Eurostar: The beautiful town 6 hours from London that’s like a ‘mini Rome’

If you’re looking for a sunny getaway from London that will transport you to the sun-kissed Mediterranean, where you can see ancient monuments tower into the skies, wander round a ‘mini version of the Vatican’ and marvel at some of the landscapes. that inspired Van Gogh, look no further.

The stunning medieval town of Avignon in Provence appears to float above the River Rhone like a fairytale castle surrounded by open countryside as far as the eye can see. Its little streets are shady havens for a morning coffee and it’s positively dripping in Renaissance architecture and art.

It’s an almost unbelievably easy trip from King’s Cross St Pancras over to Lille in France, where you change for the four-hour journey down to the south. Other trains require you to change in Paris – between Gare de Lyon and Gare du Nord – before jumping on the Avignon train but this shortens the journey south to just over two hours. Either way, it’s about a six-hour trip.

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The Palais des Papes is a papal palace in Avignon that was the seat of Western Christianity during the 14th century. Six popes resided in the palace. (Getty Images)

But when you get there you feel like you’re in sun-baked Italy without even having to get on a plane. Don’t be put off by the modern, clinical looking Eurostar station when you first step off the train. This feels like you could be anywhere. But a short bus ride into town and you’re in a different world. Surrounded by medieval walls, packed with little cobbled streets and quaint historic buildings, the town is an absolute gem.

The heart of the town centers on Palais des Papes, a mini Vatican City which dates from 1309 – when Pope Clement V decided to escape from Rome and the political turmoil in the Eternal City to rule from France instead. For 68 years Avignon became the political, religious and cultural center of Christendom – and it shows. Soaring 50 meters above the town centre, is an incredible ensemble of towers, battlements and arches that leave you in no doubt of power the of papacy.

Inside the palace (Getty Images)

Inside there’s the treasury where the Pope’s immense wealth would have been stashed, an incredibly huge meeting hall where the big decisions were made, and the stunningly beautiful St John’s Chapel with its vaulted roof decorated by original frescoes. You can even see the Pope’s bed chamber and his study or ‘Stag room’ where the walls are decorated with hunting scenes.

There’s also the absolutely massive Great Chapel and Great Audience Hall where the height and splendor takes your breath away. These days the courtyard in the center of the palace is a venue for music and theater during the annual Avignon festival – which draws people from all over Europe in July.

In summer it gets pretty hot inside the stone walls of the palace so it’s not a bad idea to get there early and get a handheld audio guide to tell you what’s going on. Outside the palace is a stunning square – The Place du Palais des Papes – where you can sit and have a coffee at one of the cafes under shady umbrellas, and just drink in the incredible views of the palace. The renaissance Petit Palais, Avignon’s roman-esque cathedral and the Hôtel des Monnaies (mint) – which was renovated in the Baroque style of architecture in 1619 – can also be seen from here, throwing yet more history into the mix.

The square outside the palace where you can grab a coffee and chill out after your tour (Getty Images)

It’s then worth taking a walk up the steps and winding paths behind the palace to the parks and gardens that sit on cliffs high up above the River Rhone. The views from here are absolutely spectacular across Provence and the shimmering river just invites you to dive in – although it wouldn’t be a good idea from this height! Out into the river is the Pont D’Avignon, the stunning remains of a 12th Century bridge which no longer reaches right across. You can however walk out across the new bridge to the Ile de la Barthelasse, a huge river island where you can hire boats, walk along the promenade or pitch up at the campsites there if you prefer staying under canvas.

Originally the bridge had 22 arches, of which four remain today, and the bridge was 915 meters long – sensational dimensions for the time it was built. The town itself has numerous lovely little cafes and restaurants tucked away along the shady streets and squares and there’s even a decent Irish pub if you fancy something closer to home. There are many interesting museums and galleries too including Collection Lambert, a collection of art ranging from the 1980s to the modern day.

On the Place de l’Horloge, the town’s main square, there are restaurants and bars as well as the stunning city hall and opera house. There are of course also many churches with the Basilique Saint-Pierre d’Avignon being one of the finest. There are still charming features including four water-wheels mills suspended from the embankment next to the water.

The Rue des Teinturiers is a cobblestone street that follows a small canal of the River Sorgue in Avignon (Photo by John S Lander/LightRocket via Getty Images).

The beautiful stone houses on the other side of the canal are linked to the cobblestone street by little bridges, and the whole route is shaded by tall old plane trees. And, if you’re tired of seeing the sites on foot there’s a fantastic little road train that will take you on a touristy tour lasting around 40 minutes.

But probably one of the best features of Avignon is its location. In a central area of ​​Provence it’s surrounded by beautiful little villages and towns, vineyards and heather fields straight out of Van Gogh’s sketch book. A bus or drive away is St Remy de Provence, the hospital where Van Gogh was incarcerated.

Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh arrived on May 8, 1889, to be “confined” by his wishes in the Saint-Paul de Mausolée Asylum at St Remy. Fascinated by the quality of the light and the beauty of the landscapes that he discovered he carried out 143 oil paintings and more than 100 drawings here (Getty Images)

The views around here are stunning and a tour of the hospital is fascinating – giving an insight into Van Gogh’s state of mind and displaying the captivating art he created while he was here. Just across the road are the fabulous Roman remains of Glanum, a provincial Roman town dating back to the days when Gaul was a Roman province 2,000 years ago.

You can wander around the dusty ruins set in a beautiful valley until your heart’s content. The massive Roman aqueduct know as the Pont Du Gard is also just a bus ride away and is simply stunning. If you want to do more than just marvel at the huge ancient arches you can hire a canoe with thousands of other tourists and paddle down the turquoise Rhone.

View of the Ancient Roman masterpiece the Pont du Gard, now a UNESCO world heritage site (Getty Images)

If you are looking for a tranquil hillside village that’s about as beautiful as they come, Les Baux De Provence is right up there. Even higher up is the Château des Baux, a ruined fortress, promising a fun time for kids with its full-size recreations of siege engines. They’ve got the largest trebuchet (a type of catapult) in Europe, flinging missiles all day long in summer.

The Roman towns of Nimes and Orange are also close by with some stunning ancient ruins, as is the beautiful hillside village of Chateauneuf du Pape where the famous wine is made. If you’re looking for a trip with some culture and history with stunning views and a Mediterranean vibe thrown in, a trip on the Eurostar to Avignon could be just what the doctor ordered.

To book Eurostar tickets go here For information about Avignon go here

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