Children world-wide sing about the ‘pont d’Avignon,’ the St-Benezet bridge over the Rhone. It once spanned the whole river but strong flooding in the seventeenth century swept part of it away.
In the fourteenth century, the presence of the Popes made Avignon the capital of medieval Europe. Nowadays, it is a delightful cultural centre and the Popes Palace a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The capital of Vaucluse is still physically dominated by this largest Gothic fortress in the world, an impressive complex of towers, chapels, cloisters and courtyards which since the departure of the Popes has at times served as a jail and a barracks.
A guided tour or audio guide brings to life the lavish daily events and intrigues which once took place in the Palace, amidst opulent surroundings now only hinted at by the Goblin tapestries which hang in the banqueting hall.
Car parking is largely outside Avignon’s city walls, and inside the main places of interest are conveniently within walking distance. The city is full of well-known museums, monuments and churches.
Discover stylish boutiques, galleries and restaurants in medieval streets and Italianate squares. Tell the time by your shadow at the sundial in the lush Rocher des Doms park and take the modern bridge to the Ile de la Barthelasse, one of the largest river islands in Europe, to enjoy its green spaces.
The city holds regular markets and festivals, including a June film festival and medieval feasts at the Popes Palace in August. Most famously, the 3 week Theatre Festival in July attracts up to 200,000 visitors and also includes music, lectures and exhibitions which take place in the Popes Palace and other historic venues. For more information tel: (00 33) 4 32 74 32 74 or see www.avignon-tourisme.com
Once a prosperous Roman settlement, the town of Orange in the Rhone Valley is known for its superb amphitheatre which can seat 9000. Wonderful acoustics have enabled it to become the setting for an annual concert and opera festival (Choregies d’Orange) presided over by a 3m high statue of Emperor Augustus and attracting international stars such as Placido Domingo.
The amphitheatre is listed by UNESCO World Heritage as is Orange’s fine Roman Arc de Triomphe built in AD26. A walk through the park on Colline St Eutrope reveals lovely views across the town and theatre towards Mount Ventoux.
The ruined seventeenth century castle close to the stage was once home to the princes of Orange. Trace the history of these ancestors of England’s seventeenth century Prince William of Orange in the town’s municipal museum.
This treasure trove of Roman Provence has revealed finds from the first and second centuries AD, ranging from public buildings and luxurious homes to streets of shops, a basilica, baths and theatre seating 7,000 which is used during Vaison’s summer dance festival.
The wonderful finds of the large Gallo-Roman archeological sites of Puymin and La Villasse at Vaison-la-Romaine on the north bank of the River Ouveze can be reached across one of the few Roman bridges still in use today. Tickets for both sites include the Cathedral Notre Dame cloisters, and Puymin museum where you can see interior reconstructions, statues and small finds like mirrors and taps. Both sites and museum are open all year. Visit the Tourist Office close by for times or tel: (00 33) 4 90 36 02 11. Avoid Tuesday which is market day in the lower town and La Villasse is closed.
South of the river, steep roads wind uphill through a fourteenth gateway to Vaison’s medieval haute ville. Perched below the ruins of its twelfth century castle, the narrow cobbled streets lead onto shady squares with delightful fountains, lively cafes and little shops.
The headquarters for Luberon Regional Natural Park are in Apt. This market town at the eastern end of the Luberon valley makes an ideal base from which to explore the beautiful Luberon hills at the heart of Provence, in a landscape of ‘villages perches’ and valleys of orchards, vineyards and lavender fields.
Children will enjoy the Maison de Parc’s Paleontology Museum with a guided journey back in time to 130 million years ago. Discover more of Apt’s Roman history in the town’s archeological museum and visit the eleventh century church of Ste-Anne which was once a cathedral on an island.
Boulevards now replace the ancient walls of Apt’s old town where narrow streets lead to small shady squares sparkling with ancient fountains. The Saturday morning market, centred on place des Martyres de la Resistance, is a lively affair where comedians and musicians vie for attention with stallholders trading fruit and vegetables, pottery and the famous crystallized fruits made here from juicy local produce.
Look for master confectioners in areas like Quai de la Liberte or visit the Kerry Aptunion candied fruit factory which has a shop open all year and arranges guided tours by appointment. Tel: (00 33) 4 90 76 31 31.