Our excursion three hours or less from Paris last month brought us to Avignon, in the south of France. Just two hours and forty-five minutes by TGV train from Paris Gare de Lyon railroad station, Avignon is the gateway to the blissful Provence region.
Avignon has ancient roots as far back as 600BC and in 120AD the Romans arrived and ruled. The most important historical structure is the Palais de Papes/Popes Palace, the seat of Roman Papacy from 1309 to 1348, where seven successive popes resided. The city was then owned by Joanna I of Naples, and still under Papal control till 1791, during the French Revolution. Today the Palais de Papes is the main attraction of the old quarter of Avignon and a UNESCO Heritage site.
Our late September visit brought us magnificent weather, with unusually warm temperatures in the high 70s. We strolled the ancient cobblestone streets and passageways of Avignon bordered by the towering walls of the Palais de Papes. Hungry for lunch, we dined at L’Epicerie, a café nestled in the corner of a quiet square, where we savored Provencal specialties and chilled, local white wine.
After lunch, we strolled over to Collection Lambert, an art foundation located in two converted 18th century mansions. Yvon Lambert ran a highly successful contemporary gallery in the Marais area of Paris for over forty years, representing a stable of international, renowned artists. Collection Lambert opened in 2000 with over 500 works from Lambert’s private collection from artists such as Cy Twombly, Sol LeWitt, Anselm Kiefer, Nan Goldin, Jean Michel Basquiat and Donald Judd. Today it hosts temporary exhibits along with pieces from the permanent collection. The outdoor café in the courtyard is a lovely, tranquil spot for lunch or a drink.
Another UNESCO Heritage site we visited was Pont Saint-Bénézet, a bridge connecting the Rhone River and Avignon, constructed between 1177 and 1185. The story of the bridge is based on a legend; a young shepherd from Villard in the Ardeche, while herding his sheep, was said to have had a calling from Jesus Christ to build a bridge in order to cross the river. Mocked and shamed by the townspeople for his futile dream, the shepherd miraculously lifted a huge block of stone by himself to start the bridge. Now receiving unwavering support by the town, he formed a Bridge Brotherhood to oversee the construction. Later a chapel was built into the bridge in his name.
The big cultural event in Avignon is the international Avignon Festival in July. One of most important and prestigious performance festivals in Europe, it attracts major artists, performers, dance and theater companies from around the world, which perform in many languages. The festival, founded in 1947 by actor and theater director Jean Vilar, which only had one show in its first year, has now expanded to include over 1,000 shows in the official festival and “Off” festival in a period of three weeks.
Our stay at La Mirande Hotel was the highlight of our trip. A five-star hotel with the highest standards, La Mirande is a privately owned by the Stein family, a rarity these days. We were fortunate to have Mr. Stein give us a detailed historic tour of the hotel. Located directly across from the Palais de Papes, La Mirande was originally built in the early 1300s as an annex for the palace to house religious figures of the time. Parts of the initial building were destroyed in 1410 and in the late 1600s it was reconstructed as a private palace. The Stein family purchased the property in 1987, taking three years to transform it into a luxury hotel.
La Mirande has the rare combination of elements only a handful of hotels contain: an impressive historic building, lavishly appointed rooms and furnishings, flawless service, and a sublime restaurant.
Our delightful room was decorated in the local Provencal style with floral design wallpaper, starched white cotton bed covers with natural linen bed skirts, gold framed portraits and landscapes, a handsome dark wood writing desk and a marble bathroom outfitted with old fashioned faucets.
The next day we were invited to lunch on the terrace overlooking the lush garden filled with late summer flowers, vines, greenery and blooming fruit trees. Starting with three amuse bouches even before we ordered our meal, we knew were in for a special experience. Twenty-nine year old Chef Florent Pietravalle astounded us in the next two hours with his intricate but not fussy flavors, tastes, textures and knock out presentation.
Please note that the train from Gare de Lyon stops at the Avignon TGV station, which is not in Avignon. You must board a local train from the same station, which takes about seven minutes to Avignon center. You can also take an Uber or taxi, approximately 20€. Trains run almost every hour.