Exploring the Diversity
Immersion in the
Cultural Life, Foods, Wines, and Markets of Avignon
|Taking it slow at a café on
the Place de l'Horloge, in front of the Opéra-théâtre
As much as driving through the countryside
of Provence appeals to me, taking in the markets and stopping
along the roadside for a long, lingering, lunch in a county
inn, I wanted to get to know Provence from one place. I
also wanted to explore Provence relying entirely on public
transportation. Because Avignon was in the middle of everything,
that became my home base. It turned out to be the perfect
place for day-trips using the well-connected train and bus
lines, as well as a wonderful place to stay.
In Avignon, you can visit the famous
Les Halles d’Avignon covered market as well as take
in tranquil day trips to places such as the salt marshes
and sandy vineyards of the Camargue, the magnificent Roman
aqueduct at the Pont du Gard (and onward to Uzès
for the traditional Saturday market), to Châteauneuf
du Pape and Orange for Rhône wines and the Roman theatre,
to the Lubéron for country markets, fantastically
wonderful and bizarre wild and manmade landscapes and fecund
fields, and to the cities of Aix and Marseilles.
|The mosaic of greens covering
the roof of the famous Les Halles market in Avignon.
I discovered the Hôtel
Médiéval run by a gregarious staff
who all make a person feel as if they are coming home
each time she enters its stone doorway in the medieval
neighborhood. The Hôtel Médiéval
not only offers hotel rooms but also a few studios with
kitchenettes with a special weekly rate for those of
us who want to stay a while, visit the city slowly while
feeling at home, and cook the market catch of the day.
It was so pleasant that as much as I enjoyed those day
trips, I also treasured staying put and visiting Les
Halles and all the little gourmet shops in the walled
medieval city, getting to know merchants and stands,
both biologique (organic) and other local
produce, cheeses, olive oils and olives, and regional
wines. Slow immersion travel feels like the only way
to visit the charming city while enjoying its atmosphere
to its fullest.
On my train journey to Avignon I had
been given an education by an older man on his way to Marseilles
to visit family. As we began chatting, I asked him what
he thought was the best food to sample in Provence. He started
with that classic shrug and then launched into a delightful
monologue: “Alors, you must really try toro
steak, the bulls here are truly delicious.” He gestured
out the train window. To the south, in the Camargue marshes
and coast, live the famous, black bulls destined for steak. “Next,
you must have the bouillabaisse, one with all the
catch of the sea in it.” “Where is the best
bouillabaisse?” I asked. Another shrug “Everywhere
makes their own,” he said, but Marseilles is famous
given the location and the fishing port. “Next,” he
went on, “be sure to sample the fresh produce of Provence
as crudités with our special mayonnaise
dip.” The divine vegetables—raw or blanched—that
can go into this fresh platter with the mayonnaise dip (aioli)
are: carrots, peppers, celery, asparagus, turnips, radishes,
green beans, fennel, cauliflower, cucumber, tomatoes, and
broccoli…whatever is in season. The aioli offers
a garlicky spin on classic mayo, whipped up fresh with eggs,
lemon juice, olive oil, finely minced garlic—or better,
smashed—fresh chopped herbs, salt and pepper.
Arriving in Arles, the elderly man
stood up, pulled my bag from overhead and placed it in the
aisle, holding the door open for me. “Welcome to
Provence and bon appetit!” Not only did I take his
culinary lead, but in my explorations in Provence I discovered
other people who were as consistently warm and welcoming
as he had been.
All the makings for the bouillabaisse and
the crudités were readily available in Les
Halles. But that toro steak, that was something I tried
in Arles. I enjoyed it at the restaurant connected with
the Hostellerie des Arenes (62 Rue du Refuge, near the Roman
amphitheatre). I ordered the daily fixed-price menu, offering
a three course meal and wine that added up to no more than
euros 18. It included a salade de chevre, steak
de tarreau au buerre vert with ratatouille and pommes
de terre au gratin, homemade flan for dessert, and
a Côte du Rhone red. This meal was so perfect, so
delicious, that it has gone down as one of those epic meals
one remembers for a long time. Moreover, the atmosphere
of Restaurant des Arenes reinforced this experience, from
the three quick and witty women who ran it to the patrons
who all welcomed each newcomer when they entered the dining
area and who proceeded to talk to each other across tables
as if we were one large family.
Once settled in Avignon, as well as
on day-trips throughout Provence, I began to discover an
important part of daily life and culture often not described
in popular books expounding the bounty of Provence and her
culture. I discovered that I had only read part of the story.
Missing were the Jews, the Romany, the North Africans, and
the West Africans. Missing were the influence of Italy and
Spain, especially Catalonia. In Avignon I discovered this
more diverse and accurate depiction of Provence, one that
reinforced the fact that since the time of the Celto-Ligurians,
through to the Romans, and right up to the post-colonial
French present, Provence has been a main crossroads in the
Mediterranean, bringing in peoples from everywhere. And
yes, it also possesses the wonderfully quirky, warm, and
There is no better place to see this
rich diversity than at Avignon’s Sunday flea market,
held in Place des Carmes, right in front of the church and
cloister, Église et Cloître des Carmes. (On
Saturday on this same plaza you’ll also locate the
vibrant flower market.) The Sunday flea market packs the
Place with West Africans, North Africans, Provençales,
and Romany, buying and selling everything from used shoes
and clothes to old record albums to household goods and
theatrical props. Some dramatic Louis XV style mirrors and
chairs add shabby chic to the whole scene. Being a Sunday,
as the market carries on so does the church service from Église
des Carmes. As a shopper you can enjoy the piped Sunday
service’s sermon and sacred song from speakers that
are mounted over the plaza. Like many market goers, I punctuated
my shopping by stepping inside the church and standing in
the back row to sing with the congregation, following the
words on a karaoke-like screen near the altar.
