Mini-guide to Avignon

June 20, 2006By Heidi EllisonFarther Afield

Pont, Popes and Plays

Tourists admiring the architecture of Avignon.

Avignon, dominated by the imposing 14th-century Gothic fortress of the Palais des Papes and the adjacent golden-statue-topped Notre-Dame des Doms Cathedral next to it, is best known to the world at large for its bridge: The ditty “Sur le Pont d’Avignon,” which will inevitably run through your head the whole time you are there, is still taught to schoolchildren everywhere. But this bijou of a small city (self-contained within its still-standing walls, it is a harmonious symphony in white stone) has many other hidden treasures to offer as you sift through its layers of history.

The 12th-century bridge, Saint Bénezet, rebuilt many times over the centuries, is still there, or at least part of it – the rest crumbled into the Rhône in the 17th century. For a price, visitors can stroll out to its truncated end and peek into its tiny part-Romanesque, part-Gothic chapel. That and a visit to the Palais des Papes, with its marvelous frescoes, are de rigueur for a first-time visitor.

Those who want to see what went on behind the scenes in the palace, built by Pope Benoît XII and his successor Clément VI between 1334 and 1363, can sign up for “Palais Secret,” a visit that includes a guided tour of the palace’s hidden chambers and passageways, ending with a brunch and tasting of Côtes du Rhône wines.

The city merits more than a one-day visit to these two tourist-filled highlights, however. Those who go beyond the central square in front of the palace and the café- and restaurant-filled Place de l’Horloge to explore its narrow, crooked back streets will be rewarded by a surprise around every corner: a Gothic church, a Baroque church, a chapel next to a church, a picturesque bell tower of yet another once-mighty church (Avignon must have more churches per capita than any city outside Italy), a convent, a stately mansion with a courtyard restaurant, a tree-lined canal with a wooden paddle wheel (Rue des Teinturiers), a charming little square with a café terrace, and so on.

In July, the entire city is taken over by the Festival d’Avignon theater festival and its competitor, the Avignon Festival Off, with plays being staged in every nook and cranny, from the courtyard of the Palais des Papes to street corners. Theater lovers with good French should book well in advance for the event; all others would do well to avoid the city during this month.

Those who have a car should drive across the Rhône to visit the cypress-studded Italian garden of the Abbaye Saint-André in Villeneuve-lez-Avignon, which offers spectacular views of the river valley and Avignon.

Avignon also has a surprising number of museums, each with something different to offer. The often-ignored Musée du Petit Palais houses Gian Pietro Campana’s rich collection of Italian paintings from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, including a stunning “Virgin and Child” by Botticelli.

The Musée Calvet, housed in an 18th-century mansion, is currently showing 80 paintings from its collection of Northern Old Masters, including a stunning portrait of a young man attributed to Jacob Van Oost the Elder. The museum’s eclectic collection also includes a number of paintings by 17th-century French painters Nicolas and Pierre Mignard and, among the 20th-century works, a few notable canvases by Chaim Soutine. The Musée Calvet’s archaeological collection is shown in the Musée Lapidaire in a Baroque chapel on the Rue de la République.

Yet another 18th-century town house is home to the Fondation Angladon-Dubrujeaud, where visitors are treated to a few gems of 19th- and 20th-century painting collected by fashion designer Jacques Doucet (1853-1929), including works by Degas, Sisley, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Modigliani and Foujita.

One of the city’s most stunning museums focuses on the present rather than the past. The Collection Lambert, housed in the beautifully restored 18th-century Hôtel de Caumont, presents rotating shows of works from art dealer Yvon Lambert’s splendid collection of contemporary art. To celebrate its 10th anniversary, it is holding a major show of the work of Catalan artist Miquel Barceló. Click here to read about the show.

Heidi Ellison

Abbaye Saint-André: Villeneuve-lez-Avignon. Tel.: 04 90 25 55 95. Garden open 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m.-5 p.m. (until 6 p.m. in summer). Closed Mondays.

Avignon Festival Off: July 8-31, 2010.

Avignon Tourism Office: 41, cours Jean Juarès, 84004 Avignon. Tel.: 04 32 74 32 74. Open April- October, Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. (until 7 p.m. in July), Sunday and public holidays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; November-March, Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday and public holidays, 10 a.m.-noon. Closed January 1 and December 25.

Collection Lambert en Avignon/Musée d’Art Contemporain: 5, rue Violette, 84000 Avignon. Tel.: 04 90 16 56 20. Open September-June, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; July-August, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Closed Mondays and between June 5 and July 8. Admission: €5.50.

Festival d’Avignon: July 7-27, 2010.

Musée Angladon Dubrujeaud: 5, rue Laboureur, 84000 Avignon. Tel.: 04 90 82 29 03. Open 1 p.m.-6 p.m. (7 p.m. in summer). Closed Mondays. Admission: €6.

Musée Calvet: 65, rue Joseph Vernet, 84000 Avignon. Tel.: 04 90 86 33 84. Open 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2 p.m.-6 p.m. Closed Tuesdays, January 1, May 1, December 25. Admission: €6.

Musée du Petit Palais: Palais des Archevêques, Place du Palais des Papes, 84000 Avignon. Tel.: 04 90 86 44 58. Open Wednesday-Monday 10am-1 p.m.; 2pm-6 p.m. Closed Tuesdays, May 1 and December 25.

Musée Lapidaire: 27, rue de la République, 84000 Avignon. Tel.: 04 90 86 33 84. Open 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2 p.m.-6 p.m. Closed Tuesdays, January 1, May 1, December 25. Admission: €2.

Palais des Papes: Place du Palais des Papes, 84000 Avignon. Tel.: 04 90 27 50 00. Open daily March 1-14, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; March 15-June 30, 9am-7pm; July, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.; August, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; September 1-15, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.; September 16-November 1, 9am-7pm. Admission: Varies; click here for details. Reservation required for “Palais Secret” visit and brunch.

Pont Saint Bénezet: Tel.: 04 90 27 51 16. Open April-June, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; July, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; August-September, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.; October, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; November-March, 9:30 a.m.-5:45 p.m. Admission: €3 (€11.50 includes admission to Palais des Papes).

More outings.

© 2006/2010 Paris Update

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