Avignon celebrates catholic festivals the same way it celebrates its gastronomy and culture, with a genuine reverence for its past and a real enthusiasm for modernity. Next time you fancy a Christmas market with a soul, Avignon at Christmas is the place.
Avignon nicknamed “The chiming Town” is famous for its summer theatre festivaland and its bridge. It’s less known that within its 800-year-old stone ramparts, along the cobbled streets this elegant medieval city offers a major festival each month of the year.
In the Middle-Ages, Avignon was the capital of the Christian world. From the 14th century, following a ding-dong (not that of the many bell towers proudly dotted around the city) but subsequent to a strife between Philip IV of France and Pope Boniface VIII, nine popes reigned from Avignon.
During this period, most of what is known, today, as Avignon intra-muros was designed and built to accommodate the members of the clergy. The papal legacy doesn’t stop at the magnificent Gothic buildings, churches and palaces, it’s deeply entrenched in Provençal psyche.
In Provence, nothing is rushed, there is no talk of Black Friday or Cyber Monday, “Christmas time”, according to the tradition should last 40 days ending in February with pancake day (la Chandeleur). On the 24th of December, the midnight-mass takes place after the “big supper” and a baby Jesus is then placed in each crib.
Each year, in Avignon, a 10 meters Provençal village with a crib at its heart and populated with Santons is recreated. In the past, Santons were made out of dried bread, painted and varnished. They are now delicately hand-painted terracotta figurines, about 20cm tall. To this day, each small figurine is made by hand and represents a character from Provençal village life such as the shepherd, chestnut seller, baker and even plumber.
This year, the crib has been homed in the church des Celestins, 600 Santons “go about their business” in the shadow of a terracotta miniature Palais des Papes, tiny lavender fields and a barn awaiting for its Jesus-Santon.
As if this was not enough of a spectacle, other squares host various Christmas markets
Santons: Place des Corps Saints
Food market: Place Crillon
Ice ring and chalets: Place Pie
Trees and Christmas decorations : Place des Carmes
In the chapel of The Palais des Roures there is a representation of “the big supper” with its famous 13 desserts. The spirit of Christmas has indeed been blown into Avignon by the Mistral and is there to stay.
We are told that Avignon will soon have its very own Oenotourism centre dedicated to the Cotes du Rhone wines.
Not to miss:
The Palais des Papes with its true masterpiece of 14th century wall paintings
The Pont Benezet, a legend of a bridge 13th century continuously repaired until the 17th century, you may not be able to cross to the other bank with this bridge but it’s good for a sing-song.
Avignon is a town of collectors and several private gorgeous mansions have been turned into museums (Calvet, Roure, Lapidaire etc..)
The Halles’ plant wall a 11.5 meters wide structure with 20 plants per square meter.
Weekly free cookery lessons in les Halles (food market)
The old streets lined with city mansions
The Trompe l’Oeil Avignon Festival windows on walls throughout Avignon<
How do I get to Avignon?
There is a direct TGV from London St Pancras to Avignon 5 hours 49 minutes
The TGV station is 4 kms outside the center, there are buses from the TGV station or a train shuttle (la virgule)
In Avignon intra-muros there is a free tourist train “le petit train” or a seven-seater electric vehicle “La Baladine” 0.50 euros a ticket
Various Free public Wi-Fi zones are dotted around the place.
A smart phone app sends alerts in real time about the monuments in Avignon and tells you their history www.monument-tracker.com
For more information check www.avignon-tourisme.com
Thanks : I would like to thank the tourism office and in particular Sylvie Joly for organising our stay and being our guide.