France By Train Part II: Avignon

When we step out of the station in Avignon, an intense heat and the sound of cigales act as our greeting. The city is well known for its impressive climate and the region for its sonic buzz, even selling soft-toy versions of the cricket-like creatures in its tourist shops.

The summer is the best time to visit, given that the Festival of Avignon runs throughout July each year, attracting over 950 different theatre companies from all over France and beyond. The multi-arts festival has been going for 66 years now, and is known throughout Europe and, whether on the street or in a venue, performance spots are highly sought after by artists of all persuasions.

The city of Avignon becomes an enormous stage with more than one hundred different venues hosting shows that cover a broad spectrum of performing arts. Posters for theatre, music, comedy and more are plastered across every wall, lamp post and surface in sight, and, at this time of year, the whole city seems to pulsate with a unique brand of excitement for the arts.

No matter what time of year you visit the city, however, there’s lots to see. The most remarkable monument is undoubtedly the imposing Palais de Papes and its expansive garden complex. The structure served as the Popes’ residence in the 14th century and is one of the most important gothic palaces in Europe, preserved almost perfectly and rightly classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Visitors can explore 25 different rooms featuring priceless frescoes, incredible sculptures and fascinating architecture, with extensive tourist information available in a plethora of languages.

Surrounding the Palais are the enchanting Rocher des Doms gardens where locals and tourists alike relax with morning yoga, picnic lunches or an evening stroll. Large basins are home to swans, ducks, geese and carp all around, while the area itself overlooks the Rhone River with magnificent views from almost every vantage point.

A collaborative exhibition spread across the Palais and the formidable modern art gallery Collection Lambert is in full-swing during our stay, showcasing the work of five female artists: Camille Claudel, Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, Jana Sterbak and Berlinde de Bruyckere. The works on show celebrate and explore conceptions of femininity through a variety of visual art forms.

The Collection Lambert gallery itself is a perfect example of France’s national appreciation modern artistic works. The contemporary collection was donated to the French government by art connoisseur Yvon Lambert, and reflects a range of the major trends of our time: minimal art, conceptual art, 1960s and 1970s land art, 1980s paintings and a range of photography and video from the 1990s and 2000s.

Smaller in size and lesser known in terms of reputation, art enthusiasts should also visit the Angladon Museum, an old private mansion in the heart of old Avignon. The great painters of the 19th and 20th centuries including Manet, Van Gogh and Picasso are presented on the gallery’s ground floor, while the parlours are home to 18th century paintings by Chardin, Joseph Vernet and Hubert Robert among others.

Until November 3rd, the Angladon is also hosting an exhibition called Portraits d’Artistes by photographer Denise Colomb, which would be worthy of a visit on its own. Colomb is regarded as one of France’s finest portrait photographers, and her distinctive style demonstrates a striking talent for capturing personalities through facial expressions. She died at age 101 in 2004, and during her impressive career photographed many important figures such as Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti.

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Herbs and spices at Les Halles

 

For the foodie traveller, the covered market of Les Halles d’Avignon welcomes more than 40 retailers of Provençal fresh produce from Tuesday to Sunday each week. Recognisable from the outside by its plant wall which was designed by Patrick Blanc, the best day to visit Les Halles is on Saturday. In a feat known as “La petite cuisine des Halles”, Avignon chefs cook up a storm from 11am, preparing recipes publicly and using products from Les Halles. Entrance is free and samples are plenty.

Another stop on the gastronomical trail in Avignon is La Mirande, a historic 4* hotel in the very centre of the city. We visit for dinner, and the meal is served in the hotel’s beautiful garden area; a hidden-away courtyard that offers the Palais as its backdrop and just enough sound from the festival to be atmospheric rather than overwhelming. Each course is divine, with the highlight of the meal being a seared duck breast verging on perfection.

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Seared duck breast at La Mirande

 

As well as being known for the incredible food in its restaurant, the complex includes a cooking school in the historic setting of a traditional French kitchen. Groups of six to twelve people can participate in La Mirande’s cookery courses, taught by the greatest chefs of the region.

After a stay brimming with interesting activities and excellent food, I still don’t feel I’ve seen enough of this glorious city. It won’t be long until I’m back – won’t you join me?

INFORMATION

Transport

Eurostar trains to Lille are available to book from London St. Pancras International or connecting via St. Pancras from a range of regional train stations across the UK. First and second-class tickets are available for purchase, and can be booked online, over the phone or in person. First-class tickets incorporate a lovely meal including wine or beer – a relaxing start to any trip!

