A friend of mine came to visit me in the South of France a few days ago, and I took that as an opportunity to show him around the city of Avignon, very well-known in France for its history, its theatre festival and, surprisingly, for a song.
We mainly just walked around in the centre as it was a beautiful day and neither of us wanted to visit a museum. It wasn’t the first time for me in the city, but this time was different from my previous experiences.
First of all, the historic centre of the city is great to just walk around, with its narrow streets and churches in almost every square, along with the liveliness that comes with warm summer days, tourists, and, in this case specifically, the Festival.
Every year in July, the city hosts one of the most famous theatre and fine-arts festival in the world: the Festival d’Avignon. Many world-known artists, as well as local or emerging artists, present their work to the public on one of the many stages scattered around the city, during three weeks.
If you are interested, make sure to check it out, but if not, try to avoid these three weeks when you visit Avignon as it can get very crowded.
Luckily this year, we visited just one day before the opening of the Festival, and I loved it! You could feel the excited restlessness of young artists, sponsors and fans, roaming the streets with strings, tape and mountains of signs to hang them all around the city and promote their show – that is if they managed to find a wall that wasn’t already covered with myriad other signs.
But Avignon is also famous for its history, as it was the residence of seven successive popes, all French, for around 70 years. During this period, known as the Avignon Papacy, a majority of the Popes, instead of reigning from Rome, stayed in a fortress and palace called the Palais des Papes. This huge building, overlooking the city and the river Rhône is stunning to look at and the visit is apparently quite interesting as well. Due to the installation of the main stage of the Festival, we were unable to see the inner courtyard and decided to skip the visit to wander around in the nearby “upper” gardens that also offer great view points.
After a refreshing ice cream and a nice stroll in the centre, we headed to the Pont d’Avignon, the most famous bridge of the city, that is supposed to cross the Rhône. However, only 40 years after it was built, the bridge was destroyed, and every attempt to rebuild it since then failed. As a consequence, it only consists of four arches that brutally stop in the middle of the river. It is today considered a landmark of the city and is classified, along with the Palais des Papes, the cathedral, and the historic centre, as a UNESCO World Heritage.
I talked earlier about a song that is associated with Avignon in almost every French mind, remember? Well, this song was inspired from the bridge, and its title is Sur le Pont d’Avignon (“On the Bridge of Avignon” in English). It basically just talks about a dance performed on the bridge, and also has a dance associated with it. I’d say that nowadays kids usually sing it, though not sure if it has always been like that!
Apart from the song and the many “covers” you can hear from the audio guide when you visit the bridge, there are also very interesting commentaries on the legend and history that surround this specific landmark.
I was really happy to go back to Avignon and enjoy it to the fullest, since the previous times I was there were always a bit of a hassle as I had to arrange some bureaucratic/admin work. The atmosphere around the Festival is also great thanks to the many colourful signs and frenetic last-minute adjustments.
Have you ever been to Avignon? Where was your last local adventure?
Other posts about the South of France: