48 hours in: Avignon
This fascinating Provençal city is now bathed in sunshine and offers plenty of great reasons, from food to festivals, to visit, says Mary Novakovich
Why go now?
The sunny Provençal city gets more accessible than ever as CityJet (0871 663 3777; cityjet.com) has just started direct flights from London City airport. From July 9, accessibility is augmented when Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com) restarts direct trains from London St Pancras. These summer services coincide with the opening of the annual Festival d'Avignon, one of France's largest theatre festivals (July 6-26; 00 33 4 90 27 66 50; festival-avignon.com) and its Fringe-like offshoot, Le Off (00 33 4 90 85 13 08; avignonleoff. com; July 8-31). The historic streets will fill with actors, musicians and revellers.
Avignon's Caumont airport, 8km south-east of the city, is served from London City by CityJet and from Birmingham, Exeter and Southampton by Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com).
Bus 21 (tcra.fr) runs almost every hour on weekdays from the airport to the main post office for €1.20 each way. Taxis charge about €20.
Until Eurostar's direct service resumes on July 9, connecting high-speed trains are available from the UK via Paris or Lille (book through Rail Europe; 08448 484 064; raileurope.co.uk). Avignon TGV station is 3km south-west of the city centre, and shuttle buses run from here to the main post office for €1.20. From July 9-September 10, Eurostar trains will arrive at Avignon Centre station on Saturdays, east of the ancient core of the city, from £109 return.
Get your bearings
Avignon's magnificent 4.3km of stone ramparts circle the old town, neatly containing all the major sights. The Palais des Papes, the world's largest Gothic palace and former home to nine popes, presides over a large square in the northern part of the old town. Here the Rhône river flows down to the western side, where the remnants of the Pont d'Avignon, officially known as Pont St-Bénézet, jut into the river. Just south of the Palais des Papes is the plane-tree-shaded Place de l'Horloge, with its numerous cafés, restaurants, town hall and opera house.
The tourist office is at 41 cours Jean Jaurès (00 33 4 32 74 32 74; avignon-tourisme.com; Mon-Sat 9am-6pm; Sun 9.45am-5pm). Ask for a free Avignon Passion tourist pass, which gives you discounts on all the sights after you've paid for the first one.
Avignon's only five-star hotel, La Mirande, at 4 place de l'Amirande (00 33 4 90 14 20 20; la-mirande.fr; doubles from €330, room only) is in a former cardinal's palace beside the Palais des Papes. Behind the elegant 16th-century façade are 20 sumptuous rooms, a cookery school and a Michelin-starred restaurant in the Renaissance dining room, and spacious shaded terrace.
The bustling Place de l’Horloge is on the doorstep of the smart 19th-century Hôtel l'Horloge at 1 rue Félicien David (00 33 4 90 16 42 00; hotel-avignon-horloge.com; doubles from €115). The extensive buffet breakfast for €14 is particularly good value.
The rooms at Hôtel d’Angleterre, 29 boulevard Raspail, are simply furnished but the hotel offers a rare thing within Avignon's walls: free private parking (00 33 4 90 86 34 31; hotel dangleterre.fr; doubles from €50, room only).
Once you get over the sight of the bright green lawn covering the façade of the food market at Les Halles on Place Pie, step inside for a heady whiff of superior Provençal produce. Time your visit for 11am on a Saturday (except in August) and you can watch cookery demonstrations by local chefs. The market opens at 6am every day except Monday, to 2pm at weekends and 1.30pm on other days (avignon-le shalles.com).
Stock up on lavender products from Pure Lavande at 61 Rue de la Grande Fusterie (00 33 4 90 14 70 05; lavandeandco.fr), which specialises in natural ingredients harvested from the Château du Bois lavender estate in Haute Provence.
Lunch on the run
A stroll through the Square Agricol Perdiguier park beside the tourist office leads you to Place des Corps Saints, a small square with cafés shaded by plane trees. Ginette et Marcel at No 25 (00 33 4 90 85 58 70) specialises in tartines: slabs of toasted country bread covered in anything from cold meats and cornichons (€3.80) to warm goat's cheese and honey (€6.20).
Take a hike
Begin at the bottom of Place de l'Horloge, named after its 14th-century clock tower. To the left is an attractive tangle of pedestrianised streets full of shops and cafés hidden in small squares.
