Leaving Aix-en-Provence and its high class denizens this morning, we set off for Avignon. Famous as the home of the French popes during the 14th century, Avignon is today a modest town with a big reputation when it comes to arts and history. The Festival d’Avignon, for example, is an annual arts festival held here every July that showcases 1,000 performances and exhibition, and attracts thousands of attendees. Founded in 1947 it is one of the world’s largest arts festivals and has helped cement Avignon’s reputation as a city of culture. As for the history: Avignon was the seat of papal power for over 70 years; and even though it’s been centuries since the Popes returned to Rome, their influence is still visible in the city’s architecture. The Palace of the Popes stands at the heart of Avignon, and the sturdy town walls built to protect the popes still encircle the old town. The quick look around town we had today confirmed for us that we made a good choice coming here for a couple of days – Avignon is beautiful and well worth exploring!


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We arrived in Avignon around lunchtime after a short train ride from Aix and went straight to our hotel to check in. We’re staying in a small, family-run auberge within the old town walls, just 200m from the Palace of the Popes. Our room is tiny, the bathroom minuscule, and the 3 flights of stairs we have to climb to get there steep and narrow. But it’s just so cute!


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First stop: food. No one can explore properly on an empty stomach! We headed straight for Place de l’Horloge (i.e. Clock Tower Square), the main square and heart of Avignon France. Flanked by Avignon’s 19th century city hall and opera house, the square is light, leafy, and lined with cafés and restaurants. Here we shared a very enjoyable luncheon and discussed how best to tackle Avignon (in case you were wondering: Shane had the duck, I had the beef).


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With so much to see in Avignon itself we decided to leave the city until tomorrow, when we have a full day to explore. For the afternoon, then, we chose instead to catch a bus across the Rhône River to the nearby village of Villeneuve-les-Avignon. The views of the river and Avignon city we got along the way were great!


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Villeneuve-les-Avignon originally developed around the 11th century around the Abbey of Saint André, which still stands today atop Mount Andaon. It remained a modest village, clustered around the base of Mount Andaon until the 14th century when the town across the river (i.e. Avignon) was purchased by the Popes. As Avignon’s fortifications grew and the Palace of the Popes was built, Philip IV, the then King of France, decided he didn’t think much of a foreign power constructing such an immense, fortified city on his doorstep. So what did he do? Why, he built his own massive fort of course!


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The Benedictine Abbey of Saint André occupied a strategic position on Mount Andaon within sight of the town of Avignon (great for keeping an eye on the competition, so to speak). Philip IV had his best man negotiate an agreement with the abbey that allowed for some of the land at the top of hill to be used to build a fortress with a permanent garrison next to the abbey. The result is a unique fortress that includes within its vast walls the ruins of a military fort and a religious abbey. The fortress of Saint André is huge and was designed to be clearly visible from Papal State across the Rhone, thus providing a clearly visible demonstration of the power of the Kingdom of France.


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You can usually visit the military portion of the fortress AND the abbey, but only today the abbey part was closed for some function, so we had to make do with just exploring the fortress ruins. It was still very interesting to visit and gave us an opportunity to get some great views of Avignon and Villeneuve.


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Having had our fill of Fort Saint André we headed back downhill, towards the last remaining watch tower that used to control passage across the famous Pont D’Avignon. Although only a portion of the bridge now remains, Le Tour Philippe le Bel still stands – the only remaining part of the fortifications that once surrounded Villeneuve-les-Avignon.


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From there we just ambled through the village of Villeneuve-les-Avignon intent on nothing but the pleasure of exploring the town. Many of the houses in the village are renovated Medieval homes, loaded with character and grace. It’s a beautiful village – made all the better for how quiet and peaceful it was.


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Just as we were beginning to wonder where everyone was, we stumbled across a square littered with stalls selling the oddest collection of bric-a-brac we’ve every seen. Asking some pointed questions we found out that we’d unwittingly found Villeneuve-les-Avignon’s famous brocante (i.e. flea-market). Apparently this is one of the best known brocantes in France; it attracts hundreds of stall-holders and even more shoppers. We were there quite late, and things were quietening down, early in the morning though, seems the market is throning with serious antique dealers keep to snap up the best merchandise. Flea market shopping is really not our thing (in all honesty most of the stuff just looked like other people’s old junk to us!), but it was still interesting to peer at what was on offer and marvel at the ridiculous prices being asked for some of the stuff!


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As the stall holders were packing up we decided it was time for us to finish up too. We chose to walk back across the River Rhône, enjoying the warm afternoon sunshine and cooling breezes. The views all along were pretty awesome, making us all the more eager to explore Avignon tomorrow!


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Join us tomorrow for more tales from Avignon…


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