Intrigued by the French children’s song that made Avignon’s bridge famous, we soon came to discover an endearing city that’s steeped in history… but also knows how to let its hair down.
POSTED BY PINKY
Sur le pont d’Avignon
On y danse, on y danse
Sur le pont d’Avignon
On y danse tout en rond.
(On the bridge of Avignon
They are dancing, they are dancing,
On the bridge of Avignon
They are dancing all around.)
WHENEVER I think of Avignon and its most important sights – the Palace of the Popes and the Cathedral, among them – well, I just couldn’t see how dancing and merrymaking would fit in any way with the city’s identity.
Let’s have a look at some of them, shall we, and I think you’ll see what I mean.
Palais des Papes and the Avignon Papacy
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, it’s a classification this medieval Palace shares with Avignon’s entire historic center, once the capital of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Palace is, without a doubt, an imposing 14th century Gothic structure – the largest Gothic palace in the world, in fact – with an area of 15,000 square meters built in less than 20 years and housed 9 popes over seven decades before the papal seat was finally re-established in Rome in 1377.
Pretty heavy stuff, right?!
All the building work and political machinations only to have the rug pulled from under the Avignon Papacy.
But they do leave us with their most visible legacy, a palace that today surprisingly welcomes visitors in an interesting and interactive way.
Nope, no dancing from the Avignon cardinals here, but the Palace’s thematic guided tours – or even its relatively straightforward yet effective audioguide – absolutely does the trick.
To plan your visit, check here.
Cathedrale Notre Dame des Doms
Built in the 12th century and with recent renovations completed in 2016, this Romanesque Cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Avignon.
It was named so (from the Latin domus episcopali or “from the Bishop’s house”) because, as historians believe, here once stood a basilica and a Bishop’s residence.
The Cathedral was pleasantly full during the Sunday morning Mass that we attended. This isn’t usually the case in churches across Europe, specially during autumn, so it was a particularly nice change.
The uphill walk towards the entrance to the Cathedral may prove to be a challenge for some, so it’s best to allow a bit more time for the short trek up if you want to catch the holy mass. (For mass and opening schedules, check here.)
But nothing prepared me for what awaited us at the end. As we slowly inched our way towards the exit alongside all the other mass goers, we suddenly came upon this unbelievably arresting image of the crucified Christ, set against a backdrop of the most brilliant blue Provençal sky. Absolutely breathtaking!
While the Popes’ Palace looked austere and imposing, the Cathedral was softer and more inviting.
And the square in front of both the Palace and the Cathedral was always teeming with families and groups of young people, including teenagers listening to dance music. Dance music!
Sure, some people might disapprove of this choice, which was admittedly in marked contrast to the solemn surroundings. But I must say, it wasn’t totally unpleasant.
In fact, it revealed a side to Avignon that was perhaps what I was looking for all along: the French joie de vivre!
Now we get to the very bridge made famous by the French song.
Originally made up of 22 arches spanning from Avignon all the way across to Villeneuve lès Avignon, only four of these arches remain of Pont St Bénezet.
Built by the shepherd boy whom the bridge was named after, 12-year-old Bénezet was said to have been instructed by a divine voice to build a bridge there. Sadly, he later on died from exhaustion at 19 and didn’t get to see the bridge completed.
Could all this now be a case of much ado about a mere broken bridge? To some, perhaps.
But when you learn more about the bridge’s significance and how it was the only safe way to get across the river Rhône, whose difficult waters and hidden sandbanks caused boats to overturn and people to drown… well, one might begin to view things differently.
Not only did the bridge save lives, it also allowed Avignon to levy taxes on all merchants, farmers, pilgrims, and everyone else who crossed the bridge.
Surely, a big enough reason for the people of Avignon to feel joyful. But that was all in the past. What about today?
As we got to the very center of the old walled city, it all finally came together for me.
Place de l’Horloge
Approaching Avignon’s main square, what do we find?
Music playing, carousel turning, tree lights a-blinking, people just going about their evening – strolling, chatting, laughing, watching their kids playing. What a festive scene, and it wasn’t even Christmas!
This jovial atmosphere extended into the little streets that radiated out of Place de l’Horloge, with its delightful shops and charming restaurants, stretching out towards the main avenue, Rue de la République.
What was happening?
Completely swept by all the history and the medieval splendour of the city, I was caught totally off guard when it began to slowly reveal… well, its fun side.
That’s certainly showing me, Avignon!
Marché Les Halles d’Avignon
And what better way to spend the morning after an early run or stroll than in Avignon’s covered market!
Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 6am to 1:30pm (2pm on weekends), one can’t possibly miss it. The sight of its delightful vertical garden or green wall, created by renowned botanist Patrick Blanc, instantly brought a smile to my face.
With an exterior that looked like this, what surprises could it possibly hold inside?
With just 40 stalls, one can expect only the best produce from the region – from cheeses and breads, to fruits, flowers and vegetables, to charcuterie, meats and seafood, to wines, spices and desserts.
There are bars with tables if you wish to eat right there at the market. You can also buy ingredients or bring some prepared food back with you to enjoy later in the day.
Bustling with locals, my husband and I decided to grab a table, we each got a glass of wine to enjoy with our meal, and watched market life go by. (How I really feel about markets here.)
Where We Stayed
We rented an Airbnb property owned by a wonderful couple, right along Rue Limas close to Place Crillon. It was in a quiet area with easy access to the parking located immediately outside the walls.
If you have a car, this area would be ideal as parking can be tricky within the walled city. It’s also close to the Popes’ Palace and Pont St Bénezet, and not far from Place de l’Horloge.
Taking on Avignon
The historic center of Avignon is small enough to easily navigate in, yet it’s jam-packed with still more for me to explore on a next visit.
The area immediately outside the walls and down the length of the river Rhône, perfect for running.
And you’ve got the lovely locals who are contagiously enamoured with their city and obviously know how to have fun.
But what I like most about Avignon is the fact that it’s a city of contradictions. A clichéd description perhaps, but it is most certainly an attractive quality in any city, if you ask me.
Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, it reveals itself in a surprising way.
Now that’s something to dance about.
A great base from which to explore the Provençal region, Avignon is also less than 30 minutes away from Chateauneuf-du-Pape.