RailEurope is an easy, efficient and painless way to book train tickets in countries all over Europe, with each local service conveniently presented in your own language and in your own currency. First and second-class tickets are available, and you can book TGV, SNCF and other French train services in advance through their website.

Planning your trip

Avignon Tourism arrange guided tours of the city and can assist with all aspects of planning a trip to Avignon. There is information about all of the monuments and sites above on their website.

France By Train Part I: Lille

On a summer’s day in July, we leave behind a rain-flustered London in the middle of an otherworldly thunderstorm following Britain’s hottest day in years. The train speeds through English countryside until we’re in the darkness of the Eurotunnel, and then – in what seems like the blink of an eye – we find ourselves on French soil.

Our aim is to reach France’s South, and we’ve chosen to avoid the stress, discomfort and time-wasting of airports by taking a combination of Eurostar and French regional trains down the country. This allows us to stop off and experience the diverse offerings of this tantalising country along the way, as well as appreciate the beauty of the French countryside as we travel onwards, contently gazing out of train windows.

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Old Vieux Lille (Credit: Lauren Razavi)

 

The first destination on our multi-stop journey is picturesque Lille, France’s fourth-largest city. Located in the North of the country and just a stone’s throw from the border with Belgium, there are noticeable Flemish influences on the city, especially in its architecture and its oldest and most historic part, known as Vieux Lille or Lille Old Town.

A wander around the city reveals a myriad of squares, each boasting its own important building. The historic district is centred around the Place du General de Gaulle, which boasts the impressive 17th century trading exchange Vieille Bourse. Nearby is the Opera House, which is worth a visit whether there is a performance going on or not; the architecture and grandeur of this venue is as splendid inside as out.

The town hall in Place Augustin Laurent was built in the 1930s and designed by acclaimed architect Emile Dubuisson. Its adjoining belfry, or clock tower, is over 100m high, and it’s possible for visitors to climb to its highest point and take in stunning skyline views over the rooftops. Wartime monuments are another staple feature of Lille’s architecture; dotted around the city, these grand structures are well-preserved and well-respected in equal measure.

Lille seems to perfectly combine sophisticated modernity with an intriguing history, its sidewalks full of cobblestoned pedestrian areas lined with trendy bars and cafes. On every corner you’ll find vintage clothing boutiques, tempting little shoe shops, and stores specialising in funky custom lamps or quirky homeware and bakeware.

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Lille Cathedral (Credit: Lauren Razavi)

 

The iconic cathedral Notre Dame de la Treille is an enormous and incredibly strange structure. The church was started in 1854 but not completed until 1999, and it’s a peculiar mix of the modern and the gothic. Unexpected restorations on the building have made it an edgy modern affair from the outside, its front façade being especially imposing. But within its walls are more traditional offerings, with beautiful and diverse side rooms, windows and ceiling designs.

Gare Saint Saveur, a former train station that has been converted into an exhibition space, is well worth a visit. Each season offers a different avant-garde art exhibition, bringing together experimental visual works from all over the world. We are greeted by the statue of a giant black baby with wings and a tail in the station’s garden; its title is ‘Angels and Demons’ and this odd introduction sets the tone well for the edgy and mindboggling collection inside.

The final gift at the end of the exhibition is an immersive film from Singapore called ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ – this visually beautiful but incredibly chilling tale features no dialogue, and has previously made its home at all the major global film festivals.

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Gare Saint Sauveur (Credit: Lauren Razavi)

 

In the evening we head to Gastama, a hostel attracting a myriad of international travellers with a stylish gastro-bar-meets-pub that’s popular with locals, and for good reason. This trendy spot has its own brand of beer on tap, as well as an impressive array of spirits and wines on its chalkboard bar menus. Televisions, pool tables, good music and friendly staff make this a must-visit stop for any Lille pub-crawl.

After just the right number of pints at Gastama on our final night, we head back to our hotel for bed. The next day will see us travel further south, where the Belgian influence is replaced by elements of a Mediterranean persuasion.

INFORMATION

Transport

Eurostar trains to Lille are available to book from London St. Pancras International or connecting via St. Pancras from a range of regional train stations across the UK. First and second-class tickets are available for purchase, and can be booked online, over the phone or in person. First-class tickets incorporate a lovely meal including wine or beer – a relaxing start to any trip!

RailEurope is an easy, efficient and painless way to book train tickets in countries all over Europe, with each local service conveniently presented in your own language and in your own currency. First and second-class tickets are available, and you can book TGV, SNCF and other French train services in advance through their website.

