Viewed from Île de la Barthelasse in the warm glow of a late afternoon sun, Avignon is a serene sight. Jutting out into the slow flowing waters of the River Rhône are four arches of the 12th century Pont Saint-Bénézet – all that remains of this once strategically vital medieval crossing. The ancient town rises upwards behind the impressive medieval walls, its historic core crowned by the towers of the 14th century Palace of the Popes and the 12th century cathedral.
If it’s a magical sight from the middle of the river, the narrow streets dotted with ancient churches and beautiful squares are even better viewed up close. It’s an experience made all the more pleasant by the absence of cars in much of the centre. Wandering Avignon’s streets, especially in the early evening when the day trippers have left, is wonderfully atmospheric.
If it was just the history that made Avignon special, it would still be worth a visit. This though is a vibrant place with good museums, and even better bars, cafes and restaurants. To say that it is a gastronomic centre is an understatement – people take good food very seriously in these parts. One of the best meals of our trip though came from rather more humble origins than the town’s several Michelin starred restaurants.
Avignon’s Les Halles indoor food market is a cornucopia of local produce, the range of cheeses, bread, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables is remarkable. Unsurprisingly, the surrounding area has some excellent restaurants, but you can also eat at several places in the market. We hadn’t planned it, but we found ourselves a table at a popular spot in the market and embarked upon one of the best lunches imaginable.
The ingredients came from nearby market stalls, we sat next to the chef as she prepared our food, and the staff were very friendly. Possibly too friendly judging by the regularity with which our wine glasses were filled. It ended up being a fairly raucous lunch, with a bar full of locals and an old man called the ‘captain’ at the table next to us. He seemed to be a permanent fixture and may even have once skippered a boat.
Lunch ended with a phenomenally alcoholic rum baba. I’m not exaggerating on this point, the small cakes that are normally soaked in rum were actually floating in a huge glass jar filled with rum liqueur. We didn’t want any pudding, but the chef was in no mood to let us off this speciality. It came with spoons and straws. It is a meal that will live long in the memory, what’s left of it anyway.
Another superb meal we had was also a happy coincidence. We were going to another restaurant one evening when we passed a lovely looking place with outside tables in a small traffic free square. It took a moment to decide to eat at Le Lapin Blanc. It was an inspired piece of luck, the menu filled with delicious local dishes came with a wine list to match. Then there was a long lunch in the Place des Corps-Saints … I could go on.
I don’t want to give the impression that all we did was eat and drink in Avignon, but it’s not a place where you’re likely to lose weight. We were staying in an apartment in a neighbourhood out of the centre where we did at least cook for ourselves occasionally – although once we found the local patisserie we were soon scoffing pain au chocolat and croissant for breakfast. With so much temptation surrounding us, it was hard to resist.
Luckily, there are many cultural and historic attractions to fill the time between meals, and strolling around town is one long history lesson. Should you wish to burn a few calories a trip across the river to the equally historic Villeneuve-lès-Avignon is well worth the effort … and provides those serene views of ancient Avignon.