Once, Avignon was hell to get to. Now it’s an easy train journey. Let Ysenda Maxtone Graham, who has known it for decades, show you around
The interminable car journeys to Avignon of my childhood! Crammed into the back of the Mini with my sister. ‘Are we nearly there?’ when we were only at Dijon. Hard-boiled eggs and sausages in a polythene bag. The heart-sinking moment when my parents stopped the car for a few hours to have a ‘little sleep’. The bliss of a glace from the Elf petrol station. Not being nearly there even when you were going through the Lyon tunnel. Still at least two hours to go.
Now, if you get the 07.17 Eurostar from St Pancras on a Saturday morning in summer, you can be having a late lunch in the square at Avignon at 2 p.m. Even with the hour’s time difference. It’s a miracle.
MGM made a disastrously bad sequel to Mrs Miniver in 1950 in which they killed ‘the old girl’ (as my grandmother Jan Struther referred to her creation) off. In the late 1960s, MGM asked to renew the rights to Mrs Miniver for a further period, not in order to make another film (how could they?), but to prevent anyone else from doing so. With his share of the money from the sale, my father bought a little flat in the Rue des Teinturiers. What made it irresistible was that if you climbed up a ladder-like staircase, there was a little roof garden with a view of the Palais des Papes. Forty-three years later the flat is still ours, and the same old tin of cassoulet is still being used as a doorstop.
In those days, the sink water ran straight into the gutter, the sewage flowed straight into the street’s canal to be churned up by the water wheels, and at noon there was the non-stop hooting of impatient drivers trying to get home for lunch. Now, the street is a zone piétonne, with its own rising bollard, and there are brown signs to show tourists the way to this most pretty cobbled street, where the water wheels still turn under the plane trees.
A good thing about that Saturday Eurostar is that it arrives at Avignon Centre rather than Avignon TGV. So you get out of the train, are hit by a wall of Provençal heat, shed some of your stifling English clothes, and walk through the gate in the city walls, and straight up the Rue de la République to the Place de l’Horloge for the late lunch. (The Rue de la République is the Oxford Street of Avignon, with its Zara and its H&M. Dull, wide, Haussmann façades. Let this be the only time you walk up it — unless, that is, you run out of socks.)
The Place de l’Horloge is a square of great delight. Children love it because there are gilded statue-like mime artists and pigeons and a merry-go-round, and little figures that come out of the clock-tower on the hour. You must have lunch or supper here on your first day, at one of the row of restaurants under the canopies. But which one? Les Arts? (Because of its capital ‘A’ written as a large lower-case one, and its French ‘r’, I used to think it was ‘Les Oints’.) Or Au Petit Nice. (I love the idea of Nice being glamorous to an Avignon person. There’s also a shop called Au Maryland.)
So, feeling cosy inside a walled city, you have a carafe of vin rosé and a simple lunch (you’ve had better steaks, you must admit), and the waitress recites the list of puddings beginning with ‘f’: ‘Flan! Fruits! Fromage!’ Then you stagger up the Rocher des Doms.
Can you think of another walled town which has a great spur of rock overlooking a vast river with a medieval bridge that has its own song? To get to the Rocher, you emerge from the top of the square, through a narrow street, and come first upon the great Palais des Papes itself. The popes were only in Avignon for 70 years in the 1300s, but for most of those 70 they were building this most severely Gothic and thick-walled palace-fortress. You’ll have to visit it while you’re here — but not on the first day. Be glad that you’ll no longer have to be shown round by a man who tells the same unfunny Pope jokes every time. It’s the audioguide era now. It’s a good place to get cool on a hot day, and the fresco murals in the Pope’s bedroom are heavenly. The birds have escaped from their cages and are flying among the foliage.
In the hooting days of the 1960s and ’70s, the forecourt of the Palais was a gigantic car park. But now a five-level car park has been built underneath it, in that fearless French way, and the Place du Palais is a gigantic open space with cobbles like sliced aubergines. At the far end is Le Petit Palais with its collection of Renaissance paintings. Save that for another day, too, along with the charming Musée Calvet with its two narwhals’ tusks, and the Musée Angladon with its snowy Sisley painting, another effective coolant. Now you need to climb. Are you in a step mood or a slope mood? Or even a silly-train-for-lazy-tourists mood? These are the three methods of ascent. I prefer the slope. It’s pink, the colour of the Mall. You glimpse lizards in the parched earth. Up and up you go, turning corners — and there far beneath you appears the Rhône and the Pont with its four out of 22 remaining arches. Across the river, you see the enchanting two-towered fortress of Villeneuve. You sit on the low wall and gaze, breathing in the hot thyme-scented air.
You are now high up and in a garden with French shoe-wrecking gravel, wheeled toys for children, a grotto, swans, a tell-the-time-with-your-own-shadow sundial, and a panoramic view which shows you how well-placed Avignon is. From left to right the mountains are: the Dentelles de Montmirail (lace-like ones), the Mont Ventoux (very high and on its own), the Plateau de Vaucluse, the Luberon, the Alpilles, and the dear little local Montagnette. All good for days out.
Back down the slope (or steps) you go, yearning now for the cool of shaded streets. If you turn left straight after the Palais you’re in a deep alley in which you see how the Palais is built into the living rock. You’ll pass the pretty medieval church of St Pierre and be tempted to stop for a cup of tea in its own quiet place.
But where are you staying? I hope you can afford to stay in the splendid Hotel d’Europe with its plane tree shading the courtyard. Or at La Mirande. We only lend our flat to tolerant old friends, as it has a terrible old gas water-heating system and a hopeless powerless shower. (My father’s notes for switching on the hot water include the words, ‘Wait for five minutes. Do something else to pass the time.’) But there are lots of places to stay, and if you have your own kitchen, you’ll go to Les Halles (the great covered market) on Sunday morning, remembering that it’s closed on Mondays.
There used to be wailing gypsies selling lemons on the steps of Les Halles. There used to be an African spice-seller in the Rue des Teinturiers. And a wine shop where the man filled your own wine bottles from a tap in a barrel. And a fish shop where they made you bouillabaisse to order. And three boulangeries in the street, one with croissant-shaped door-handles. All these are gone. Avignon is full of ghosts for me. Something has gone very wrong with the economy. But Les Halles still thrives, and two families — the Bourgue family and the Serge family — still have their excellent cheese and olive stalls there, children and grandchildren taking on the business.
The restaurant you must go to, also run by an old Avignon family, the Hielys, is La Fourchette. There are forks all over the walls. (I drew a picture of the restaurant once, and gave it to them. It was hung and — even more flatteringly — stolen.) Everything is delicious but not in a flashy way: just lovingly and expertly home-made. Another delightful restaurant is Le Bercail, across the river. Take the free navett e and enjoy your minute crossing the Rhône. Order the grillade: they bring you slices of raw beef and you cook your own, sitting by the river and looking back at the Rocher and the Palais, floodlit at night. The last navette is at 9 p.m. so you walk back to the town across the road bridge, entering the walls and finding your way home through the maze of narrow streets.