Things to Do in Avignon
Located in southwest Provence, the Camargue is one of France’s wildest and most scenic landscapes. Protected as a regional natural park, the expanse of wetlands, beaches, salt pans, and rice paddies is known for its herds of white Camargue horses and Camargue bulls, all tended to by localgardians (cowboys).
Reaching a height of almost 160 feet (49 meters), the three-tiered Pont du Gard bridge was part of a 31-mile (50-kilometer) Roman aqueduct network that carried water from a source at Eure to bathhouses, fountains, and patrician villas in Nîmes. Constructed in the first century, the ancient engineering marvel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The 12th-century Senanque Abbey (Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque) which to this day is the home and worshiping place of Cistercian monks, has no great history. There are no iconic frescoes or statues to see, and while pretty, it isn't especially notable architecturally. So why is it on every visitor's must-see list when visiting Provence?
One word: lavender. The monks here grow, harvest and process lavender from the surrounding fields, which means that come June visitors have a front-row seat to one of the most gorgeous photo ops of all time. Whether passing by in a car or stopping to smell the flowers, the Sénanque Abbey, near Gordes, is a summertime treat.
The largest Gothic palace in the world, Avignon’s Palace of the Popes (Palais des Papes) was home to the heads of the Roman Catholic Church in the 14th century. Visitors can tour the grand rooms, landscaped gardens, and secret passages used by members of the clergy, and see special exhibitions and concerts held at the palace.
The Lavender Museum in Coustellet is at the farm where this brilliantly colored, fragrant plant is grown, harvested and processed into all kinds of products. But far from being a factory or simply a museum, it's a family-run business dating back five generations, and the pride in their work is immediately apparent to visitors.
Included in the Musee de la Lavande is a large collection of vintage distilling machines and other implements used as far back as the 17th century; this was the hobby of one of the Lincelé sons. There is also a film about the distilling process and guided tours as well. It's a wonderful, in-depth look at how lavender is used, and even better, it's open even when the fields are not in bloom!
The Saint Benezet Bridge, better known as the Pont d’Avignon is Avignon’s most famous landmark, immortalized in the popular French children’s song. Only a small section of the original bridge across the Rhone river remains.
With a history dating back to the Bronze Age, Nimes is one of France’s oldest cities. Its Roman ruins—which include the UNESCO-listed Pont du Gard aqueduct and Colosseum-inspired Arènes de Nîmes—still take centerstage in the modern city.
Surrounded by golden beaches in the spot where the Rhône River meets the Mediterranean Sea sits the whitewashed town of Saintes Maries de la Mer. As the capital of the Camargue region in the south of France, Saintes-Maries is a popular summertime destination made famous by the imposing Church of the Saintes Maries de la Mer. Built as both fortress and refuge between the ninth and 12th century, its grand Romanesque steeple can be seen from miles away.
A 20th-century literary and artistic haven beloved by the likes of Hemingway and Picasso, Saintes-Maries has seen everyone from the Romans to the Vikings, Van Gogh to Bob Dylan. Today its narrow, winding streets and lively French restaurants bustle with summertime action.
Saintes-Maries is also a popular visit among pilgrims. Why? It’s all in the name. French for “Saint Maries of the Sea,” this is said to be where the Virgin Mary’s sister, Marie-Jacobe, and John the Baptist’s mother, Marie-Salone, washed up with their servant Sarah when they all fled from the Holy Land in a rudderless boat. In celebration, every May there is a lively Roma procession dedicated to Sarah, patron saint of the gypsies, and in October the two Maries get their own parade.
While Provence is more a state of mind than a place – you can't actually point to Provence on a map – the hilltop village of Roussillon is exactly what visitors think of when they say they want to visit Provence. Picturesque, compact, colorful and with astounding views of the countryside, this village in the Vaucluse couldn't be more charmingly Provençal if it tried.
The almost candy-like colors of the buildings come from the surrounding earth; Roussillon lies on one of the largest ocre deposits in the world and has prehistoric origins. After a stroll around the village, take the Giants' Causeway (Sentier des Ocres), a cliffside trail loop that features the bright orange sands and plenty of forest to explore.
Perched between the magnificent UNESCO-listed Palais des Papes and the hilltop Rocher des Doms, the Avignon Cathedral (Cathedrale Notre-Dame des Doms) is somewhat eclipsed by its neighboring tourist magnets. While the Cathedral’s comparatively demure façade fails to incite the same gasps as the castle-like Palais, its iconic bell tower, capped with a 4.5-tonne gold statue of the Virgin Mary, still demands attention from the passing crowds.
