Avignon, France (review published 2010)

We’d stayed in an apartment with a lovely sea view and we’d stayed in an apartment with a cosy log fire.
But until recently, my wife and I had never stayed in an apartment built on the orders of the Pope on the very spot where a bona fide miracle had taken place.
The apartment, booked through VacationRentalPeople.com, was in the former church of Notre-Dame Du Miracle, in the historic French city of Avignon.
The story goes that on March 24, 1320, a man and a teenager, both accused of sodomy, were sentenced to be burned at the stake.
The older died in the flames but the younger, still proclaiming his innocence and imploring the Virgin Mary to show mercy, was unharmed.
At that time, Avignon was the centre of the Roman Catholic world – the papal court moved there from war-torn Italy in 1309 and didn’t return until 1377.
Pope John XXII heard about the teenager’s lucky escape, deemed it a miracle and had the church built on the place of the stake.
The church has long since ceased being a place of worship and our apartment was on the second floor of a facade added in the 18th century.
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Our apartment in the former church of Notre-Dame Du Miracle
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It was perfectly situated for exploring Avignon and the Provence region, being just a five-minute walk from both the city centre and central train station.
The apartment was within the well preserved, medieval city walls which are three miles round and punctuated with 39 tower and seven gates.
Sadly, visitors to Avignon could be forgiven for thinking the defensive structure was built to keep prostitutes out of the city centre.
The walls are lined with car parks which, come night time, are frequented by vans with little red lights on the dashboards.
It ruins what could be a romantic walk and is not something you’d expect to see in a city where seven popes built a mini-Vatican.
The Pope’s Palace was richly decorated by artists and craftsmen from Italy. Today, its walls are mostly bare but the building’s scale is still overwhelming.
Further evidence of religious splendour can be found across the River Rhone, in Villeneuve-les-Avignon, where a charterhouse founded by cardinals is the oldest in France.
A little further afield, in the famous wine-making town of Chateauneufdu-Pape, the ruined keep and walls of the Popes’ second home still stand.
Avignon is perhaps best known for Pont Saint-Benezet, the medieval bridge across the Rhone made famous by the popular 15th century nursery rhyme Sur Le Pont D’Avignon.
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Sur Le Pont D’Avignon
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Its construction was inspired by Saint Benezet, a local shepherd boy who, according to tradition, was commanded by angels to build a bridge across the Rhone.
Though ridiculed at first, he proved his divine inspiration by miraculously lifting a huge block of stone, thereby winning support for his project from wealthy sponsors.
Pont Saint Benezet once straddled an island that was a popular spot for fairs and revellers would dance under the bridge (not on it, as the nursery rhyme suggests) as they sheltered from rain.
Over the centuries, the bridge, originally 900m long, became increasingly perilous as arches frequently collapsed during floods and were replaced by rickety wooden sections. The bridge was finally abandoned in 1688 after a flood which swept away much of the structure and today only four of the original 22 arches remain intact.
Besides Pont Saint-Benezet, our week-long stay in Avignon was also memorable for visits to two other breathtaking bridges which spanned the centuries.
Fifteen miles away, between Avignon and Nimes, is the almost perfectly-preserved Pont du Gard, the tallest of all the Roman aqueducts at 48m.
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Pont du Gard
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Work on the three-tiered limestone structure started in 9BC and it was still carrying water over the river valley as late as the 9th century.
A two-hour drive away, forming part of the A75-A71 Paris to Montpellier route, is the equally impressive Millau Viaduct, designed by British architect Norman Foster.
It was opened in 2004, at a cost of  £320 million, and at the welcome centre we learned that it boasts two world records – the highest road bridge and longest cable-stayed bridge deck.
The tallest of the seven masts is 343m – that’s higher than the Eiffel Tower – and the deck in 270m above the River Tarn. The overall length is 2,460m.
Of course, travelling to the Millau Viaduct means hiring a car.
But many other sights in the culturally-rich Avignon area can be reached by public transport.
Some of Ancient Rome’s best-preserved monuments are less than 30 minutes away by train – the theatre at Orange and the amphitheatres at Nimes and Arles.
Pont du Gard, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Villeneuve-les-Avignon and L’Isle-surla-Sorge (‘The Venice Of Provence’) are all easily accessible by bus.
However, not hiring a car means missing out on the atmospheric hilltop villages of the Luberon Natural Park, such as Gordes, Lacoste and Oppede-le-Vieux.
In fact, there’s so much to marvel at in this part of Provence that it would be a flaming miracle if you saw it all in one week.
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DSCN2649Millau Viaduct
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Travel file
  • VacationRentalPeople.com was launched in October 2007 and has quickly established itself as one of the world’s fastest growing holiday home advertising portals. It has 21,000 unique properties around the world for rent ranging from city centre, to beach-side to countryside. Our two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment had a modern, open-plan kitchen / lounge / dining room. It costs between 500 and 650 euros a week to rent. For more information, click here here
  • Eurostar will operate a direct Saturday service from London St Pancras International or Ebbsfleet International to Avignon Centre Station between July 10 and September 4. Travelling at up to 186mph, the journey takes less than six hours and travellers arrive within a short walk of the heart of the city. Throughout the year, Eurostar operates an indirect service, changing at Lille or Paris onto a TGV high-speed train, arriving at Avignon’s TGV Station on the outskirts of the city. A shuttle bus operates between the two Avignon stations, running every 20 minutes, taking ten minutes and costing  3 euros. Return tickets start at £109 and connecting fares are available from Midlands stations.
  • From Birmingham, connecting fares start at £123 return. Connecting fairs guarantee that travellers will be put on the next available train if there is a late service in either direction. To buy tickets, visit Eurostar, call 08432 186 186 or call in at your local travel agent.
  • Book early if you are planning to visit between July 7 and 27 when the annual Avignon Festival takes place. It’s France’s oldest and best-known cultural celebration and there are about 1,000 performances.

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DSCN2539Arles amphiteatre

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Published article here

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