Historians believe Avignon has been occupied continuously for 5,000 years, and much archeological evidence has been uncovered of its status as a Roman colony, beginning in the 2nd century. Place de l'Horloge, where city hall stands, was the site of a Roman forum.
The riverside market town attained lasting fame in 1309, when anarchy in Rome induced Pope Clement V, a Frenchman, to seek sanctuary here. For 70 years the little city-republic served as the capital of Christianity. Popes and cardinals commissioned lavish palaces. Though the popes returned to Rome, Avignon continued to flourish as a European market crossroads. But now Renaissance merchants built the palaces.
Until the 19th century Avignon remained medieval in appearance. Then, under the reign of Napoleon III, the city underwent much of the same redevelopment — new parks and wide streets — that Baron Haussmann, a financier and city planner, designed for Paris. Today, Avignon's core is home to about 11,000 residents; an additional 75,000 live outside its walls.
Old though it is, Avignon seems young in spirit. Its streets are as lively at night as those in Paris. The city, a university center, is attracting a burgeoning colony of artists, whose contemporary works we admired (or puzzled over) in numerous galleries. Lines formed nightly outside the movie theaters on busy, tree-lined Rue de la République, the old city's main thoroughfare.
It was early evening on a warm Saturday, and the street was thronged. Cafes and bars, indoors and out, were packed. All Provence, it seemed, had come to town to party. Our destination for dinner was the Hôtel de la Mirande, a four-star lodging tucked behind the papal palace. The restored 700-year-old town house is furnished with polished woods and rich tapestries of the past.
Our meal there was one of five memorable ones in Avignon. We ordered the fixed-price dinner at $47 per person. A menu in English described the appetizer as a "tower of beans," which proved to be a salad of mixed beans, goat cheese and basil wrapped in a roasted red pepper. The main course, pan-roasted cod served with au gratin potatoes and fried spinach, was well prepared. We finished with apple cream cake and vanilla ice cream. Service was impeccable, and we left satisfied.
Even at 11 p.m., the streets were busy as we strolled back to our hotel. In the Place de l'Horloge, children and their parents lined up at a carousel. The open-air cafes were thronged.
Near the end of our stay, we returned to La Mirande for a chef's dinner prepared before us in the restaurant's 19th century kitchen, now a museum of sorts. These reservation-only dinners are offered to a maximum of 14 people on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when La Mirande's modern kitchen is closed. The meal is cooked in old Provençal style in pots on a wood-burning stove.
Our group of 12 — all food-loving Americans — sat around a large table in a small basement room. Jérôme Verrière, the young sous-chef at La Mirande, assumed command of his cast-iron stove, describing each dish as he effortlessly created it.
We began with fresh tuna, sautéed quickly with a balsamic vinegar glaze in a large copper pan. Next came a cold appetizer, foie gras with rhubarb marmalade. Venison in a parsley sauce proved popular as the entree. For dessert: a large cheese plate followed by baba au rhum, a rum-soaked sponge cake. Afterward we adjourned to the lobby for coffee and conversation.
After a feast like this, I felt like dancing again sur le Pont d'Avignon.
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An appetite for delight in Avignon
From LAX, Air France and Air Tahiti Nui offer nonstop flights to Paris. American, Northwest, Continental, United, Swiss, Lufthansa, KLM, Delta and US Airways have connecting service (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,097.
From Paris, take the high-speed TGV train from Gare de Lyon to Avignon. The trip takes 2 hours and 40 minutes. Fare is about $73.
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