The cathedral has a history dating back to the 12th century, but the majority of the present-day building dates from the 15th and 17th centuries. Most notable are the richly decorated Romanesque-style interiors, where highlights include a 12th century marble throne, a beautiful gilded organ and a chapel dedicated to John XXII, housing an array of artifacts and religious icons.
More Things to Do in Avignon
Avignon’s Les Halles market is home to about 40 stalls, each selling some sort of Provençal goodies, from cheese and meats to oysters and foie gras, even rose petal-perfumed sea salt. There’s a wine bar and well-loved Italian stand too, and the popular market is easy to spot—its façade is covered in a frothy vegetable garden designed by botanist Patrick Blanc.
The best time to visit Les Halles? Local chefs (a different one each week) show up at 11 a.m. each Saturday to give cooking demonstrations using fresh ingredients picked up from the market that morning. The demonstrations are in French, but it’s easy enough to follow along. Private cooking classes also take place in Les Halles Market throughout the week, and there are workshops geared especially for children and sushi-making classes on Fridays.
Les Baux-de-Provence is a charming town in the Provence region, and whose name refers to its location: in Provençal, a baou is a rocky spur. Les Baux-de-Provence has a fantastic position amidst the Alpilles mountains, and is considered to be one of the most beautiful villages in France.
The stunning location is set atop a rocky formation complete with a ruined vast fortress. Les Baux-de-Provence has a rich history: in the middle ages, Cardinal Richelieu ordered the demolition of the castle because the village housed protestant rebels. The village is also the site where the aluminium ore Bauxite which was first discovered in 1821 by geologist Pierre Berthier, and as such the ore bears its name.
The Church of St. Trophime, or Eglise St-Trophime in French, is a masterpiece of 12th-century Romanesque architecture in the Provençal city of Arles, which is located on the banks of the River Rhône and on the doorstep of the wild, marshy Camargue. Along with the city’s many Roman remains, the church was UNESCO World Heritage-listed in 1981; it was constructed from pale-hued stone in the 11th and 12th centuries and dedicated to Trophime, who was an early bishop of Arles and later its patron saint.
Its magnificent, colonnaded Romanesque portal was restored in the late 20th century; its carvings depict the Last Judgment, with Christ overseeing anguished sinners being dragged down into Hell and the righteous ascending to Heaven. Statues of lions, the Apostles and other saints guard the entrance to the church, which is austere and symmetrical on the inside. The adjoining cloisters surround a tranquil garden and are a combination of Romanesque and late- Gothic architecture, with ornate columns and pillars covered with sculptures of biblical scenes and figures of saints.
The church’s chapter house has a long medieval hall with a vaulted ceiling and displays some Gobelin tapestries alongside occasional temporary exhibitions.
In the Petite Camargue region in southern France, the best way to see the medieval town of Aigues-Mortes is from its medieval ramparts. On a wander atop the city walls, you can see right across the ancient town, once filled with knights and crusaders during the 12th-century reign of Louis IX. Saint Louis ordered the ramparts so that his French kingdom could have a Mediterranean marina that would give them passage to the Middle East. Make sure to check out the famous Constance Tower while you’re in town. Built under the orders of Louis in 1242, it’s the most impressive of the 20 imposing towers dotted around the city walls.
Down at street level, a stroll along Aigues-Mortes' lively medieval streets is a popular pastime. While you’re here, try the local Fougasse pastry, which can be savory or sweetened with sugar and orange blossom. If you walk 15 minutes away from town, you'll run into the local salt works, a major part of the town's history, and their pink salt lakes.
The Musée du Petit Palais (or the Little Palace Museum) originally served as a bishops’ and archbishops’ palace during the 14th and 15th centuries. It was originally built for Cardinal Béranger de Frédol between 1318 and 1320, and Pope Benoît made it his clerical headquarters after the palace underwent extensive renovations.
Today, the palace houses an impressive collection of frescoes, sculptures and Italian religious paintings spanning the 13th to 16th centuries. These include prominent works by Botticelli, Carpaccio and Giovanni di Paolo. One of the most famous painting housed there is Botticelli’sVirgin and Child. There are also a handful of Renaissance paintings of the Avignon school.