Among Avignon’s many charms is
its completely walled medieval city within the modern city.
Numerous gates lead into this walled town. Inside, the rush
of traffic is limited to the very few main streets, leaving
many pedestrian-only passages. Though the popes who built
this old town were a somewhat feisty lot, they did leave
a stone medieval city that enchants residents and visitors
alike. And while the Pont d’Avignon is most famous
because of its catchy primary school song, I think Avignon
should be famous for its warm people, its access to regionally
grown and produced foods and wines, and its fairytale-like
setting on the Rhône, giving it easy access to Arles,
Orange, Gordes, Aix, Marseilles, Les Baux, the Pont du Gard,
and on into the lavender, calabash, melon, auberge, apple
orchards, and wine-producing vineyards throughout Provence.
Avignon was occupied long before it
became the residence of Popes in the 13th and 14th centuries.
A stroll along the gardens of Rocher des Doms will take
you to an area, also within the walls of the medieval city,
first occupied in prehistory, then in the Bronze Age and
again in the Iron Age when it became the site of an oppidum,
a Celtic-style fortress. The Romans then settled Rocher
des Doms. After the Romans it was forgotten as a human settlement
and used as grazing land in the medieval period. In around
1830 the Rocher des Doms was converted into a garden.
Here are a few suggestions for enjoying
Avignon at the pace of a slow traveler:
- Take in the sunset in the
gardens of the Rocher des Doms overlooking the Rhône
to the west and north. The numinous pink sunset on
the Rhone is worth it but do be forewarned, as the
sun sets, some of the world’s most voracious
mosquitoes, guardians of the Rhône and nearby
Camargue no doubt, emerge with the speed of Genghis
Khan’s army. Many guidebooks warn of mosquitoes
through the warm summer months but I was there at
the tail end of September and they were as unrelenting
as in July.)
- Walk along the wall as well as within
it and explore the different gates. Take in the famous
bridge, Pont St-Bénézet, both for its sing-song
and historical fame but also for its lovely view of the
Rhône river valley.
- Dip into the little courtyards that
are open to the public and off the narrow streets in
the walled city. Usually there is an art exhibit housed
in one of the interior courtyard buildings. These places
also offer delightful peace and relaxation.
- Take a good chunk of a day to take
in the huge Gothic Palais des Papes and immerse yourself
in the two-century long Avignonese papacy, of the 14th
and 15th centuries when Avignon became the residence
of the Popes (1309) to leave behind the warring political
factionalism in Rome. But by 1378, with the election
of Pope Clement VII, a division emerged between Roman
Popes and Avignonese Popes, which lasted until 1417.
(The Avignon popes were mainly acknowledged in Naples,
France, and Spain.) During that time the popes in Rome
and in Avignon competed with and denounced each other
as they vied for mortal power. At the same time, the
city of Avignon flourished during this same time because
of papal patronage. After the papal reunification in
Rome, Avignon continued under papal control until 1792.
The revolution ended this, making Avignon a part of France.
- Take in the many small food, oil
and wine boutique shops in the walled city where you
can buy locally made olive oils, soaps, essential oils,
olives, artisinal brebis (sheep’s milk)
cheeses, artisinal sausages, flowers, and fruits and
vegetables of the season.
- Visit Les
Halles d’Avignon as your daily stop for
fresh, locally produced and procured foods and wines.
Les Halles is open everyday except Mondays on Place
Pie. There you will also find organic growers and
- Avignon is the heart of Côte
du Rhône country and so also a great place from
which to explore this stellar appellation. A good start
might be getting oriented at Avignon’s Maison
des Vins (6 rue St-Michel), which offers information
on wine trails that you can explore, as well as the names
of many vineyards that are open to public visits and
that offer tastings.
A budget epicurean’s note: the
special sea salt from the Camargue makes a wonderful souvenir
and gift but don’t buy it in the tourist shops where
it is two to three times more expensive. Instead, the very
same container of salt can be purchases at any of the many
everyday small markets scattered throughout the city.
Markets Around Provence
|Spread of some of the
many market finds in Provence.
1. Weekly Markets:
Weekly markets start in the
morning and end around or near lunchtime. Markets
being one of the splendors of Provence, most tourist
offices have lists to hand out for the weekly market
times and places.
(also on Wednesday), Toulon.
Cavaillon, Nîmes, Les Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer
(also on Friday).
Ciotat, Aubagne (also on Thursday, Saturday, and
Sunday), Tarascon, Vaison-la-Romaine.
Cassis (also on Friday), Gardanne (also on Friday
and Sunday), Salon de Provence, St-Rémy-de-Provence,
Valréas (also on Saturday).
Beaucaire (also on Sunday), L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue
(also on Sunday), Nyons, Orange, Vallon-Pont-d’Arc.
Cassis, Pertuis, Roums (also on Saturday).
Arles, Avignon (flower market), Uzès.
2. Daily, Seasonal, and
Daily markets: Avignon
(Les Halles, except Mondays when closed), Carpentras
(by the station), Aix-en-Provence (on Place Richelme)
on Saturdays from November to March.
all mornings from May to September.
daily from June to July, on the cours Belsunce.
daily all year long, along the quai des Belges.