A traveller's dream in Avignon, France

History, food, shopping: A tourist's dream in Avignon

PROVENCE is a region brimming with history.

And Avignon, arguably its grandest city, is certainly the one with the most interesting days of old.

Situated on the Rhone River, this is the town we all know, but don't know we know. You know? 

Remember the song from our childhood?

"Sur le pont d'Avignon,

"On y danse, On y danse,

"Sur le Pont d'Avignon,

"On y danse tous en rond."

I doubt any of us knew what the lyrics meant or even if we sang them properly.

Dating back to the 15th century, the song, Sur le Pont d'Avignon, is about dancing on the bridge, or under the bridge (the pont). And that bridge is the first thing any visitor looks for in Avignon.

The bridge, built between 1177 and 1185, once spanned the Rhone but was destroyed not long after it was completed. However, it was later rebuilt. But the arches kept falling (as they do) and in the middle of the 17th century, the authorities gave up trying to maintain the bridge. Now, just four surviving arches remain with the bridge extending out into the river only to stop abruptly. Despite this, it attracts scores of visitors every day.

Most visitors come to Avignon to tour the grand gothic Palais des Papes, the Palace of the Popes - the largest gothic palace ever built. The popes left Rome briefly in 1309 when Pope Clement V decided to escape Rome after a violent uprising following his election. He ordered the building of the grand palace in Avignon and now it dominates the main square where, in medieval times, locals lived in modest houses and the ordinary routines of daily life took place.   

When the popes arrived, they cleared the square and built the enormous gothic structure which today lords over the square and is an imposing legacy of the short time the popes resided in Avignon.

I have been taking tourists to Avignon for 12 years and I always start off my tour in the Palais des Papes square, where we all strain our necks looking up to the top of the Romanesque, 17th century cathedral, to the golden statue of the Virgin Mary glinting in the summer sun. The statue weighs a hefty 4,500 kilograms. We then board a cute tourist train that begins a tour of the city.

The little train trundles through the maze of laneways of the old city and then briefly battles frantic traffic (which gives it a wide berth) outside the city walls before coming back inside to take visitors along laneways so narrow everyone on the train automatically takes a deep breath and holds in their tummy.

If anyone is walking along the laneways, they must dodge into doorways or be flattened. It's quite the adventure but does give an overview of Avignon with commentary in many languages.  

As soon as my guests have completed the train ride, off they go, dispersing quickly to wander the city and look for shoes and food. History is one thing for today's modern visitor; shopping and sustenance is quite another.

Avignon is famous for its many shoe shops and the bargains in the summer, especially from July 1 onwards, can be found everywhere.  All my guests come back with multiple pairs.

As for me and my husband/travel partner, we head straight for food. Avignon brims with cafes, bars and restaurants from the high-end, to the modest, to the very touristy eateries.

You are rarely going to get a dud meal in France so choosing the modest place makes sense. You can be daring and go for snails (they are so drenched in garlic butter that by the time you get the little blobs out of their shell and into your mouth you have no sense of eating a snail), you could go for a big salad (the French love a salade gourmande, one with the lot, even giblets) or you could stick to something familiar with a French twist, a ham and cheese sandwich. 

The Croque Monsieur is a favourite French snack - a ham cheese sandwich drenched in béchamel sauce and grilled. Delicious! And it's usually served with a green salad and fries. If you are feeling particularly fancy, a Croque Madam fits the bill. It's the same ham/cheese/béchamel sandwich with a fried egg on top. Happiness doesn't come any cheaper than that.

A good day in Avignon for the first-time visitor could be as follows:

·       Visit the Palais des Papes - you really must check out the religious paintings, especially those by Botticelli. 

·       Then perhaps a ride on the little tourist train listening intently to the commentary and taking in the history. 

·       A visit to Les Halles - the covered food market will leave you bewildered and salivating with the vast range of gorgeous food and Provencal produce.

·       Then straight into some shoe shopping followed by a simple but long lunch.

You could visit in July when the Festival d'Avignon presents more than 40 international events of dance, drama, theatre. You'll need plenty of energy for this - even a smattering of the offerings will leave you drained! But it's so worth it. Avignon is simply beautiful and you will never forget your visit.

One important tip: If you are driving, it's best not to enter the city walls. There are some streets that are car-friendly but the locals are not, and you will be tooted mercilessly if you take a wrong turn down a tight lane (and you will). Best to park the car at the station where there is plenty of space and walk into the city along the wide and interesting Rue de la Republique.  

Happy history, happy shoe shopping.

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