What Avignon Reveals about Provence

Photo set on Flickr

Connected to Paris by the TGV, chances are Avignon will be your first stop in Provence. Many people pick up their rental cars outside of the TGV station and head straight to the Luberon region, never bother to check out this ancient city. That’s a mistake – even as little time as half a day in Avignon can reveal much about Provence at large.

A deep history

If your image of Provence consists of only picturesque villages and lavender fields, remember the region’s Mediterrean location means it is steeped in history. Look no further than Avignon, which is settled since the Neolithic period and predated Paris by more than 3,000 years. Because of its strategic importance, Avignon (and Provence in general) had been successively invaded by the Phocaeans, Romans, Burgundians, Franks, Moors and Holy Romans before being occupied for good by France during the reign of Louis VIII.

Avignon might had changed hands more than a Kardashian, but from 1309-77 it was the center of Christendom, serving as home to seven puppets of the French monarchs French popes. The largest building in town, the Palais des Papes (Papal Palace), serves as a reminder of Avignon’s golden era.

Convenient to visit

France’s efficient high-speed railway system makes traveling around the country a blast. You can get to most major French cities by TGV in just a few hours from Paris, and Avignon, as the transport hub of Provence, is no exception.

The TGV ride from Paris’ Gare de Lyon to Avignon takes only 2h40m. Feeling like heading south right after your plane lands in Paris? There is direct train to Avignon from Charles de Gaulle’s Terminal 2 too.

Think about that – it takes less time to cover the 700 km between Paris and Avignon than a typical Hobbit movie. There are many reasons why France has consistently received the most visitors among all countries, and one of the underrated aspect is the French government’s willingness to invest in infrastructure to ease the traveling time within this not-too-small country. Here are train journeys of similar distance in other western European countries:

London – Edinburgh: 670 km/ 4.5h

Rome – Milan: 580 km/ 6h40m

Madrid – Barcelona: 620 km/ 3h

Berlin – Frankfurt: 550 km/ 4h15m

Besides the massive infrastructure drive in Spain that has created countless white elephants and decimated numerous Spanish banks and government treasuries, none of the other big powers like UK and Italy come close to the TGV’s efficiency.

The crowd can get suffocating 

After encountering busloads of British retirees at the Palais des Papes, you will be forgiven in believing you have somehow been teleported to a retirement home in England. It is not just the Brits you will encounter; people from all across the globe can’t get enough of Provence, especially during the summer when the lavender is blooming and the weather is at its best. The narrow country roads are cloaked full of cars. Restaurants, no matter the quality, are packed. Accommodation almost rivals the price of Paris’. Most retail space is taken up by sorry-looking shops selling generic postcards and lavender-related junks.

This is not about to sink into another “mass tourism has killed another beloved destination” type of rant – it is possible to escape the crowd in Avignon and Provence. Two rules that work anywhere: Use your time efficiently and venture off the beaten path slightly.

Try to wake up right around dawn and take in the Palais des Papes when it is completely empty. When the crowd starts to show up, have a long breakfast. Take a nap then have lunch in the area near the university. You will be surprised how few people venture to this part of town even though it is only a 15-minute walk from the palace. At sunset head to the other bank of the Rhone river and enjoy a undisturbed picnic and a panorama view of the old town. Everyone else? They can continue to get into each other’s way.

Wine fit for a pope

Everyone knows about Bordeaux and Burgundy, but does Rhone Valley ring a bell? Known mostly for its Syrah, Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache, Mourvedre and Viognier, Rhone wine is often dismissed as the place where bland table wine is produced. Yes, much of the south does fit this bias, but the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape near Avignon is an exception.

That’s an understatement. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is actually one of the most prestigious wine appellations in France. Read that name again. It translates to  “The Pope’s new castle”, as it was during the years of the Avignon Papacy when this once primitive farmland was transformed into vineyards that could satisfy the taste of popes’.

If you can spare the cash, give this wine a try. Drinking it at the Palace Square under a cloudless night is a better introduction to the former glory of Avignon and Provence than anything else money can buy.

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