Avignon, France: the perfect break
The imposing Palais des Papes is where a succession of pampered popes wielded power throughout much of the 14th century Photo: ALAMY
Strategically situated high above the river Rhône and encircled by medieval ramparts, Avignon's walled old town is a warren of cobbled streets, lantern-lit passageways and architectural treasures. Bathed in the extraordinarily brilliant Provençal light, this former papal enclave has long attracted artists and painters as well as those in search of cultural diversion.
Go now to take advantage of Eurostar's direct summer service from London (see below), and for the annual Festival d'Avignon, when the performing arts take centre stage at atmospheric venues throughout the city.
Highlights this year include dawn performances of medieval music and dance, set in the spellbinding surroundings of the Palais des Papes' inner courtyard, and classical music concerts (Bach, Mozart and Liszt); until July 26. Alternatively, go in August (2–7) for the city's annual jazz festival (www.trempjazz.com).
Get there by…
Train. Until September 10, Eurostar (0843 218 6186; www.eurostar.com) operates direct services between London St Pancras International and Gare d'Avignon Centre – in just under six hours – from £109 return. Tickets are also available from 200 towns and cities across Britain: for example, Bristol to Avignon, boarding the Eurostar in London, costs from £139 return, and Newcastle from £149.
Hôtel d'Europe (12 Place Crillon, 0033 4 90 14 76 76; www.heurope.com) for a glimpse of how France's ruling elite were housed prior to the French Revolution. Constructed in the 16th century for the Marquis of Graveson and his family, this rarefied retreat – a hotel since 1799 – is home to exquisite tapestries and a magnificent 18th-century plane tree. Doubles from £185.
A quirky and characterful budget option is the two-star Hôtel Le Colbert (0033 4 90 86 20 20; www.lecolbert-hotel.com), which is peacefully situated on rue Agricol Perdiguier. Rooms are vibrant in colour, ochre with accents of orange, and film and theatre posters adorn the walls throughout. Doubles from £85.
Spend the morning…
Humming Avignon's much-loved nursery rhyme. Constructed in the 12th century, Avignon's Pont St-Bénézet is best known as the bridge of Sur le pont d'Avignon/ L'on y danse, l'on y danse fame. However, standing on this narrow, cobbled ruin, it is hard to imagine much dancing taking place here. Indeed, it is more likely to have occurred under the arches that spanned the verdant Île de Barthelasse opposite.
Today, a busy ring-road passes close to what remains of the Pont St-Bénézet (just four of the original 22 arches), so the audio guide – highlighting the difficulties this narrow bridge posed for medieval men and their mounts – is a must to keep out the traffic noise. Guide hire: £4.
Afterwards, head to the imposing Palais des Papes, from where a succession of pampered popes wielded power throughout much of the 14th century. Today, the austere interior of this vast palace-cum-fortress gives little hint as to the decadence and corruption that defined the Avignon papacy. However, there is much to see of note, including 14th-century wall paintings and glorious examples of Gothic architecture. Entry: £7.70.
Have a picnic lunch…
In the dappled shade of the gardens of the Rocher des Doms, while delighting in the far-reaching views of limestone-topped Mont Ventoux – Provence's highest peak – and the Lubéron and Chaîne des Alpilles mountains. Theias (53, rue du Vieux Sextier, 0033 4 32 76 34 79, www.theias.fr) does an excellent, and sizeable, cheese and fig bap (£4), while Fournil La Fille de L'Artisan (30, rue Portail Matheron, 0033 4 90 82 62 22), offers puff-perfect mille-feuille (£1.50).
Spend the afternoon…
Exploring Avignon's cobbled old town. Venture away from the touristy north-west of the city to see the remains of 18th-century waterwheels and much-faded grandeur on rue des Teinturiers.
Elsewhere, the south-west is home to several churches and chapels, while the smarter north-east has more than its fair share of beautifully carved wooden doors. Pick up a walking map from the excellent tourist office at 41, cours Jean Jaurès.
A recommended stop for art-lovers is the delightful Angladon Museum (5, rue Laboureur), which is home to several Picassos as well as works by Manet, Cézanne and Sisley. However, the big draw here is Van Gogh's Railway Carriages, which was painted in nearby Arles, in 1888, and is the only one of his Provençal paintings on permanent display in the region. Head upstairs for Sèvres china and seventh-century terracotta pieces. Entry: £3.60.
In the late afternoon, take the free shuttle boat to the leafy Île de la Barthelasse and grab a cooling drink at the waterfront bar there.
At La Cour du Louvre (0033 4 90 27 12 66; www.lacourdulouvre.com), which is tucked down an easily missed passageway at 23 rue Saint Agricol. The reassuringly rustic menu includes copper pots of steaming potato dauphinoise, meaty monkfish, tender chunks of lamb and pungent local cheeses. Lit with soft-glowing fairy-lights, request a table in the cosy courtyard. Two courses: £35.
Spend the following day…
On a wine-tasting tour of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Considered by many to be one of the finest wine-producing regions of the Côtes-du-Rhône appellation, the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are renowned for their robust reds and the caramel-coloured cobbles that sit at the base of the vines.
Led by François Marcou, the charming and passionate founder of Avignon Wine Tour (0033 6 28 05 33 84; www.avignon-wine-tour.com), the day includes tastings at a number of wineries - notes of chocolate, raspberry and cigar leaves - and a tour of the region's wine museum. Music is an integral part of François's tour, so wine-lovers can expect stupendous views of rolling and serried landscape to be accompanied by the strains of Bach or Puccini. Tour: £66pp (maximum of six people). Lunch (three-courses, with wine): £15.
At all costs avoid…
Paying full price for visitor attractions. Pay full price at the first site visited (in my case, the Pont St-Bénézet) and request an Avignon Pass for a discounted rate at all subsequent venues (reduced prices quoted above).