Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A weekend in Avignon with Vanessa Bruno

The Paris favourite directs Avril Groom to this Provençal town’s less obvious attractions.

September 08 2011
Avril Groom

‘‘I was brought up in Paris, but my father’s parents lived in Nîmes, so I’ve known nearby Provence since I was little. Also, my mother had a wandering, bohemian streak, which I’ve inherited – she would put us kids in the car and drive for a few days as a holiday, staying in small hotels. Sometimes we would end up in the Haut Vaucluse and I soon realised there was more to Provence than the coast. I now live just outside Avignon, which is at the start of Provence, at pretty much the westernmost end, but that makes it very easy to get to – it’s just over 2.5 hours on the train from Paris. It’s a wonderful place to spend a weekend early or later in the year, when the north is cold but here it’s sunny and warm, and you immediately feel yourself relaxing. Even at Christmas, we often eat outside, wearing a sweater.

Avignon is very small, very beautiful, of course, and easy to walk around. It is also surrounded by the most ravishing countryside, and in high summer I prefer this to the town itself, which gets too crowded with tourists. I favour the town’s obvious attractions in spring, from April to June, when there are fewer people; but even in the height and heat of summer there are spots where you can escape the crowds. One place you can do this is at the hotel La Mirande, which is the most beautiful in town, in an old hôtel particulier with a delightful, tranquil garden. Even if you’re not staying here, it’s a great place to meet a friend at teatime, for one of its brilliant club sandwiches and a glass of wine under the shady trees. The rooms themselves are very comfortable and elegant, in an 18th-century, southern French way, and each one is different. I love traditional Provençal furniture – there is something very comforting about its graceful beauty.

Another option is the Hôtel d’Europe. The public areas are classically luxurious and have recently been redone in a good blend of tradition and modernity. And if you want to be somewhere really quiet, La Magnaneraie, just across the Rhone in Villeneuve lès Avignon, is like an old farmhouse, with cool yet Provençal rooms and a very pretty pool. And it has extremely good food – simple and local – so you can just stay put for dinner.

On Saturday morning it’s great to walk across to Villeneuve, partly because it has beautiful medieval buildings of its own that don’t get the tourist traffic, and also for the weekly Marché aux Puces in the Place du Marché; it’s where to search out wonderful old furniture, linen and clothes. Some aspects of Provençal style are timeless – the cotton boutis quilts, embroidered white cotton petticoats, which I collect, and all the beautiful lace that used to be laid over the tablecloth at local wedding celebrations. I always get ideas for my collections from this handiwork. When you’ve had enough of the brocante, look for the little buvette run by a man called Alain Carrera – it doesn’t have a name, but it’s the only one. He’s an oyster farmer from Sète and he drives straight up the motorway every Saturday bringing the freshest oysters.

My favourite area of Avignon is above and behind the Palais des Papes, especially the Rocher des Doms gardens, which are built on a rock with a beautiful view of the river on one side and the Palace on the other. Behind the Palace and the Eglise Saint Pierre is an interesting area that has been developed but is still quite calm: La Manutention cultural centre, with spaces for performance art and barbecues (it gets very crowded during the arts festival in July). There is also the Grand Café, built in an old glass-roofed warehouse with huge antique mirrors and mid-20th-century furniture, which has good, simple food and makes an ideal lunch stop.

Walk across the big square in front of the Palais des Papes and down to the rather smart Rue Joseph Vernet, and you’ll find the Musée Calvet. It’s housed in an architecturally fascinating 18th-century house and has an unusual collection of paintings by local Provençal artists, some going back to the 16th century. The patterns on the porcelain collection are deeply inspiring. Completely different from the Calvet is the Collection Lambert, which has brilliant travelling exhibitions of contemporary art of the sort that you rarely see in a provincial town, and which has the added advantage of housing the very good METropolitan restaurant, designed by Andreé Putman, with modern-style food. Go for a long lunch, or an early dinner.

I don’t go and look at fashion much when I’m here – I’m off duty. But there are some lovely shops. The Souleiado boutique in Avignon is wonderful: it’s one of the oldest, and has very good stock. The classic tiered skirts are great for summer and they’re built to last – they fade and soften gently as you wash and wear them – and the accessories, such as the make-up bags, make great gifts. There are so many colours and prints – something to suit everyone.

Avignon is also a great place to keep on the lookout for vintage pieces, especially furniture – I often mix my finds into my shops’ modern settings. Yannerick Sérignan stocks the best old local items, while Galerie 5.6.7 has interesting furniture designers from the 1960s and 1970s. L’Ami Voyage bookshop, which has beautiful art and architecture books as well as secondhand finds, comfy chairs and a lovely little tearoom, is definitely worth a browse. And over the river in Villeneuve is another of my favourites – the Moulin à Huile de la Chartreuse, where local people bring their own olives, even if in small quantities, to be made into oil. You can buy oil from nearby estates and other items too, from food such as tapenade to rich olive-oil soap.

In the late afternoon, it’s lovely to walk across the bridge (or take the little ferry) to Ile de la Barthelasse, an oasis of cool, green trees. You can watch the rowers and fishermen from the terrace of restaurant Le Bercail, which is the perfect place to stop for a 5pm apéro.

As for dinner, perhaps the chicest place in town is Christian Etienne, named after its seriously good chef, who is passionate about local and seasonal ingredients, and them being exquisitely presented; in summer, for instance, he did a delicious tomato menu. The inside is classic but the terrace, with a stunning view of the Palais des Papes, is the place to be; if the weather’s good enough, always ask for a table there. Or, if you like fish, go to La Petite Pêche – it doesn’t look much from the outside, like a little cabanon, but it has the freshest squid and sea bream, usually done with local vegetables and herbs or ratatouille. And 83.Vernet is in an old convent, where the atmosphere is kept up with some long refectory-type tables and simple, slightly boho décor; but the food is fantastic, quite adventurous, and not monastic at all.

Afterwards, there are so many bars in Avignon for a late-evening drink that it’s very hard to choose one. Those around the Place Crillon have a good atmosphere. Le Gambrinus, in the student area, is very hip; people play card games while they drink or have a tasty snack. And the Rue des Teinturiers – which used to be the old textiles area, and still has a few wooden waterwheels – also has some very trendy bars. It’s at its most perfect at this time of year – like much of Avignon – as the high-season crowds have gone, and the light and the mild evenings are lingering.”

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