Turn right into Rue St-Agricol, past the 14th-16th-century church of the same name, and right again into Rue Joseph Vernet, where upmarket boutiques now live in its aristocratic 18th-century buildings. A left turn into Rue Mazan takes you to the lively Place Crillon and its row of patio restaurants. Make a right outside the ramparts where you'll see the 12th-century Pont St-Bénezet. Both the bridge and its museum open daily from 9am; closing times vary, tickets €4.50, but reduced if you buy a combined ticket with the Palais des Papes.
Head into the Porte du Rhône and down the stately Rue de la Grand Fusterie before turning right into Rue Puits de la Reille. This leads to the broad expanse of the Place du Palais, dominated by the Palais des Papes and the Petit Palais museum — with an impressive collection of Italian and Provençal paintings from the 13th to 16th centuries. Open 10am-1pm and 2-6pm daily, except Tuesday, €6.
The latest addition to the bar scene is Cave Avitus at 11 Rue du Vieux Sextier (00 33 4 84 15 82 71; avituslacave.com). This stylish wine shop in one of the pedestrianised streets near Place de l'Horloge doubles as a bar, which offers cheese and charcuterie (€6) to go with its large selection of wines (from €4 a glass). On Place de l'Horloge itself, Le Cid Café is a relaxed place for an early or late drink (00 33 4 90 82 30 38; lecidcafe.com).
Dining with the locals
Book a table in the pretty 17th-century courtyard of Restaurant l'Essentiel on Rue Petite Fusterie (00 33 4 90 85 87 12; restaurantessentiel.com). The three-course €28 menu is extremely good value for the innovative and delicious dishes including ballottine of rabbit and red mullet with calamari and tapenade.
Many of the brasseries in Place de l'Horloge are better suited to a drink than dinner, but La Civette (00 33 4 90 86 55 84) at No 26 serves generous portions of steak-frites for €9 and large pizzas for €9.90.
Sunday morning: go to church
You can't miss the distinctive gilded statue of the Madonna that adorns the top of Nôtre-Dame-des-Doms, an imposing 12th-century cathedral beside the Palais des Papes. Within its elaborate Baroque interior is a Romanesque dome covering the chancel. Open 8am-6pm daily, with Sunday mass at 10am (00 33 4 90 821 221; cathedrale-avignon.fr).
The small 14th-century church of St-Didier, in Place St-Didier, offers a more intimate experience within its Gothic interior. Open 8am-7pm daily, Sunday mass at 11am.
A walk in the park
The hilltop gardens of Rocher des Doms, the site of Avignon's first settlement, are well worth a stroll. Perched over the Rhône, with far-reaching views of the valley and neighbouring Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, the gardens feature a tree-shaded duck pond, landscaped terraces, playground and even a tiny vineyard.
Out to brunch
You don't have to visit the Petit Palais to enjoy the international flavours at Autour d'un Thé, Un Voyage ... (00 33 4 90 86 44 58; autourdunthe.com). This elegant salon de thé offers a Sunday buffet (€22) by reservation from 11am to 3pm in its shaded garden or within the stone walls of the Petit Palais.
The opulent lives of the 14th-century popes are evoked within the enormous rooms of the Palais des Papes, where the papacy decamped when things became too unstable in Rome (00 33 4 90 27 50 00; palais-des-papes.com; 9am-7pm; €10.50, including a very useful audio guide). The elaborate interiors have disappeared over the centuries, but the sheer scale of the ceremonial rooms, chapels and private apartments decorated with frescos, more than makes up for it. The main courtyard is the magical setting for many of the Festival d'Avignon's stage productions.
Follow the signs to the rooftop terrace and café: from a stony lookout post you can catch sweeping views of the Avignon's terracotta rooftops, the Rhône and the hills of the neighbouring Gard region over the border in Languedoc.
Take a ride
Boat cruises along the Rhône can range from short jaunts to full evening affairs with dinner and dancing until 1am. Compagnie des Grands Bateaux de Provence (00 33 4 90 85 62 25; mireio.net) runs 45-minute trips from the Allées de l'Oulle dock for €8 in April and September at 3pm and 4.15pm, and hourly from 2-6pm in July and August.
The icing on the cake
Across the Rhône is Ile de la Barthelasse, the largest river island in Europe. A free ferry shuttles back and forth from just north of Pont St-Bénezet; 10am-12.30pm and 2-6.30pm daily, and 11am-9pm July-August. Luxuriate in the calm of city's green lungs. There are campsites, restaurants, a youth hostel and a municipal outdoor swimming pool, but many Avignonnais just like to picnic by the river's edge on organic produce bought directly from the island's farmers.