Avignon, at the crossroads & heart of France


River cruise ships line the Rhone River at Avignon, guests disembarking to cross the road. With a hand held up and a smile and a mouthed “merci”, even fierce French drivers come to a halt, tamed by such culturally appropriate politeness. Through the underpass, there’s a gateway in the medieval walls that surround Avignon, and beyond that a town both caught in a time warp and yet elegantly contemporary.

For though these walls were built in the 14th century, the small fashion shops within them are charming.

Though the Palace of the Popes dominates the architecture, the narrow laneways are still home to 18,000 people.

Maybe Avignon’s ability to sit so comfortably between distant-past and present comes from a geographical position that for 20 centuries has made it an intersection.

Medieval Avignon.
Camera IconMedieval Avignon. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

For this is where trade and migratory routes crossed — the line from northern Europe to the Mediterranean Sea crossed by the east-west routes between Italy and Spain.

Avignon is at the big crossroads of France.

And in many ways this geographical position led to Avignon’s political and spiritual one.

Town hall in Avignon.
Camera IconTown hall in Avignon. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

In the 15th century, it was the home of the Avignon Popes. For nearly 40 years, two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon, arm wrestled for supremacy in The Great Schism of the Catholic church.

The third French pope decided to build what turned out to be the world’s biggest Gothic palace, the Palace of the Popes. It took 1000 artisans and labourers 20 years, and was completed in 1334. Counting two during The Great Schism, there were nine Avignon popes, and even after their time, the palace was a religious home for up to 250 people until the French Revolution in 1789. It has been open to the public for more than a century.

Palace of the Popes in Avignon.
Camera IconPalace of the Popes in Avignon. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian


Up the sloping bitumen paths to the left of the Palace of the Popes, the Gardens at the Palace of the Popes have recently reopened following improvement.

The triptych of the Papal Garden, Palace Garden and Urban V Orchard form the new Papal Palace Gardens.

The Palace Garden has a private feel, a recreated griffon fountain and flowering meadow. They are built on a 14th century hydraulic system. This actually forms the structural basis for the layout of the gardens, with rectangles planted with Mediterranean species.

It is shade, peaceful and with a pond, cafe and views over the town.

The restoration and improvement of the gardens was a project led by the City of Avignon and Avignon Tourism.

Ancient and modern in Avignon.
Camera IconAncient and modern in Avignon. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian


  • It’s pleasant and safe just wandering Avignon’s streets. There are cafes in Republic Square, narrow and sometimes cobblestoned backstreets between Rue de la Republique and the Rhone River with shoe shops, small women’s boutiques and mens’ tailors.
  • For local produce, Avignon Les Halles market is open from 6am, from Tuesday to Saturday. Seasonal produce, vegetables and fruits, meat and cheeses are all produced in Provence. This is authentic, local Provence.
  • The Pont de Avignon extends into the Rhone River. This stone bridge was once the only crossing of the river for 300km, between the Mediterranean Sea and Lyon. The Pont de Avignon is the subject of the song Sur le Pont D’Avignon.

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