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Waltzing into magical Avignon

Once the home of popes, this French town offers diverse architecture, museums and, of course, fine food within easy walking distance.

June 29, 2003|James T. Yenckel | Special to The Times

Avignon, France — We danced on the bridge at Avignon, my wife, Sandy, and I, an improvised two-step to the familiar French song "Sur le Pont d'Avignon." The ditty was one reason we came to this ancient walled city in southern France, most noted historically as the 14th century residence of nine popes.

How could we not dance? At the entrance to the bridge, which dates to the 12th century, we had picked up audiophones. For about 15 minutes, a recorded voice directed us on a stroll atop the remnant of this graceful stone monument, detailing its many legends. Then, as we stood watching the Rhone River flow far beneath us, the narration concluded with a lively choral rendition of the tune. It seemed an invitation.

I linked arms with Sandy, and we whirled across the stones to the music, each holding an audiophone to an ear. Our spontaneous show did, of course, create a minor scene, but sightseers seemed sympathetic, nodding and smiling as we took a final spin.

Sandy learned "Sur le Pont d'Avignon" in a high school French class, which put the bridge and Avignon on her travel wish list.

In Avignon there is more to celebrate than the renowned bridge. The city, a gateway to Provence, has a reputation as one of Europe's best-preserved architectural gems and was classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995. It is graced with dozens of splendid historical structures, many open to the public. Dating from the Roman, medieval, Renaissance and Napoleonic eras, they form a grand outdoor museum of the past. The most illustrious is the towering 14th century Palace of the Popes, commanding a view of the city from a hillside perch. At night, under spotlights, it glows like a full moon.

We arrived here from Paris on France's high-speed TGV train in only 2 hours and 40 minutes -- the journey takes seven hours by car -- and checked into the luxurious 80-room Hotel Clarion Cloitre Saint Louis, a restored 16th century Jesuit school off Rue de la Republique. The hotel, wrapped around a formal courtyard shaded with tall plane trees, blends the allure of an ancient structure with the chic contemporary furnishings found in new boutique hotels. I loved our spacious room and its mammoth windows, but the ultramodern chairs were uncomfortable.

A palace of papal pomp

Our first destination the next morning was Avignon's bridge. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it leads nowhere. Once 22 arches spanned the Rhone; now only four carry the bridge from the city's northern rampart to the middle of the river. The often-flooding Rhone ripped away one arch after another through the decades. Still, the bridge looks rather stately despite its wounds.

For a $3.50 fee, visitors can walk its remaining length, and from its mid-river terminus the view back to the city, its wall, the cliff and the papal palace is spectacular. The span's official label is Pont Saint-Benezet, named for a shepherd boy who, in 1177, claimed to have heard a voice from heaven instructing him to build a bridge here.

After our dance, Sandy and I climbed the spiraling staircase that ascends the sheer cliff rising above the Rhone. It leads to the Rocher des Doms, an elaborate 19th century garden of splashing fountains, classical statuary, a rock grotto and a pond with gliding swans. From this height, panoramic views extend across the Rhone to a massive medieval fort in the suburban town of Villenueve-lez-Avignon. Zigzagging walkways and stairs descend from the garden to the fortress-like papal palace, its crenelated walls and twin spires a city landmark. A guard in colorful 14th century garb of feathered hat, striped pantaloons and sword greeted us and agreed to Sandy's request for a photo.

From outside, the palace looks unconquerable. Inside it reflects great wealth. Rich tapestries decorate many walls, and other rooms are adorned with lovely frescoes. Ceremonial rooms such as the Hall of the Consistory, where the popes received kings and ambassadors, are enormous and ornate. But the finest room is the Pope's Bedchamber; its soaring walls are covered with a sky-blue fresco of birds and squirrels amid grapevines. The floor is a patchwork of multicolored tiles.

The palace opens onto the Place du Palais, where a cluster of outdoor cafes provides a fine view of the palace walls. We ate a light lunch here at the improbably named In & Off, choosing a plate called Specialties of Provence. Touristy, we feared, but it turned out to be a tasty arrangement of eggplant tapenade, a selection of pates, sun-dried tomatoes and roasted peppers.

Sandy and I have found Europe's smaller cities to be as rewarding as the national capitals, and Avignon offered all the pleasures of Paris but without the clamoring traffic and -- dare I admit it? -- the pressure to take in all the capital's many notable museums and churches. Here the list of must-see sights can be done in a couple of days, and nearly every one is within a 20-minute walk.

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