The Point of Avignon

Article excerpt

Byline: CATHERINE STOTT

It was late in the afternoon and the wintry sunlight was streaming through the windows of the old town mansion that houses Avignon's newest art museum. Ahead of me, strolling through the beautiful rooms filled with the works of Van Gogh, Cezanne and Picasso, I noticed a pretty young woman with copper-coloured hair. Waiting behind her to sign the visitors' book, I glimpsed her signature. It read simply `Caroline de Monaco'.

A chance encounter with the rich and famous certainly added excitement to my visit - but then Avignon has been drawing a lively crowd for the last 700 years, when popes fled here to avoid the corruption in Rome. They left their mark with the Palais des Papes built on the great Doms rock overhanging the Rhone and Avignon was soon transformed into a second Rome, with the louche lifestyle catching up with the Papal court once more. The arts flourished and still do - Avignon will be a European City Of Culture in 2000.

Once, it was just a stop-off for Northern Europeans on their way to the Riviera. But now the Eurostar and the TGV link from Lille have brought the town into easy reach for Britons for a short break.

When I booked into the hotel Cloitre Saint Louis I had no idea it would be the most striking place I have ever stayed in. You think you're entering a convent, and indeed, it once was. But lately a futuristic hotel has been grafted on by avant-garde architect Jean Nouvel and a new wing added to the facade - bizarrely, the outside appears to be wearing chain-mail.

To reach my high-tech room I crossed an ancient gallery that looked down into the `working' church, where an organist practised Bach Fugues by candlelight. Very atmospheric.

Safe inside its protective belt of low ramparts, tourist Avignon is magically unspoiled apart from some crude graffiti. `Intra muros' as they say here, nowhere is more than a kilometre away.

Old cobbled lanes meander into leafy squares from the broad main street, which leads to the Palais des Papes, still presiding majestically over the whole town. Following the inside of the ramparts past a spicy Arab outdoor market, I came to Avignon's most picturesque street, Rue des Teinturiers, named after the cloth-dyers. Itis a perfect microcosm of ancient France. Old shop signs, a fragrant boulangerie, a couple of nicotine-varnished bistros, and an old wine cellar where old women on sticks were filling their own bottles from wooden vats for 80p a litre. They stopped to sip kir, standing up, for a bargain 60p.

Then you reach the only hideous building in Avignon, the slab-like Les Halles - the `new' daily market. Inside this Aladdin's cave of gastronomy there's a reverential hush as the locals - mostly men - go about the grave business of the daily food shopping. When they've finished they settle in the market cafe for an early morning glass of gigondas, the local wine. …