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Avignon, Vaucluse, France

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Avignon is about the size of York, UK, and is a walled city with its ramparts beautifully intact. It's located in the department of Vaucluse in Provence.

The best way to see the city is to start at the Rue de la République and walk straight. All along the Rue (the main road) are the usual shops selling everything from food to clothes. What is surprising about Avignon is the lack of tacky tourist souvenirs - the whole city oozes charm and taste. If you want to shop on the République then head for the Galleries Lafayette. It's situated on your left as you walk through the city. Inside you'll discover the most beautiful Art Nouveau interior and some great bargains that only a French department store can offer. There are two things to pay attention to however - some items are ridiculously over-priced and it has been known for pickpockets to target tourists in the perfume department.

When you've managed to drag yourself out, continue your journey up the Rue de la République and you'll see a Leclerc on the right side of the street. Pop in here for any snacks or drinks but don't buy your bread here unless you're desperate. It's worth waiting till you stumble across a boulangerie (bakery).

You've bought your presents, you've stocked up on snacks and you're continuing up the Rue de la République (it's a long road) where you'll stumble into the Place d'Horloge (Clock Square). You'll find toilets to the left and cafés all around the square - these are pricey but worth it just to watch the bustle. The square is lined with trees and makes a great spot to eat your food.

If you continue up the square, you'll see a narrow passage in the top right hand corner - go through this and you'll be stunned. Leaving one square, you'll stumble into the Place du Palais. This is a true marvel. The square is dominated by the Papal Palace on the right which was erected when the popes had to flee Rome when that city was being ransacked. On the left of the square is the music conservatory.

The tour still hasn't finished - as you're looking at the palace, you'll notice a raised park to the left. Head up to this park and when you reach the top you will be greeted by the most fantastic sight that Avignon has to offer - its bridge - which is in ruins.

The Bridge

Take the path down to the bridge and your tour is complete. The bridge is called Le Pont St Benezet after the man who built it for penance. The bridge used to span 1km but the frequent swelling of the Rhône caused the bridge to break, literally. St Benezet rebuilt it. It crumbled again. The chapel on the bridge is dedicated to St Nicholas.

The bridge is quite wide because throughout the history of bridges, until recently, they used to have shops, houses and churches built on them.

Just before the bridge there is a tiny set of steps tucked away from public view - if you go down here there is a little 'beach' on the banks of the Rhône. If you go in summer after a night out, sit here and watch the sunrise. The effect is spectacular.

You first of all have the huge swell of the Rhône which is a glittering silver-green colour, then as you look up at the horizon you'll see the bridge lit up in white light and reflecting its golden stone and then you have the early morning dawn pink and orange hues swallowing up the last remnants of night. Truly an feast for the eyes.

The bridge is also the subject of a famous song. The chorus goes:

Sur le Pont
L'on y danse
L'on y danse
Sur le Pont
L'on y danse
Tous en rond.

It then has verses which include:

Les beaux messieurs font comme ça
Ils font encore comme ça.
Les belles dames font comme ça
Elles font encore comme ça.
Les millitaires font comme ça
Et puis encore comme ça.
Les petits fils font comme ça
Et puis encore comme ça.

However, the song has been distorted - it originally went 'Sous le pont' meaning under the bridge and not 'Sur' (on).

As you look over the Rhône, you'll notice that there's an island in the middle. This is the Île de la Barthelasse which has an outdoor swimming pool (where you have to wear speedos and not Bermuda shorts) and a great campsite.

Other Info

If you want to explore the city further, head for the Rue des Teinturiers (Dyers Road) where you can still see a watermill and then visit the chapel where Laura is buried. Laura was the muse who inspired the poet Petrach's poetry. He only saw her once. Also on this road, there's a great Aboriginal restaurant called Woollamoloo - try the barley - it's delicious.

Avignon is also famous for its festival of dance and drama which takes place in July. This is where international, national, local and street performers get the chance to strut their stuff. Truly an incredible time of year but unbearably hot.

Try and visit Avignon when the new wines arrive (third Thursday in November). The whole city gathers in the Place du Palais where there is a medieval pageant involving all the local vintners in costume carrying flame torches. There is a speech and then a free for all as the populus is allowed to taste all the wines, for free, for as long as they want. The hangover itself is as momentous as the celebration.

It's usually best to stay inside the city walls (intra muros) at night as outside (extra muros) can be a little dodgy - especially by the train station.

Chin Chin

When in Avignon, you must try the pastis mixes that are on offer. Pastis is the aniseed aperitif associated with the whole of France but in particular Provence. It is usually served with water which turns it cloudy.

  • A Tomate is pastis and grenadine syrup.

  • A Mooresque is pastis and almond syrup.

  • A Perroquet is pastis and mint syrup.

  • A Greque is pastis and bubblegum flavoured syrup.

If beer is your drink:

  • A Panaché is shandy (beer and lemonade).

  • A Picon Bière is a mixture of beer and alcoholic syrup - unique.

  • A Monaco is beer, lemonade, and grenadine syrup - after the colours of the flag of Monaco.

A final note on the weather - it's glorious and it is not unusual to have breakfast on the terrace in February. However, pay attention to the Mistral. The Mistral is a very strong wind that blows through the region in April/May - it occurs because the area is surrounded on one side by the Alps and the other by a small range called Les Alpilles (little alps). The cool air in the north and the warm air in the south create a kind of vacuum which sets off the Mistral. Oddly enough, it only blows for three, six or nine days.

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