Think playful light and sweet fields of lavender, and the French fabulousness of Provence comes into sharp focus. One of the great gateways to the photogenic villages and bucolic splendour of Provence is Avignon.
Encased in towering stone ramparts, medieval Avignon rises grandly from the banks of the Rhone River. Its setting is as colourful as its history, with images straight from a Gothic painting. In the old city, a warren of ancient lanes, suffused in golden light, spiral from the busy central avenue. In high summer the main streets and squares throb with visitors.
If you visit in July, the prestigious annual Avignon Festival attracts aspiring performers and aficionados of the arts, and shows the city at its best. At any time of year, it's very easy to find empty backstreets lined with Renaissance mansions and the secluded courtyards and secret gardens that make Avignon so enchanting.
Avignon's turn as the papal seat of power bestowed the city with a trove of stirring art and architecture, none grander than the massive medieval fortress, the Palais des Papes (Popes' Palace). More on that later.
Encircling the city, the ramparts of Avignon were built between 1359 and 1370. They were restored in the 19th century, minus their original moats, and make for a great walking route to size up the sights. But the city's most famous landmark is the fabled bridge across the Rhone, Pont St-Benezet, which was completed in 1185. It's known to countless kids as the Pont d'Avignon (from the chirpy French nursery rhyme). According to legend, a local shepherd boy, Benezet, had three saintly visions urging him to build a bridge across the Rhone. When the town authorities ignored his appeals, he hurled a vast block of stone into the river to be the bridge's foundation stone.
Convinced by this demonstration of divine will, the town's bridge was swiftly built. Benezet was canonised, and his chapel remains. The 900m-long wooden bridge required regular running repairs, before all but four of its 22 spans were washed away in the mid-1600s.
For a quintessential taste of Avignon, pack a picnic basket from the bustling outlets filling Les Halles Food Market. Local specialties like olive oil, tapenade, wines, cheeses and pastries can be bought here.
Stop by Pure Lavande, an acclaimed boutique specialising in lavender and lavender products. You can even have your picture taken in front of a "lavender field" screen. If you're travelling with kids, a sure-fire way to entertain them is to board the novelty tourist trains that thread all the main sights together.
Palais des Papes
More fortress than palace, this indomitable landmark with its crenellated facade and slit windows looms above Avignon. Purpose-built for popes who fled from Rome to Avignon during a 14th-century dispute, it is two distinct structures combined - the austere "Old Palace" (1334-42) and the extravagantly Gothic "New Palace" (1342-52).
The interior is a labyrinth of rooms, mostly empty but rich with Italian frescoes.
The prize sights are the Popes' Bedchamber, its dark-blue walls awhirl with dusky red frescoes of birds and grapevines, and the Grand Tinel, where papal banquets were held.
This Unesco World Heritage Site is the world's largest Gothic palace. With outstretched arms protecting the city, a golden statue of the Virgin Mary stands on the dome of the Romanesque cathedral, Notre Dame des Doms. Inside the small, richly decorated cathedral are works of art, including a 14th-century mausoleum of Pope John XXII.
Ramps from the Palais des Papes lead past the cathedral to the Rocher des Doms, the site of Avignon's earliest settlement. In the 18th century, it was landscaped into a pleasant plateau with an artificial rock garden, which is still a great refuge from the hot afternoon sun. And follow the signposts to Verger d'Urbain gardens, where the popes grew fragrant plants and herbs and kept exotic animals in cages.