I’ve stopped in Avignon a couple of times in the last decade, and it feels like a town I could live in. I see it as a sort of French Edinburgh – both cities are dominated by a large castle and by their country’s most prestigious arts festival; and while Edinburgh is still Scotland’s capital, Avignon was home to the papacy for seventy years in the fourteenth century. I visited the Palais des Papes on both visits, the first time just because it is one of the city’s main sights (the largest Gothic palace, apparently, although it seems more like a fortress), and this time because it was the Journées de Patrimoine open-doors weekend when museums are free or very cheap and I wanted to get to an art show. The art was excellent, but the palace itself was as I remembered it, a succession of empty rooms with some decent views from the rooftops.
I had a busy time, visiting half a dozen museums and other buildings that are usually closed but were open to the public for the weekend. The Petit Palais is one of the city museums, which are free anyway (and closed on Tuesdays); it has a dozen rooms of great Italian art from the thirteenth to the early sixteenth centuries. They have a fine Virgin and Child by Veneziano, three or four paintings apiece by Taddeo di Bartolo, Andrea di Bartolo, Lorenzo di Bicci and Giovanni di Paolo (including a good but green-faced St Augustine), and six by Neri di Bicci. As in any good Italian collection, there are a couple of artists that one has never heard of but who turn out to be really rather good – here Zanobbi Strozzi and Bartolomeo Caporali. And there’s a Botticelli room, with a Virgin and Child (1467-70), a Venus with three putti from around the same time, and two tondos by his workshop. Upstairs there are notable works by the Vivarinis (Antonio and Bartolomeo) and the Crivellis (Carlo and Vittore); and the last room on the ground floor displays pieces by Ghirlandaio, Cima da Conegliano, Giovanni Bellini and Vittore Carpaccio (a Sacred Conversation with an amazing background).
The Musée Calvet is also one of the free city museums, with more good art housed in Avignon’s finest aristocratic palace (built in 1753). The newly refurbished religious art rooms feature some interesting works by Simon de Châlons (active in Avignon 1532-62) and a marble relief of the Byzantine Empress St Helena (mother of Constantine the Great) by Mino da Fiesole (c1465-70); upstairs, in addition to the usual fluffy eighteenth-century rubbish, there are some decent portraits and two views of Avignon from the same period and various canvases by members of the Vernet family (and a Corot). Joseph Vernet (1714-89) was born in Avignon and, after spending eighteen years in Rome, became one of the major French landscape painters of the eighteenth century; his son Carle (1758-1836) also went to Rome to study painting but was recalled to France when he wanted to enter a monastery; and his son Horace (1789–1863) was born in the Louvre, where his parents sought refuge from the revolution, and became known for his paintings of battles (including the Crimean War) and the French colonisation of Algeria. At the far end of the long upstairs gallery are some seascapes by Joseph Vernet without frames, which were recovered from Germany after World War II.
The main downstairs galleries display lots of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings, notably by Manet, Sisley, Bonnard, Laure Garcin, Dufy, Utrillo, Vlaminck, and five by Soutine; less-known but interesting artists include Auguste Chabaud (who studied in Avignon), Albert Gleizes (who died near Avignon) and Pierre Ambrogiani. There’s also a bust of the poet Paul Claudel by his sister Camille Claudel, known as Rodin’s muse – I confess, it hadn’t occurred to me that they were connected. Finally, as you head for the shop and exit, there’s a room of Flemish, Dutch and German Gothic art, with bits attributed to the Brueghels, as well as a lovely nocturnal landscape by Aert van der Neer, as well as Pieter Bout and Simon de Vos.
There are also two fine private galleries, both in historic town-houses; the Collection Lambert has changing displays of cutting-edge contemporary art in two well-converted hôtels, and the Musée Angladon, in the Hôtel de Massilian, has a fine collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art, by Manet, Sisley, Redon, Daumier, Degas, Cézanne, Vuillard, van Gogh, Foujita, Modigliani, and Derain (a painting and a bronze owl). They also have some Picasso sketches, and there was a temporary Picasso show too – I now know that his mould-shattering Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) was named after a brothel on the Carrer d’Avinyó (ie Avignon Street) in Barcelona, and was known as Le Bordel d’Avignon until it was first publicly exhibited in 1916. More random exhibits include works by Lawrence and Diaz de la Peña, some Dutch art including Corneille de Lyon (Dutch but working in Lyon), sketches by Joseph Vernet, and a Chinese room.
I also popped into the Musée Lapidaire in the former church of the Jesuit College, the Grenier a Sel (1756), the Palais du Roure (1469), the Mediatheque in the Palais of Cardinal Ceccano (c1340), the Chapelle de l’Oratoire (1714-50), the Chapelle Saint-Louis (1611), the Collégiale St Agricole (1322) and the Hôtel de Ville (1846-52). A busy day!
Some practicalities – transport
Never mind the bridge – I was more interested in the little free ferry just upstream that shuttles pedestrians and cyclists across the Rhône – it turns out that it only goes to the île de la Barthelasse, Europe’s largest river island, and the main branch, the Grand Rhône, is on the far side. The island measures five miles long by two miles wide and makes a nice destination for a leisurely pootle on bikes.
Meanwhile, the city’s new tram system (replacing one closed in 1932) was being tested prior to reopening – the first line covers 5km (with ten stops) from the city centre to the Saint-Chamand park-and-ride site near Avignon Sud railway station – this is not the Avignon TGV station, also in the south of the city, which I’ve always found to be totally clogged up with mis-parked cars and in need of a good bus or tram link. SNCF trains do occasionally shuttle between the central and TGV stations, but that’s an apology for removing most fast trains from the central station (immediately outside the walls, in fact) rather than providing full connectivity for local residents.
Avignon is well placed for excursions to Nimes, Orange and Arles, all reached by regular fast trains and known for their wonderful Roman theatres and the like; I’ve also enjoyed several visits to the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival, one of the world’s biggest and best – I enjoy the photojournalism strand more than the more arty work. Arles is also of course known for its van Gogh connections.
Food and wine
My favourite wines in the world come from just outside Avignon – Châteauneuf du Pape, of course, and Vacqueyras, Gigondas, St Joseph, Lirac, Beumes-de-Venise… All reds, I thought, but the first time I had a white Châteauneuf du Pape just blew my mind – it was sooo good and I had no idea it even existed. This time we had a white Crozes-Hermitage, from much further north up the Rhône valley, and it was pretty good too. We’d spent the first night of the trip in St-Emilion, near Bordeaux, and one way or another drank quite a bit of claret (as no-one actually called it) – very good, but I’ll always prefer the Rhône wines. Just a matter of taste.
Perhaps the best food in town is at La Mirande, a restaurant-with-rooms at 4 Place de l’Amirande, tucked away behind the Palais des Papes, but I also heard good things about Hiely Lucullus, at 5 rue de la Republique, which combines Provençal and Peruvian influences, and Porteña, 50 place des Corps Saints, which serves great Argentine empanadas. I assume it’s coincidence that they both have a South American bent. Place des Corps Saints is known for restaurants, cafés, and bakeries such as Maison Violette. Nearby is L’Explo, Avignon’s craft beer centre – not real ale, note, and they had oddities such as Dark IPA and IPA Lager, leading me to assume that the local brewers don’t really know what they’re doing. Still, I found a decent pint.