignon is lovely, the food was amazing, and it really was not fair to the city that I only spent a few hours there.
What makes Avignon so damn cool?
Papal History: It all starts with a stubborn French Supreme Pontiff (random factoid: Pontiff comes from the Latin word pontifex, which literally means "bridge builder") named Bertrand de Got. This Supreme Pontiff did not feel like moving to Rome, so he decided to stay at the Dominican Convent in Avignon. Because of his choice, seven Popes reigned in Avignon making it the Papal City until 1417. The good things about popes is that wherever they are, there's great art, architecture, and history.
Wine: Yes, I know that this can be included in Papal History, but I always give wine a special spot. Wine making had already started before the popes made Avignon their home in the Middle Ages. Avignon is part of the Rhône valley, which is considered to be one of the best AOC's (Appellation d'origine Contrôlée - basically controlled appellation of origin) in France. Since Avignon became the capital city of the Rhône, I think that makes it a pretty significant spot if you want to drink some great wines. If you're making a pit stop, like I did, head over to the Palais de Papes, they've got a great wine cellar. If you go, you can get a flight of three wines for around €15. You'll want to drink lots of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The name means "The Pope's New Castle. Why, you ask? The Avignon Popes LOVED Burgundy and did a lot to try to promote the wines during the Avignon Papacies. While they did this, they also began to promote wine making in the nearby area.When Pope John XXII came around, the name of the wines of the area was changed to "Vin du Pape" which later evolved to Châteauneuf-du-Pape after the castle that became the emblem for the appellation. When you're in Avignon, you'll probably drink one (or more) of the following grape varietals: Cinsaut, Counoise, Grenache noir, Mourvèdre, Muscardin, Piquepoul noir, Syrah, Terret noir, Vaccarèse, Bourboulenc, Clairette blanche, Clairette rose, Grenache blanc, Grenache gris, Picardan, Piquepoul blanc, Piquepoul gris, and Roussanne.
Places You Should not Miss:
- The Old Palace: John XXII who was pope from 1316-34), converted the former bishop's palace into the Papal Palace. His successor, Benedict XII (1334-42), demolished the building and replaced it with what is now known as "the Old Palace" by Pierre Poisson. The building took 18 years to complete. Pope Clement VI (who came after Benedict XII from 1342-52) completed it with the help of Jean de Louvres in the high Gothic style. The celebrated Italian Painter Matteo Giovannetti (famous for the Chapels of St John and St Martia) was in charge of the decoration. The building is now the home of the Olivier Messiaen music conservatory.
- The Hotel De Monnaies: (a.k.a. the Mint) check it out if you're into Baroque architecture. On the top register, there are angels that carry the arms of Paul V which are topped by the papal crown. The middle register of the facade is blind, but articulated with gorgeous reliefs including the plaque that tells us that it was built in 1619 by Jean-Francois de Bagni and dedicated to Pope Paul V.
- Rocher des Doms Gardens: Once you've had enough "site seeing" ask for the hill that leads up to the Rocher des Doms. It's a gorgeous verdant spot where children, duck, and bumblebees frolic. It's a great place to kick back, eat a jambon beurre at one of the little shops that populate the area, and enjoy amazing views of the area. What can you see from this stunning vantage point? How about vineyards, the Rhône river, Barthelasse Island, Villeneuve lès Avignon, Montmirail, the Luberon, Mont Ventoux, the Alpilles, the Pont d'Avignon and parts of the Palais des Papes.
How to get to Avignon
- Planes: There are two airlines that fly into Avignon: Cityjet and Flybe. Most likely you will not use these options, but one of the ones indicated below.
- Trains: The TVG goes directly into Avignon from either Paris (2 3/4 hours) or Marseille (30 minutes or 1.5 hours depending on which train you take). The station is outside the city walls, so once you get there, take a taxi into town. This is your best option. If you want to take a bus (the TGV Navette), it will cost you around €1.50.
- Automobile: If you decide to be idiotic (like I was), the A7 runs from Lyon to Marseille. There are 2 exits you can choose for Avignon. Take "Avignon North" if you are headed towards the walled city. Take Avignon South (Sud) if you're headed to the TGV trains or Avignon airport.