In happier, more normal times, one balmy night in Avignon, encouraged and joined by a trio of drunken Californians and a couple from Ottawa, I headed off the SS Catherine, around 11pm, water bottles filled with wine, to sing Sur le Pont d’Avignon under the French city’s most famous bridge, the Pont Saint-Benezet. I was only vaguely familiar with the song – and completely unaware of the accompanying dance – but the Ottowans, from French-speaking Canada, couldn’t be more excited. “We sang this every day in school,” they explained breathlessly. “It’s incredible to finally see it.”
The bridge, a Unesco World Heritage Site that dates (in its current form) back to 1234, I was more familiar with. Abandoned in the mid 17th century, as its arches kept collapsing every time the Rhône flooded, it now only spans half of the river – somehow adding to its beauty, particularly at sunset or when illuminated at night. British guests won’t be drawn by the song, but many will be familiar with the landmark, which sits on the outside of the walled city’s boundaries.
There is plenty inside the walls that make Avignon the biggest draw on any Rhône cruise – although Lyon, Arles, Viviers and, well, every call make this such a special itinerary. It’s telling that cruise lines mostly use Avignon on their marketing materials.
The city is actually much bigger than most realise, but of its 90,000 inhabitants, only 12,000 live in the ancient city centre, encircled by the medieval ramparts. During the Avignon Papacy, between 1309 and 1377, seven successive popes resided in Avignon. The influence is still apparent today – Papal control lasted until 1791 when, during the French Revolution, it became part of France – making the Palais des Papes and the cathedral the must-see sights for many visitors.
One of the joys of a Rhône cruise – particularly when paired with a Seine sailing as many, particularly Americans, are wont to do – is taking in the shifting culture and geography of France, a country that is more than twice as large as the UK but with the same population. Avignon is distinctly Mediterranean in feel, due to the Roman architecture, hot weather and fresh food. Provençal cuisine is simple and full of flavour, making good use of fresh ingredients such as tomatoes, garlic, saffron, peppers and olives, with herb-crusted fish often on the menu. This being Provence, it’s rude not to enjoy it all with a glass of rosé.
If your guests are there in July, the Avignon Festival, founded in 1947, is a cultural highlight (this year’s is sadly cancelled), featuring theatre, dance, music and cinema. About 100,000 people attend the festival each year, dividing their attention between the Festival In, which presents plays inside the Palais des Papes, and the Festival Off, made up of as-yet undiscovered plays and street performances.