Ecclesiastical Past Gives Way to a Peppy Present

Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

Every French child learns the words early and seldom forgets: " Sur le Pont d'Avignon , on y danse, on y danse . . . tout en rond ," or, roughly, "we will dance and dance in a circle on the bridge at Avignon."

Tiny Gallic voices have probably chanted this charming song almost as long as St. Benezet Bridge has spanned the Rhone River here, since 1190 when a local shepherd boy convinced town fathers that heavenly voices commanded that a bridge be built. Alas, the dancing, if not the ditty, is apocryphal, since the bridge was built for foot traffic and is much too narrow for dancing in a circle.

Weightier historic matters began for the town in 1309 when the French Pope Clement V, tired of the turmoil of medieval Rome, moved the papacy here. It remained in Avignon for a century, save for the one year another French pope took it back to Rome, adding historic stature and impressive architecture to the city.

Today, despite its ecclesiastic past, Avignon has a lighthearted gaiety that matches its site in the colorful Rhone Valley of Provence, the main square a jungle of sidewalk cafes jammed with visitors, drawn here by what seems a year-round holiday mood.

At one end of the square spins an ancient carrousel, put there originally 1580, and an inn that for two centuries has had as its guests kings, queens, popes and latter-day luminaries. This one will leave you breathless, with its lode of antiques, soaring ceilings, tapestries, gorgeous formal bar-lounge and two exquisite courtyards for summer dining. The kitchen is held in the greatest esteem locally.

Regional food and drink: Provencal cooking is Mediterranean to the core--tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, basil and rosemary used with abandon. Lamb jumps at you from every menu, rabbit or wild hare almost as often, both prepared in numerous glorious ways with the symphony of herbs blanketing the region's hills.

Bourride has been described as a bouillabaisse without the shellfish, a notion with which we differ. It doesn't have the soup-like consistency of a bouillabaisse, often appearing as whitefish fillets in a subtle or not-so-subtle sauce with a touch of saffron and the thickness of a bearnaise. While our samplings were far from extensive, none could be considered in the same family with bouillabaisse, yet all were delicious.

Rhone Valley wines from the Chateauneuf du Pape region up the road are noted for their richness and good value. Papalines d'Avignon are liqueur chocolates, loads of candied fruit in every shop window.

Moderate-cost dining: Le Saint-Didier (Place St.-Didier) is one of those small and very elegant places that combines a superior kitchen and service with friendly prices. Roget, a Mediterranean red mullet, was a marvelous first course on a bed of tomatoes and artichokes, and lamb in a black truffle sauce garnished with souffled eggplant was a triumph of imaginative chef Christian Etienne. A selection of local chevre cheeses, served with a coarse bread baked with black olives and walnuts, made for a perfect evening of fine food and wine.

Au Bain Marie (51 Rue Grande Fustere) lived up to its name with spectacular sauces and a formidable rabbit pate. The flank steak, in a creamed green-pepper sauce, was memorable, a brochette of mussels wedged with bits of lemon its equal. Bain Marie, named for a saucepan, is a tiny enclave of cheerful informality.

Going first-class: Le Prieure (Place du Chapitre, Villeneuve lez Avignon; $123 to $158) began life as a cardinal's palace in 1322, became a priory at his death and was transformed into a small hotel in 1943. Subsequent additions, all kept in the style and spirit of the original, have created a wondrous hotel of great charm and tranquility. Traditional furnishings, lovely gardens, pool, handsome dining room, everything about Le Prieure is most engaging.

Hiely (5 Rue de la Republique) is Avignon's temple of the good life at the table, its menu replete with items such as petite marmite of saffron-flavored whitefish, young farm guinea hen with fruits and Provencal spices, the traditional pieds et paquets (feet and packages), a hearty sheep's trotters and tripe dish much favored here and in Marseilles. Pierre Hiely's creations earn deserved recognition by the honored Relais & Chateau group. Some 200 of France's finest wines to choose from.

On your own: The fortress-like Palace of the Popes, built in the 14th Century in differing Gothic styles by two pontiffs, should be your first stop, filled with murals of wonderful blues and little else. Then cross the square to Petit Palace museum for a fine selection of Italian art from the 13th to 15th centuries, including a delightful Botticelli Virgin and Child.

Try to see the famous bridge in early morning or evening when slanting light gives its four remaining arches better definition, best viewed from across the Rhone. Perhaps return to Place de l'Horloge, the old clock-tower square that was once a Roman forum, for a coffee or aperitif at one of its many cafes.

And a venture into Avignon's Vaucluse, or "closed valley," region is sure to be most rewarding, particularly to the hill town of Gordes, with its magnificent Renaissance castle and to the village of bories nearby. These are pre-historic stone houses, the limestone slabs corbelled upward without mortar to form a remarkably engineered and weather-proof structure.

The Abbaye de Senanque is nearby in fields of glorious lavender, inside and out an exquisite example of austere 12th-Century Cistercian architecture. As we walked about inside, a group of German tourists were singing medieval liturgical music at one end of the nave. The pristine clarity of their voices was in complete harmony with the abbey's serenity.

For more information call the French Government Tourist Office at (213) 271-6665 or 272-2661, or write 9401 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 840, Beverly Hills 90212, for a brochure on Provence, including Avignon, a map of the region and a hotel list. Ask for the Avignon package.

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