Make tracks in Avignon
There is something timelessly romantic about a long weekend in Provence. But just as I love the South of France, so too do I hold a special place in my heart for long, fast train journeys, particularly when they take me through unfamiliar countryside. That’s why, when I heard of the new direct Eurostar route (launched summer 2015), from London to Avignon in under 6 hours, (and Marseilles in 6hr 40), I booked the wife and me a mini-break tout de suite. Not only was this a more eco-friendly way to whizz ourselves to a stunning medieval city than flying, but it was also a whole lot more relaxing and also relatively inexpensive (depending on when you book).
So, what can you do in just under 72 hours in Avignon? Quite a bit, as we found out. The city centre is very small (the size of central Bath or Oxford) and can be smooched around in a couple of hours. We started with a quick visit to the Tourist Office on Cour Jean Jaurès to gather maps and information before kicking things off with the Unesco World Heritage Site, Le Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes). It’s an imposing medieval castle, built in the fourteenth century when it was the seat of the Papacy. Allow yourself an hour at least to explore all the atmospheric courtyards, cloisters and (vast) chapels and get a full sense of the money and power that built these imposing halls before traversing the famous adjoining semi-finished Avignon bridge that stops halfway across the Rhone (€13.5 for combined Palace & Bridge ticket).
You can take it all in via foot, bicycle – rent a ‘Velopop’, the equivalent of Barclay’s Bikes – or ‘le petit train d’Avignon’ (actually a small electric bus) which trundles about for forty minutes leaving every hour from outside the Papal Palace.
Really, the scenery, history and ambience are the main reasons for visiting, unless you love designer shops (of which the city is full to bursting). You can take it all in via foot, bicycle – rent a ‘Velopop’, the equivalent of Barclay’s Bikes – or ‘le petit train d’Avignon’ (actually a small electric bus) which trundles about for forty minutes leaving every hour from outside the Papal Palace. Beyond a few boozing Brits, there really isn’t a lot of party action and on Sundays all shops, and most museums, are shut. Bar Tapalocas on Rue des Trois Carreaux does cheap tapas and cocktails and for those who simply can’t go anywhere without their Guinness, there’s Irish Pub (O’Neills) on Boulevard de Raspail. There’s certainly no LBTQ scene to speak of (we heard rumours of a gay bar called L’Esclave but couldn’t find it), though we meandered constantly in a hand-holding, couply kind of way and endured fewer double takes than in London.
The other major reason to spend time in Avignon – and Provence in general – is food and drink, although I did notice an enticing looking yoga studio (inspireyogaavignon.fr) too. As you’d expect, local wine (my wife took a particular liking to the Rosé) is plentiful, varied and far cheaper here than in the UK. Aside from the mediocre tourist traps in the majestic main square, Place de L’Horloge, most restaurants offer the usual French favourites – steak frites, moules and salads full of gorgeous local ingredients – and a plat du jour option; usually whatever meat or fish is readily available, prepared in a delicious way along with whatever vegetables are in season. We enjoyed one daily dish at E.A.T. on Rue Mazan (nothing like its fast food London counterpart) and another Chef Concept, inside Avignon’s main market Les Halles where you can buy bread, meat, cheese, mustard, tapenade and other garlicky yummies. More like a pop-up than a restaurant, Chef Concept is all about locally-sourced, high quality seasonal fayre. Here we were cooked for and waited on by one friendly lady whose ratatouille could, in theory, turn me towards the vegetarian persuasion where it not for the mouthwatering cod that accompanied it.
Speaking of which… there’s no easy way to put this: vegetarianism and veganism aren’t much respected here. Terre de Saveurs on Place des Corps stated that it offered ‘Typically French Vegetarian Cuisine’ and then boasted a menu that included fish and lamb. (Go figure.) It was however in a good spot for lovers of both tea and steak (at L’atelier des Teas) and tartines of all flavours (Ginettes & Marcel).
Despite its unfailing beauty, we were pleased that we weren’t ensconced in Avignon’s magic kingdom for the entire duration, instead choosing to keep costs down by staying at the 3* Logis Hotel Le Petit Manoir about 2.5km away in a small town called Les Angles. Given how inexpensive rooms were (€65 per night for double, ensuite and balcony) we were very pleasantly surprised by the pool and restaurant, La Tonnelle, where we dined twice under sun-dappled branches in true provencal style.
Though Les Angles itself is a fairly unremarkable place, it is easy to get from there to Avignon by bus (€1.50 single, 5-10 minute ride) or on foot in 25 minute to Villeneuve lez Avignon, another gorgeous medieval town full of markets, viewpoints and al fresco lunch-spots. Over a pavement coffee next to a music school, where the sound of car wheels on cobbles competed with notes played by an amateur saxophonist, the wife and I debated whether we actually preferred this smaller counterpart to Avignon itself. I think perhaps I did, but she wasn’t sure. We also disagreed over whether we’d rush back – she is heart-set on returning next July for the annual international Avignon Festival whereas I’m keen to go all the way to Marseille next time and hit the beach. Either way though, Provence is definitely on the menu (and in under seven hours at that).
– By Lucy Fry
First appeared in DIVA magazine.
Eurostar’s best journey times from London are 4h41 (Lyon), 5h49 (Avignon TGV) and 6h27 (Marseille St Charles).
Logis Hotel Le Petit Manoir and Restaurant La Tonnelle