Montmajour Abbey (Abbaye de Montmajour), Provence’s oldest abbey, was founded in the 10th century by Benedictine monks and built on what was then a swampy island in the middle of the River Rhône north-east of the UNESCO-listed city of Arles.
The monks of Montmajour enjoyed several centuries of wealth, with the abbey thriving thanks to pilgrims who visited to see a fragment of the True Cross displayed in the Chapel of the Holy Cross. By the end of the 14th century, plague and the Hundred Years War affected the fortunes of the monastery; a defensive watchtower and fortified walls were added but it fell into disrepute. In 1639 its fortunes were briefly revived by an influx of new monks but the French Revolution in the 1790s saw Montmajour abandoned and derelict.
Today the restored ruins of the abbey, known formally as the Abbey of St. Peter in Montmajour (Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Montmajour), include the medieval monastery and its neo-classical counterpart, built in the 17th century; art exhibitions are occasionally held in the enormous, barn-like church. St Peter’s Chapel is flanked by the monk’s cemetery, where medieval graves were carved directly into the rock. The 12th-century Chapel of the Holy Cross stands in a field just outside the monastery walls and there are panoramic views across the rolling Provençal countryside from the top of the defence tower; at 30 m (98.5 ft) high, it is possible to see the foothills of the Alps – sometime Arles resident Vincent van Gogh visited Montmajour often to enjoy this view.
Renowned for its full-bodied reds, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is one of the breakout stars of the Rhône Valley wine region and a firm favorite among wine lovers. The hilltop village is undeniably picturesque, with its imposing castle, atmospheric medieval streets, and magnificent views over the vineyards below.
Made famous by Peter Mayle’s bookA Year in Provence, the Provençal village of Gordes boasts an idyllic setting atop the Vaucluse plateau. With its maze of cobbled lanes, honey-colored stone buildings, and medieval chateau, it’s easy to see why Gordes is hailed as one of France’s most beautiful villages.
With its white-stone buildings, Renaissance architecture, and traditional French market, Uzès is a picturesque pocket of Languedoc that’s all-too-often overlooked by visitors. The city’s Roman roots link it to the region’s most memorable monument, the UNESCO-listed Pont du Gard aqueduct, which delivered water from Uzès to Nîmes in ancient times.
Thanks to an extraordinary climate and fertile soil along the Rhône River, the vineyards of the Rhône Valley region produce some of the finest wines in the world. Stretching from the Camargue in the south to Lyon in the north, the Rhône Valley boasts over 1,000 vineyards intermingled with villages, lavender fields, and olive groves.
The Rhône River starts in the Swiss Alps, ends in the Mediterranean, and for most of the 500 miles in between there is a wealth of commerce, agriculture and activities that make southeastern France so notable. First are the historic cities on its banks–Lyon, Avignon and Arles are just a few. Also along the banks of the Rhône, or the “Cotes du Rhône” as the French say, is the eponymous wine that oenophiles swoon over.
In fact, it is the Rhône that gives the surrounding valley the proper terroir for wine; the first vines were grown here in Greek and Roman times and the tradition continues today. The vineyards of the region are visited by those looking for fair weather in addition to a unique wine experience.
Aigues-Mortes is about an hour south of Avignon in the heart of the marshy Camargue, a delightful walled town that was fortified in the 13th century by King Louis IX; it is now on the Canal Rhône-Sète although back in medieval times it was a strategic seaport on the Rhône delta. The creamy-stoned Gothic Church of Our Lady of the Sablon stands over the labyrinth of cobbled streets, built in the early years of the 13th century, and it was from here that Louis IX set out on his crusade to the Holy Land in 1248
Notre-Dame-des-Sablons has a turbulent history; starting life as a Catholic church, it was sacked by the Protestants in 1575 and the bell tower then collapsed in 1634, rendering the building unusable for almost a century. It was renovated between 1738 and 1744, and during the French Revolution in the 1790s was used as a barracks and salt depository. It reverted to Catholicism and in 1842 the interior was restored in Baroque style with vaulted ceilings, oil paintings and statuary. In the 1960s, this ornate makeover was reversed and the church today is pleasingly plain inside, its simple stone arches and bare walls giving it an air of medieval tranquility. In the 1990s, 31 startlingly contemporary stained-glass windows were added; they were designed by Claude Viallat and created by master glassmaker Bernard Dhonneur.
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