Not just one the most historic cities you’ll visit on a Rhone River cruise but also one of the most historic in the whole of France, Avignon is a fascinating and fantastic port to explore. Renowned for its medieval ramparts and winding streets, the old part of the city is understandably where the majority of tourists head for but also where thousands of its inhabitants still live. The city enjoys a unique historical standing, in that it was where the papacy was based during the 14th century. It seems strange to think that Catholic popes have resided anywhere but Rome but in truth, seven different pontiffs were based in the city and even a long time after papal power moved back to Italy’s capital, the city remained in Roman hands, only being reclaimed by France in the wake of the French Revolution in 1791.
The legacy of the papal rule is integral to Avignon’s appeal and a visit to its stunning gothic masterpiece the Palace of Popes is simply a must. This incredible UNESCO World Heritage Site is the largest palace of its kind in the world so naturally, it takes some time to get around and there are 25 different areas to see. The elaborately decorated hall, chapels, cloisters, artefacts and the private papal apartments are all yours to explore but, even if you don’t have time to see it all, you can be assured of a fascinating glimpse into the opulent life of popes-past.
The City of Popes boasts a wealth of other architectural and historic attractions to discover and many river cruise excursions will give you the opportunity to explore the celebrated palace and more. Immortalised in song, the Pont Saint Benezet is one of the city’s key landmarks, being destroyed and rebuilt several times throughout the centuries before finally being abandoned, this picturesque stone bridge is always popular with visitors. Don’t expect to use it to get anywhere though, as it is now an abandoned state, it ends in the middle of the Rhone. Place de l’Horloge is the go-to area to soak up the atmosphere and perhaps sample a glass of the local wine, while the 12th century Notre Dame Cathedral is another popular historical site, originally Romanesque but subsequently being endowed with a tower during the time of the city's papal occupation.
If a deeper immersion in the region’s cultural history is what’s called for, then Avignon delivers with a good choice of informative museums. Musee du Petit Palais offers the bonus of being an architectural gem and offers a wide selection of artworks from the 14th and 15th century, while the Calvet Museum offers an excellent selection of 18th and 19th-century works, including a good number from Avignon’s own Joseph Vernet.
Avignon’s also known for its world-famous festival, so if you’re a lover of the arts, visiting during the three weeks that the event is staged will be a bonus. If you’ve time for a quick bite, Avignon’s the perfect place to try some authentic Quiche Lorraine and also great for fish dishes.