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Avignon is Culture, Its Bridge Notwithstanding

No bridge seems to be as famous as the one in Avignon, the central theme of one of the best known children’s songs in France. Indeed, it has been sung in virtually all languages – local guides can even sing it in Japanese – so it comes as no surprise that anyone arriving at the battered Pont Saint-Bénézet is likely to sing the song or even dance it. This structure, twice destroyed by flooding along the Rhone, has become an icon of this Provençal city and its ambassador par excellence, earning it universal fame.

Apart from its bridge, Avignon, which is just an hour’s drive from Marseille, is a historic city, having once been the capital of Christendom and the centrepiece in one of the major schisms in the Catholic Church. Dating from that period is the formidable Papal Palace, the largest known Gothic palace. In the 14th century it witnessed a cultural and economic Renaissance that saw the arrival of bankers, artists and writers from all over Europe in a quest to be near the papal orbit – Petrarch was one of them.

But, it was not until five centuries later that Avignon again became a beacon of intellectual activity.  1947 saw the birth of the Avignon Festival, France’s longest-standing and most celebrated event devoted to theatre and the scenic arts and one of the most firmly rooted festivals in Europe. This year it runs into its 70th edition and will be held from 6 to 24 July at more than 30 venues.

A turning point in the Festival’s schedule of events came in the year 2000 when Avignon was designated the European Capital of Culture. Then ensued a cultural revival in this, the major population centre in the department of Vaucluse – set in the new region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur – as attested by the opening of the Lambert Collection – Museum of Contemporary Art, set up in 2000 around a historic endowment by the merchant and collector, Yvon Lambert. The endowment is admirable and comprehensive and features permanent exhibitions showcasing the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sol LeWitt, Douglas Gordon and the ever-controversial photographer, Andrés Serrano, among other artists, as well as numerous temporary exhibitions.

Avignon has ten museums in all, prominent among them being the Musée du Petit Palais, with a large collection of medieval painting, the Calvet Museum, the Musée Angladon, dedicated to Impressionism, and the Musée Louis-Vouland, which specialises in the decorative arts. There is also an opera theatre, an exhibition park and some unique facilities like La FabricA, a theatre factory where various companies rehearse their performances in the run-up to the Avignon Festival.

Art is also present in Les Halles Market, endowed with a stunning vertical garden created by the artist, Patrick Blanc. This market is the ideal spot for buying fresh produce and Provençal specialities at one of their forty plus stores.

It would be amiss to end this article without recommending some of the venues for eating the tastiest food in Avignon. One is Maison de Fogasses, a splendid town palace which offers an exquisite menu of the day for around 20 euros based on locally sourced products. Another is LE 46 which specialises in French cuisine with Mediterranean flourishes.

Avignon is the perfect destination for a getaway from Marseille. Check out your flights to Marseille here.

Text by Tus Destinos

Images by Tus Destinos, Avignon-Tourisme (C.Rodde)

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