When visiting a city, is it best to experience it at it’s day-to-day average period, or at it’s peak period? When something extraordinary happens. There are many cities where the difference between the two are so great that the city at it’s peak no longer resembles it’s average self, at least behaviorally speaking.
On one side, you want to experience the city as it is in it’s normal capacity. See how it operates in a standard environment. This will provide more of an indication of the true values of the city than those on display for the short period of time it may be running on overdrive. It will also allow for more opportunities to meet with the locals, as the town isn’t swamped with other foreigners that not only decrease the percentage of locals, but take up their time as well.
On the other side, if you are traveling to see something different and extraordinary, then most likely you will jump at the opportunity to see the town at it’s most extreme. This is also generally when it will be at it’s most festive and there will be more to do. The people of the town, whether foreigner or local, will also typically be in a greater mood due to the festivities occurring around them.
This is a question that was asked upon arrival in the city of Avignon in the south of France. Completely unplanned, the stay was to coincide with the Festival d’Avignon. This festival, run annually over the course of around three weeks, is one of the most well known in France and attracts a large number of performers in all varieties of arts.
It attracts a great deal of tourists too – international and French, who flock to Avignon to watch spectacles and embrace the vibrant atmosphere of the city. Indeed, it is an enjoyable time to be in Avignon. Held in July, the streets remain crowded long into the warm, summer nights, filled with music and laughter. The inner city walls are literally covered in advertisements and the cafés and stores stay open into the night to ensure that they make the best profits while they can.
Walk down the alleys and you’ll be bound to bump into street artists, most of which are accompanied by small to mid sized crowds that form some sort of semi circle around them, depending on the size of the alley, of course. You’ll find myriad of performances on the streets, as long as you stay in the old town.
During the day the atmosphere is a little more subdued. Still with loads of people enjoying the streets and a buzz about town, the morning hours are reserved for a relaxing brunch in the cafés. Festival artists use this time to promote their shows later on in the day and they walk the streets fully disguised and in character to chat with you about the act to come.
It makes for a surreal environment – somewhat unbelievable at times, as if you are trapped within some sort of abstract dream. The kind that you’re not sure if you want to wake up from or not.
Enjoyable as it may be, after a few days, a craving develops for that reality to return. Particularly if one hasn’t witnessed Avignon in it’s “real” state before. The people here tell you that Avignon is, by contrast, a very quiet city for the rest of the year. It seems hard to believe. Sure, it’s believable to think that the alleyways no longer consist of musicians strumming out a rhythm and that the streets are cleaned of the papers of the posters that floated down from the buildings above, but the amount of bars and cafés that are here seem to indicate that even outside of this festival period, Avignon has it’s fair share of activity.
Today, the festival may be the best known asset of Avignon, but it’s not without it’s contemporaries. It situates itself on the mighty river Rhône and as a result plays host to many touring boats as they wind their way lazily along. From these boats you will see the two most famous attractions that Avignon has to offer.
The first is the Pont d’Avignon (Avignon Bridge), a medieval bridge dating back to the twelfth century. Long since destroyed, it only juts out barely halfway across the Rhône towards Île de la Barthelasse. So popular it is, that there’s a five euro fee imposed if one wants to walk on it. Unfortunate, but it receives a great deal of customers nonetheless.
The second is the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes), a Gothic palace that was the papal residency in the fourteenth century. This is at the core of the old town, and it’s great to walk around it and feel the history.
And herein lies the problem with cities at their most active. Normally this palace is playing host to tourists, presenting tours to visit the complex. But during the festival, no chance of that. And good luck trying to quietly observe the beauty of the structure. Thousands of people swarm around it in a hive of activity that produces a constant, low pitched hum of the conversation extracted from the mob.
Yes, one may argue that the Palais actually provides itself as a venue for the Festival d’Avignon and what better way to experience it than to see a spectacle there? Another could easily argue just as strongly that there is a better way to experience it, and that’s without being constricted to a seat to watch a spectacle and being more free to explore it.
The festival allowed an appreciation of the spectacles, but it didn’t allow for a true appreciation of Avignon itself. Of it’s core beauty and it’s tranquility. Of it’s gentle and relaxed citizens and that typically southern French slow paced lifestyle.
Avignon is perhaps one of the most beautiful cities visited so far. The right blend of size, history and modernity. There are many kinds of beauty. The festival no doubt provides one, but masks others.
Ultimately the answer to the question at the beginning of this post is, and always was going to be, to visit the city at both occasions. As recommendable as the festival is to see and experience, there’s certainly a case to argue for preferring to see Avignon without it.