The City of Popes and the world’s largest Gothic building
A very unexpected and not even planned return to the city of Nimes this year however with a different purpose: visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site listed city of Avignon, and same listed nearby smaller city of Orange with one of the best preserved Roman theatres anywhere across the former ancient empire. So yes, overall, this trip was booked less than 2 weeks before coming on what would have been a weekend without any trip. To anyone reading this article as a standalone without checking my travel pattern, then it will sound normal; to those who follow me then they know I cannot stay a weekend without travelling abroad unless there is absolutely no option.
Flying to Nimes during low season is great in both air fare costs and hotel stay. Gladly from London it is very easy to find great flight deals even though the times are not the most optimal for this route, giving us just little over 24 hours, basically the entire Saturday from the very early morning until the return flight Sunday by noon. Still having been to Nimes just 4 months ago, there was no other plan to visit anything else than nearby Avignon, my main aim for this quick trip which was for a while now behind my ear in the bucket list of desired places to travel to. With Orange, I am still unsure if I will be able to manage it in the same day. I leave it for now in here whether if I make it or if not, because it is something anyone can easily plan and visit in tandem. One to another is just 30 kilometres, and both cities are small enough to manage, bearing in mind Orange’s highlight is pretty much its ancient Roman theatre. If you come to see pictures from Orange later on below in the next sections then it’s good luck to myself! I managed it.
So let’s concentrate in Avignon. “The City of Popes”. Why is such a nickname you might ask? Well during the 14th century this was the only city in history where the Papacy was switched from Rome to Avignon, where 7 successive Popes resided with control until 1791, when at the turn of the French Revolution it become part of France. Nevertheless, its heritage can today be seen and admire immaculately preserved all over the city including its ramparts; one of the very few cities to retain these in France without turning them down at the expansion and modernisation in the successive centuries. But among the structures, one immediately comes as the highlight number one and major draw for tourist to this city: the Palace of the Popes, the largest Gothic building in the world, pretty much unaltered since its construction bearing its interiors and furniture lost through the centuries.
Elsewhere, the entire city is extremely elegant, and not just the beautiful old town ancient buildings, but the 19th century Haussmann façades that typical from Paris, and an overall neo-classical look; therefore that the city is way more than just its Palace of the Popes. There’s enough to keep you wandering for an entire day. And when thinking about food, that’s the less difficult part. In general, wherever you are in France that’s of great and high quality, yet prices can vary tremendously of course. A brief look through a few of them will give you an idea on what you should expect, it was quite easy for us and ended up in a nice place with very competitive prices.
Giving some notes about Orange, it was originally founded in 35 BC by veterans of the second legion by the name of Colonia Julia Firma Secundanorum Arausio. Its merely 22 kilometres north from Avignon, and complements each other as a perfect getaway in enjoying what is home to the best preserved and most complete ancient theatre in Europe. The theatre is simply speechless, in size, proportions, beauty and level of preservation, but that’s not all in the city. One of the finest Roman arches still stands in great shape, and some large remains of the main Temple. The Roman past of the city is clearly visible and in its roots, yet the maze of small streets of the medieval city do also captivate the eyes of the tourists. It’s really charming and enjoyable.
Other than these notes for this introduction there’s not much more information to give you for now. Both cities are very straightforward and easy to navigate, however as usual, for full information about the history of Avignon the best sites to check would be Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites, as for Orange this is a good Wikipedia article. France’s currency is the Euro (EUR). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Avignon
- Railway Station From the mid 19th century, located at the south of the city at the brink of the ramparts that enclose the historic core.
- Ramparts The finest and most complete of any city in France from the 14th century medieval layout. It still encircles the oldest core of the city.
- Cours Jean Jaurès/Rue de la République The main avenue cutting through the entire historic town from the railway station at the south towards the Palais des Pape and Cathedral at the northernmost end. Along its way you will see many elegant Haussmannian constructions and majority of the city’s sights nearby among the high street shops and restaurants all over.
-Church of Saint Martial Small Gothic church along one of this small landscaped square at the front.
- Place de l’Horloge The heart of the old town and most important civic centre since the medieval times.
-Hôtel de Ville The City Hall, one of the elegant construction from the half of the 19th century, with the famous Clock Tower dating from the 14th century.
-Opera Dating from 1847 replacing the former that burned down.
- Place du Palais des Papes Right after Place de l’Horloge, this is the largest in the city and the major draw for tourist in the city.
-Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) Construction began in 1316 with Pope John XXII, then by succeeding popes until 1370 when it was finished, becoming the largest Gothic building in the world ever since, UNESCO World Heritage Site listed for its incredible history and architecture. Without any doubt the sight number one in Avignon.
-Hôtel des Monnaies The former papal mint built in 1610, nowadays a music school. Located right opposite the Palais des Papes.
-Cathedral Notre Dame des Domes Built in the 12th century in Romanesque style, located next to the Palais des Pape. Among its many architectural treasures is the Gothic mausoleum of Pope John XXII who died in 1334.
-Rocher des Doms Farther behind the Cathedral is this park in the highest part of the city, a hill overlooking the river beyond from a vantage point of view.
-Petit Palais It was in 1335 the Bishop’s Palace, nowadays a paintings gallery. Located at the northernmost side of Place du Palais.
- Pont Saint-Benezet Or simply called Pont d’Avignon. Listed together with the Palace des Popes in the same UNESCO listing. It became well known by the song “Sur le pont d’Avignon”. Built between 1177 and 1185, its arches tended to fall, yet after many repairs and reconstructions, was abandoned in the 17th century hence the current look now at just few arches remaining incomplete.
- Hôtel d’Europe The oldest hotel in France, dating from 1799 although housed in an older building from 1580. Southwest from Pont d’Avignon, in Place Crillon at the beginning of Pont Daladier.
- Place Pie Located not far east from Place de l’Horloge it is another of the remaining major sights within the historic centre.
-Tour Saint Jean The solely remnant of the once 13th century Hospital of Saint Jean.
-Les Halles Along the southern side of the square, it is the major market in the city.
- Rue des Teinturiers Continuing east along the street that passes by the southernmost side of Les Halles you reach one of the most charming and picturesque areas in the city.
What to see and do in Orange
- Roman Theatre The best preserved in Europe from the antiquity, UNESCO World Heritage Site listed. For the most up to date information on ticket costs and opening hours is best to check the official website here.
- The Temple Although not much remains as of today, it is another of the great remains from the city’s Roman past. located next to the Theatre, easy to spot.
- Roman Arch Erected as a tribute to the veterans of the 2nd Gallic legion who founded the town, it is in fact a commemorative urban arch acting as the gateway to the town and not a triumphal arch, since triumphs were only celebrated in Rome. Located north of the city, beyond the old town and former enclosing walls.
- Old Town The city is more than just the Roman constructions. A maze of medieval streets very well preserved and charming, easy to navigate in a short time.
While the city of Avignon has a small airport with some international destinations to the United Kingdom, the more important to reach the city is generally Nimes Garons Airport, some 20 kilometres from the city centre of Nimes, and easily reachable by frequent public buses costing 6.80€ per way. This is a small airport currently being expanded with further routes through Europe, however it is still limited in destinations. Other nearby airports are Montpellier at only 55 kilometres to the southwest of Nimes, and the much larger Marseilles, 100 km northeast of Nimes. So counting them all, between these 3 airports the overall routes served are quite large and great, including some intercontinental. From downtown Nimes to Avignon is little over 30 minutes by railway, or around 1 hour by bus. Both the railway and bus stations are in the same place next to each other.
If coming overland, there’s no doubt railway would be the best and fastest. France has a large high-speed rail network, so interconnecting in between is easy and reliable, yet not the cheapest. Then comes to the buses, crisscrossing the country. You can get directly to Nimes by international trains from Spain, Italy or Switzerland, then change for the short ride to Avignon.
Once in the city, the historic centre is small and compact, with most of the streets pedestrianised therefore walking is your only and best choice. To any farther areas of the city, there is a reliable network of public buses.
From Avignon to Orange there is a short 20 minutes train ride, although frequencies are rather poor. Check before and plan ahead if you do not have your own transportation, as it was my case in this trip. You can easily manage that’s for sure. I did it, so why won’t you!
The city boats a good and big selection of any kind, from the top class to the more modest, and countless B&B and airb&b. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
My base was in Nimes, and although it’s a city I’ve been 3 times, this is the first time I get a hotel here. Just few months earlier in the year the base was in nearby Montpellier, the largest city in the area with a massive selection of hotels. Overall, wherever you plan to have your base, or if in Avignon itself, it will be easy to find a nice hotel.
City of Avignon
City of Orange