The Avignon Festival – Festival d’Avignon – in the spectacular walled medieval city on the banks of the Rhône in the south of France, is perhaps France’s best-known cultural event. Founded in 1947, it’s certainly the oldest festival of its kind still continuing. For three weeks every July, the festival attracts visitors from not only France but, increasingly, from all around the world.
It was theatrical director Jean Vilar who inaugurated the festival when requested to produce a play in the spectacular Court d’Honneur, an inner courtyard of Avignon’s most famous building – the Palais des Papes. With an outdoor version of Richard II in an arena capable of holding 2,000 spectators, Vilar became committed to making the festival an annual happening and it remained under his creative guidance until his death in 1971. By that time, the prominent position of the Festival d’Avignon had become assured; it had become a truly international celebration of the performing arts.
The festival now regularly hosts many of the world’s foremost directors and companies – showcasing both theatrical classics as well as the most modern and innovative dance, music and opera. Performances are not only given in French but also in many other languages – the 2009 programme featured productions in English, Spanish, Italian, Polish, German, Arabic and Hebrew. In addition to French surtitles for most foreign language performances, a recent innovation has been the use of surtitles or simultaneous translations in English for some productions as well.
One of the most appreciated features of the Festival d’Avignon is the amount of activities that abound associated with the Festival itself. Every day there are readings, public meetings, debates, discussions and opportunities to talk with performers and directors – many of which are completely free of charge. An indispensable part of every day spent here is a copy of the Spectator’s Guide, produced daily and distributed at various points around the town. Additionally, the École d’Art has its famous Foyer des spectateurs, which serves not only as a meeting place and resource area but also as a Green Room for many artists.
Not only does the festival have about twenty of its own performance venues, but it has, since the 1980s, been supplemented by the formation of the Avignon Off Festival, in which hundreds of ‘unofficial’ shows are presented. Any company that is able to raise the funds and then find a venue can put on a production in the Festival Off, which has, therefore, much of the atmosphere of the Edinburgh Fringe – irreverent, provocative, stimulating, colourful – and often chaotic. With up to 100 different performance areas – from School halls to churches and even stone quarries – as many as 600 different companies, representing all the performing arts, now turn Avignon into one giant performance arena. When the street performers are out during the days and evenings, the squares of the city are joyous places to wander around.
As many as 150,000 visitors now flock to Avignon each summer to enjoy this vivacious and highly respected cultural extravaganza. The city gears itself up completely – for example, shuttle buses are specifically arranged to move spectators between venues easily – there is a special ‘Bustival’ route!
The city itself, of course, could not be a more perfect setting for an arts festival such as this. The old city, with its seven gates in the medieval walls, is completely mesmerising with its elegant streets, palaces, churches and squares – as well as the bridge, of course. There is also a very lively and thriving restaurant and café culture. And all this in the middle of Provence.
There should be few problems finding suitable accommodation in and around the city – everything from large and small hotels, guest houses, hostels, gites and camp sites. Obviously, the earlier you book, the more likely you are to get exactly what you are looking for but, in this part of France, the choice is exceptional.
Getting to Avignon is also fairly straightforward. For those who like to drive through France, the motorways to the south are superb and, once you are here, there is good parking. Both Parking de l’Île Piot and Parking des Italiens provide free spaces and a shuttle bus into the city and there are numerous other large car parks.
Avignon rail station is on the TVG route and, again, there is a good shuttle bus service to the city centre. Avignon airport – about 10 minutes from the city – has some international flights but the much larger and better connected Marseille – Provence airport is only a 50 mile drive from Avignon.
For information about the Avignon Festival there’s an excellent English language festival website which has all the ticket details.