Planning your trip

Teletext Holidays offer an extensive number of destinations in France and around the world, from short city breaks to all-inclusive family holidays. For more information, visit their website here.

Lille Tourism arrange guided tours of the city and can assist with all aspects of planning a trip to Lille.

France: Avignon Day 1

This week I’m working in Avignon, a small city of just 80,000 people in the South of France. As I did in Italy last summer, I’m teaching English at a school for the week and going native by living with a host family here. I’m staying with them at their beautiful house in an idyllic outlying village. Although they speak French and are based here permanently, they’re originally Italian which is making for a lovely cultural mix.

After a twelve hour train journey split between Greater Anglia, Eurostar and TGV, I arrived yesterday evening and will be here until Saturday morning. It was a nice surprise to travel standard premier on the Eurostar segment of our journey and experience the cutest little French lunch ever, including a lush miniature bottle of vin rouge (photo to follow – I forgot my camera cable but there are some iPhone snaps below).

Today I headed out into the city to meet up with my teacher colleagues Matt and Johnny. We got together for some lunch and a bit of lesson planning at a cosy little place  called Ginette and Marcel which specialises in delicious tartines. I went for the mozzarella, tomato and pesto option and it was lush.

 

Afterwards, we had a wander around the brilliantly French and notably narrow city streets before exploring the Palais des Papes. The former fortress is one of Avignon’s main attractions and is a stunning yet rather imposing Medieval structure.

 

Then it was back to the house in time for a brief rest before dinner. Surprisingly, despite the busy atmosphere of a French-Italian home with three children under the age of 12, I’ve already managed to get a little work done on my dissertation – the final feat in my undergraduate adventures at university. I may have used my only chances up, however, as three curious little people becoming increasingly fascinated by everything I do. Oh, the inquisitiveness of children…

Wish me luck for the first day at school tomorrow! Updates soon.

A taste of luxury on the Cote D’Azur

Synn Wang via Flickr
Image: Synn Wang via Flickr

Whether you’re staying in Paris, exploring the Alps, or sailing in the clear blue waters of the Cote D’Azur, France has an incredible amount to offer when it comes to luxury vacations; if you’ve never been to Europe before and fancy being treated like a film star, the Cote D’Azur is a good place to start. Now synonymous with high-end fashion, stunning landscapes and celebrity vacationers, this area is one of the most exquisite places you’re ever likely to visit.

Known in English as the French Riviera, the Cote D’Azur is often associated with high end luxury, celebrity parties and a relaxed way of life; no wonder it’s such a popular destination for American tourists looking to escape from it all. Imagine the scene: the hot Mediterranean sun beating down on a beautiful, seemingly endless coastline that is dotted with quaint villages, vibrant fishing ports, and expensive yachts that may or may not carry A-listers, supermodels, and rock stars, all leading into cool, inviting azure waters that stretch on forever. Tempted yet? You should be!

Ian Britton via Flickr
Image: Ian Britton via Flickr

Strolling arm-in-arm with loved ones, taking Instagram snaps, enjoying a film festival or two, sampling the fine wine and cuisine found along the coast, whizzing about on an expensive yacht and dipping a toe into the cool blue waters is what the Cote D’Azur is all about. Stretching from Theoule-sur-Mer in the west of France to Menton, which shares a border with Italy, the Cote D’Azur incorporates Antibes, the principality of Monaco, Nice, and Cannes, each with their own slice of luxury to offer.

Monaco, for example, is known for its fast cars and flowing champagne, while Cannes is home to a renowned film festival. Whatever you do to relax on your vacations, it can be found on the Cote D’Azur. From exploring fashionable nooks and crannies to discovering incredible architecture, to shopping ’til you drop, to zipping along the many coastal roads in a convertible, this destination oozes sophistication.

James Hetherington via Flickr
Image: James Hetherington via Flickr

Of course, you can never spend too long on the French Riviera, and finding the perfect hotel is a huge part of the experience. Relais Du Silence is a useful site for coastal getaway inspiration and great deals, and the number of beautiful hotels located along the Riviera make the phrase “spoiled for choice” very apt. Boutique hotels nestled among the hills, vibrant coastal palaces, quaint B&Bs, floating hotels, and centuries-old hotels with stunning architecture make it the perfect place to sample as many different kinds of accommodation as possible as you wind your way along the coast.

This post was written by Cheryl S.