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Details on the 'Holy Cities' of Provence

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Sunday, March 1, 2009

GETTING THERE: Marseille and Montpellier are convenient to the "holy cities" of Provence. Air France flies to both from Washington, connecting through Paris, currently starting around $725, including taxes. An alternative is to fly to Paris, then take a train to the south of France or drive (about 6 1/2 hours to Avignon).

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WHERE TO STAY: To visit the four cities, it's convenient to make your base in Avignon, with the widest choice of hotels, restaurants and historic sights. The top spot, at the foot of the Palace of the Popes, is La Mirande (4 Place de la Mirande, 011-33-(0)4-90-14-20-20, http://www.la-mirande.fr) in the ancient palace of the cardinals, renovated in 18th-century Provencal style. Double rooms from about $400-$550 per night November-March, $500-$690 April-October. A more affordable possibility, in the center of town, is Hotel de l'Horloge (1 Rue Felicien David, 011-33-(0)4-90-16-42-00), with double rooms from around $130.

WHERE TO EAT: Situated in an ancient building next to the Palace of the Popes, Restaurant Christian Etienne (10 Rue de Mons, Avignon, 011-33-(0)4-90-86-16-50, http://www.christian-etienne.fr) is famed for its "tomato menu" as well as fish dishes. Entrees $54-$64. Le Bain Marie (5 Rue Petramale, Avignon, 011-33(0)4-90-85-21-37, http://www.lebainmarie.com), in the town center, is in an 18th-century townhouse with a lovely courtyard. Menus from about $38. Cavaillon is the French melon capital, and Restaurant Prevot is the Maison du Melon (353 Avenue de Verdun, Cavaillon, 011-33-(0)4-90-71-32-43, http://www.restaurant-prevot.com). In summer, there is a complete menu based on the sweet orange Cavaillon melon. Entrees around $48, $32 menu at lunch. Le Pantagruel (5 Place Philippe de Cabassole, 011-33-(0)4-90-76-11-98) is in a 17th-century house on the main market square. Serves traditional Provencal dishes and "gastronomic" cuisine. An $18 menu at lunch. One of our favorites is Le Jardin du Quai (91 Avenue Julien-Guigue, L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, 011-33-(0)4-90-20-14-98, http://www.danielhebet.com) near the railroad station. This is where the dealers meet to eat. Menu about $38. A typical brasserie is Le Longchamps (4 Place Gambetta, L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, 011-33-(0)4-90-38-60-62), filled with locals and antiques dealers sipping pastis in a bustling atmosphere. Entrees from $11.

SYNAGOGUES AND CEMETERIES: Synagogue of Avignon (Place Jerusalem, 011-33(0)4-90-85-21-24). Closed Saturdays. The cemetery, outside the medieval city walls, is on the Avenue Eisenhower across from a bustling commercial center. Visitors can request a key to the burial grounds from the rabbi at the synagogue.

In Cavaillon, the 14th-century bakery in the basement of the synagogue houses the Jewish Comtadin Museum (52 Place Castil-Blaze, 011-33-(0)4-90-76-00-34, http://www.cavaillon.org). Three films on the synagogues of the Vaucluse are shown there. Closed Tuesdays (in winter, also closed Sundays). Admission about $3.80 (for synagogue, museum and the Hotel-Dieu archaeological museum), under 18 free.

L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, called the Venice of the Comtat, is the most picturesque of the four cities of the pope's Jews. Of the former Jewish quarter, several street signs remain, among them Place de la Juiverie (Jewish Square) and Rue Hebraique (Hebrew street). The only element that survived the destruction of the synagogue during the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution was the grill that separated men from women during services. It is now in the Notre Dames des Anges cathedral (Place de la Liberte), where it separates the congregation from the altar. Open daily.

In Carpentras, the former capital of the Comtat Venaissin, the synagogue (Place Maurice-Charretier), built in 1367, is the oldest Jewish house of prayer in France still holding regular services. Closed Saturday, Sunday and Jewish holidays. Guided tours available (call 011-33-(0)4-90-63-39-97). A few steps away, the flamboyant Gothic St. Siffrein Cathedral (Place Saint-Siffrein) has a "porte juive" (Jewish door) for converts, topped by a "Rats' Ball" to ward off attacks by heretics. The walled-in Jewish cemetery, outside the town center, is locked with no access for visitors.

WHAT TO DO: The Palace of the Popes (Place du Palais, Avignon, 011-33-(0)4-90-27-50-00, http://www.palais-des-papes.com) is an imposing 14th-century fortress-like Gothic palace, a miniature Vatican. Open every day, evening hours in summer. Admission about $13.50 (less in winter). Musee du Petit Palais (Place du Palais, Avignon, 011-33-(0)4-90-86-44-58) features medieval and Renaissance works of art. Closed Tuesdays. Admission about $7.65. Pont d'Avignon (Rue Ferruce, Avignon, 011-33-(0)4-90-17-51-16, http://www.mairie-avignon.fr/en/musees/ponten.php), the bridge of the 15th-century ditty "Sur le Pont d'Avignon," was built for pilgrims en route to Spain. Only four of its original 22 arches have survived the numerous Rhone river floods. Open every day; evening hours in summer. Admission about $4.50.

In Cavaillon, there is a Roman arch on the Place Francois-Tourel. L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is known internationally for its expansive antiques and brocante (secondhand goods) markets, with more than 300 dealers Saturday-Monday year-round.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Next weekend, Avignon kicks off a year-long celebration marking the first pope's arrival 700 years ago. Contact the Avignon Tourist Office (011-33-(0)4-32-74-32-74, http://www.avignon-tourisme.com).

-- J.B.F.

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