Int. Travel: A week in Provence

Stephen Mansfield explores the historic festival city of Avignon, a medieval diamond in the south of France.

The spires and roof of the Palace of the Popes, one of the main attractions of Avignon.

The skies of Provence are a rare and unique phenomena. The light they cast over the cypresses, baked tile roofs, and villages perched on their improbable rock precipices provides just the right touch of drama to enhance all the best-loved components of Provencal folklore. Basking at the core of this flattering Mediterranean landscape is Avignon, arguably France's most beautiful city.

Despite the vulgar intrusions of the modern age, parts of Augustus Hare's description of the city in an early guide book still hold true: "At Avignon the traveler will first feel himself in the south: its crenellated walls and machicolated towers rise from a country covered with olives." Former home of troubadour poets and the celebrated Courts of Love, Avignon is an unequivocally romantic town—a fact not lost on the city's department of tourism. The city is also the gateway to the Vaucluse, a region of lavender fields, wild herbs, vineyards and old stone houses; the very embodiment of postcard Provence.


Papal past
Although its population barely exceeds 90,000, Avignon bears a reputation as a city of art and culture. It counts as part of what might be termed Roman Provence, but its eminence as a city dates from the 14th century, when Pope Clement V and his court, fleeing the political excesses of Rome, established the Holy See there. Avignon stood in for Rome from 1309-1377, benefiting in the process from massive papal funding, much of which went into building programs designed to glorify the city. This combination of wealth and papal tolerance turned Avignon into not only an indulgent patron of the arts, but an asylum for the political dissidents and persecuted Jews of the day. Italians who opposed the transfer from Rome accused Avignon of being a city of criminals and brothel-goers. A resentful patriarch went a step further, dubbing the city "the second Babylonian captivity," a place unfit for papal habitation.

The Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) is the city's star attraction. Like most of the old Gothic section of Avignon, it lies within the city's oval walls. The broad, echoing halls that once bore witness to shuffling cardinals, royal emissaries and legions of bowing servants now resound with the murmur of foreign tongues, the whirr of auto-focus cameras, and the well-rehearsed recitations of tour guides. Many of the spacious rooms are set aside for major exhibitions. When we were there the palace was hosting a well-attended Rodin show.

The northern ramparts of the old city, with their fortified parapets and stone gates, face the river Rhone, Provence's most romantic waterway. Avignon's medieval annex, Villeneuvre-les-Avignon, lies a short distance beyond the far embankment. The Pont Saint Benezet, built to link the two zones, was completed in 1185. Of the 22 original arches of what may possibly be the world's most famous broken bridge—and the subject of a children's nursery rhyme known to almost every Japanese—only four remain.

Villeneuve-les-Avignon, known in its day as the City of Cardinals, merits a full day's exploration. The Pierre de Luxembourg Museum contains a fine collection of religious art, and the Tour de Philippe de Bel, a 32-meter-high defensive tower, affords one of the best views across the river to Avignon. The Chartreuse du Val de Benediction, one of the most important Carthusian monasteries in France, also lies here. In the silence and stillness of its cloisters, chapels, stone cells and papal mausoleum, some of the most sublime Gothic artisanship of the 14th century can be found. Interestingly enough, its value has been recognized by the French Ministry of Culture, who fund a program that invites composers, scriptwriters and playwrights to stay and work there free of charge.


Festival season
Avignon's continued patronage of the arts is apparent every summer with the Festival d'Avignon—an international event that attracts visitors from all over the world. A staggering 300 performances or more are staged every day, some in the most improbable locations. Like the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, the Avignon festival is split into two simultaneous events: the official, Ministry of Culture-subsidized festival, and the so-called "Festival Off." The artists who decide to turn up and perform free of charge in this latter alternative event, put on some of the most vibrant mime, dance, song, drama, poetry, story recitals, marionette performances, and other spectacle de rue to be found during the three-week tribute to the arts.

Major accommodation and traffic problems accompany the festival, and anyone planning to arrive at this time would be well advised to find a room outside the city, or to wait until after the event, when most residents of Avignon try to escape the bedlam of the high season. With the approach of autumn, the city's quiet inner courtyards, ringing bells, paddle wheels and cobblestone lanes revert to something like their medieval character.

Despite the charms of Avignon and the allure of the Vaucluse, the region is not without its problems. Like many other ancient European cities, Avignon has suffered its share of defacement at the hands of city planners and developers. Serious housing shortages following the Algerian war in the 1960s saw the over-hasty construction of vast, faceless dormitory suburbs and a mash of new motorways that have left deep incisions not only on Avignon, but on other noble Roman towns in the region. As subterranean catacombs and wine cellars nuzzle against underground parking lots, it may seem at times as if history is being squeezed out to make room for more cars and tour buses.

But Avignon, with its rich heritage, outstanding architecture and patrimony, is not an easy city to deride as debased or commercialized. Its festival bears continued witness to its vitality as a major patron of the arts, and the skies of Provence, a blue dome towering over the medieval ramparts of Avignon, remain as magnificent as ever.

Getting There
Air France, Japan Air Lines and All Nippon Airways offer direct flights from Narita to Paris. See for travel to France and within the country. Avignon's local airport, Aeroport d' Avignon-Caumont, is 8km southeast of town. There are also regular express trains from Paris's Gare de Lyon and elsewhere. Where to Stay There's an excellent selection of hotels in and around Avignon. Highly recommended is the centrally located, mid-price range Hotel Danieli, at 17 Rue de la Republique, tel: (33) 490-864-682, fax: (33) 490-270-924. Formule 1, a chain of motels found all over France, offers the cheapest accommodation about 5km from town. See for online reservations.

Spring and early summer promise good weather, but the festival, held this year from July 5-27, is a fascinating time to go if you can find accommodation. The lavender fields of the Vaucluse are also at their best then. Excellent information and service in English can be obtained from the tourist office at 41, cours Jean Jaures, 84000, Avignon, tel: (33) 908-36-511, fax: (33) 908-29-503.

Photos by Stephen Mansfield

B u y  i t  o n l i n e !
Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchhiking Japan

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HIS Experience Japan is offering tourists and residents of Japan a chance to experience “real Japanese culture,” in addition to the usual tourist spots. The company has nearly a dozen programs that allow participants to learn directly from professionals. Activities include sushi-making, yuzen silk-dying, calligraphy, karate and ninja lessons, taiko drumming and lantern-making, among others. Guides who speak English, Chinese, Korean and Spanish are available, and reservations can be made online at Further info is available in English by calling 03-5322-8988.

From August 26 through September 13 (excluding September 7-9), Tokyo Dome Hotel is offering a late summer accommodation promotion, in which rooms will be discounted by up to 45 percent. During the period, the rate is ¥14,000 for a single room, ¥18,500 for a twin or double and ¥21,000 for a triple. Fifty rooms will be available per day. A variety of events are being held at Tokyo Dome City during this period, including the 78th Intercity Baseball Tournament (August 24-September 4) and the popular children’s program The Jukensentai Geki Ranger Show will be performing on stage at Sky Theater until September 2. For reservations, call 03-5805-2222 or visit CB

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