Grand European Tour French Riviera Avignon to Carcassonne, France
During my recent trip to Southern France I spent an amazing day in Avignon in Provence. I fell head over heels in love with Avignon and it’s now firmly on my list of ‘Places I need to go back to ASAP!
Avignon is the capital of the Vaucluse Department and has enough to see and do to warrant a two or three day visit. Unfortunately we only had 3 hours to explore as much as we could. If you had the time there’s the 14th century Palais des Papes, basically the palace of the French pope, in the days when there were two Popes in Europe. And of course there’s the famous Pont d’Avignon (Pont de St Bénézet) which stretches into the river Rhône and the historic ramparts that surround the city.
Or just explore the old part of the city: discover typical streets like the rue des Teinturiers with its paddle wheels on the Sorgue canal which flows through the city, and numerous little streets and squares paved with cobblestones – all named after the ancient professions of the Middle Ages.
Take in the beautiful façades of the private mansions built in the 18th and 19th centuries. If you’re in to religious buildings, there are several small chapels to be visited as well as the cathedral. You should definitely visit Avignon’s covered food market. Open in the mornings, from Tuesday to Sunday, the market has around 40 stall holders, true ambassadors of local produce: fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices, olive oil and other culinary specialities of Provence.
Unfortunately Kim caught the dreaded Bus Flu (from a traveler who was pretty much sick the whole time), and she didn’t have the energy to explore too much of Avignon.
For a town the size of Avignon, it is remarkable how many great shops you will find here. We ignored Rue de la République, Avignon’s high street with the usual fast fashion chain stores, and focused on Rue Joseph Vernet, Rue de la Petite Fusterie and the streets around them instead. Here, Kim found the French brands that she loved. She was on the lookout for Sessún, Petit Bateau, Sandro, Comptoir des Cotonniers, American Vintage and Repetto. I let Kim have a little shop while I bolted through the winding streets of Avignon’s city center towards the Papal Palace. There’s no way you can miss this architectural marvel. The Papal Palace towers over much of Avignons old town and looks like a real-life version of a Game of Thrones set. You can enter the building and take a tour of the palace, but the 20 rooms that are accessible to the public are empty (most of the furniture got lost during the French Revolution). There are some intricate frescoes to see inside, so if that’s your thing, purchase a ticket and walk right in. The Pont Saint-Bénézet lies in ruins now, leading only halfway over the river Rhine. It once connected Avignon (and a watchtower of the Papal Palace) to the Île de la Barthelasse, an island that was a popular destination for the city folks to unwind. The famous bridge used to be the largest of its kind in Europe, spanning 900 meters. Some quick photos I bolted back down to catch up with Kim again.
We then took stroll through the Square Agricol Perdiguier park beside the tourist office which lead us to Place des Corps Saints, a small square with cafés shaded by plane trees. We had lunch at Ginette et Marcel, which specialises in tartines: slabs of toasted country bread covered in anything from cold meats and cornichons to warm goat’s cheese and honey. We then headed out a little early and took the opportunity to take a couple of photos.
First of all, I’ll concede that the city walls and towers are, without a doubt, magnificent. Carcassonne is well worth a one-hour stroll to appreciate some of the most remarkably intact old fortifications you’ll ever see. Unfortunately, Carcassonne is a few hours away from anything else that’s really worthwhile, so most visitors get stranded here with more time than they need.
The city of Carcassonne can be divided into into 2 parts: La Bastide Saint Louis, the “newer” part of the city which was built on the left side of the river Aude by the “Black Prince” in 1355, and La Cite Medievale, or the older Medieval City
We arrived late in the afternoon and headed out to the smaller but more famous sibling, the ‘La Cité’ citadel, Carcassonne’s (lower) town, which dates back to the Middle Ages. Known as the ‘Bastide Saint Louis’, it features typically French bars, shops, cafés and restaurants, as well as all the standard services and amenities you’d expect, and as such it’s the perfect antidote to the tourist attraction that towers above it. We strolled through its streets and checked out an handful of charming boutiques, several great places to eat and a couple of unusually stylish overnight options. While not exactly a shopaholic’s paradise, Carcassonne’s lower town has some eye-catching boutiques that are a good source for take-home treats and self-indulgent souvenir purchases. They are all concentrated in the grid-system of streets leading off from the Place Carnot and can be whizzed round in an hour or so if you’re pushed for time. We slowly walked back to the hotel for dinner, then wandered out to take a couple of night shots.
The next morning we were up just before sunrise to walk the upper town, which is surrounded by a double wall, the area in-between is known as the lices or “lists” where medieval knights once did their thing. Whilst the outer wall is the work of Louis IX, parts of the inner wall date back to Roman times. The citadel includes the Château Comtal, the central castle of the upper town dating from the twelfth century with an amazing 31 towers. It was early and we were the only ones up exploring the castle. We then headed back done to Pont Vieux and the banks of the Aude which was a wonderful place for a picnic once you’ve done the upper town. The bridge dates from the fourteenth century and boasts a Gothic chapel at its western end dating from 1538 to catch up with everyone for breakfast.
Check out our tour video here: