One feature that is not much found in the otherwise appealing centre of old Avignon is greenery. There is indeed a garden atop the Rocher des Doms, but this is in a raised corner of the city away from the main thoroughfares; apart from it, one can think only of a few tiny oases dotted around the backstreets and a few trees in the main squares. Avignon's ambience is more memorable for its stony architecture than its leafiness.
It comes as a pleasant surprise, therefore, when one arrives at the Place Pie to find its main building clad in verdant growth like a vertical garden. This "mur végétal" - comprising six hundred square metres of living plants - is the new façade of the Halles, Avignon's long-established covered market.
In truth, the market was due for a facelift, though not because of its antiquity. The Halles were successively rebuilt in stone in the 18th Century, in metal and glass in the 19th (a beautiful structure in Second Empire style which is much missed) and in concrete in the 20th. That final version was an egregious example of postwar brutalism ("une bêtise en béton" - a concrete clanger) and masking its ugly countenance in greenery was the most charitable thing that could have been done for it.
* The market within *
What most matters in a market, of course, is not how it looks from the outside, but what's on sale within. Although apparently much more diversified in the past, Avignon's Halles today are almost entirely devoted to food. And very fine food it mostly is. Whereas in Britain markets have a reputation for erring on the "cheap and cheerful" side and are not known for their quality, they have evolved very differently in France. Indeed, over there markets are often good places to look for superior and interesting produce, particularly regional specialities.
Avignon's Halles certainly aspire to this ideal. The stalls are all packed with appetising fare, appetisingly arranged. The French have a flair for presenting food to best advantage, and this is just as evident in markets as it is in shops. Simply strolling up and down the aisles, inspecting what's on offer, is enough to make one's mouth water (not that it takes a lot to make my mouth water, I must admit).
There are about forty food stalls in all. The market is not vast, but is big enough to ensure that there is more than one stall selling each of the main categories of foodstuff: four greengrocers for example, five butchers (more, in fact, if you include sellers of charcuterie: sausages, hams and prepared meats), four bakers, four fishmongers and so on. Plus quite a few more idiosyncratic specialists. This ensures plenty of competition. But numbers don't convey the spirit of the place. Let's take a walk around.
* A walk around *
Entering by the main doors on the Place Pie - named, incidentally, not after the merchandise of the charcutiers, but after the Pope Pius who was enthroned when it was founded - you find yourself looking down the central of three parallel aisles. Immediately you notice how clean and tidy the Halles are kept. The beige tiling on the floor looks as if it is swabbed down and polished frequently, the stalls are neat and the strip neon lighting overhead, although rather stark and glaring, keeps the whole market well illuminated. Next you notice, and in some cases scent, the enticing displays on offer.
The produce stalls - the Panier des Halles is a good example - are piled high with succulent seasonal fruit such as melons and muscat grapes, and with unblemished vegetables. Next to it is La Maison du Fromage, one of two stalls specialising in cheese alone, with an array of different types, many of them local curiosities not often seen elsewhere, all at differing stages of maturity so that you can select those exactly suited to your culinary plans. If you are unsure, the merchant, M Bourgue, is on hand with expert guidance. Traditional French tradesmen of this kind take a pride in offering advice, and do not often seem to use it as an excuse to steer you towards the more expensive items.
Butchers, similarly, are always ready to discuss recipes and prepare cuts of meat accordingly. We watch as one responds to a customer's request by wrapping thin slices of steak around minced meat and deftly tying with string the resultant parcels, at the same time discussing what wine would best accompany the dish. At a fish stall, the owner helps another customer select the best combination of ingredients for a bouillabaisse. There are certainly plenty of potential ingredients from which to choose, metres of fresh catch arranged on a bed of crushed ice and herbs. At the far end, are shellfish in great variety, from lobsters, scallops and langoustines all the way down to the humblest whelks and tellines, the tiny clams from the nearby Mediterranean. If you were planning a Plateau de Fruits de Mer, this would be the place to buy the components.
Other stalls clamour for attention: Panissain, a baker stocking all kinds of unusual breads made with different cereals in different ways, but all looking mouth-wateringly crusty on the outside, doughy within, as bread should be; Les délices d'Asie, offering aromatic spices and oriental foods; two stalls selling nothing but olives, in tubs and baskets steeped in various marinades of herbs and oils, including the prized "olives cassées" of local provenance; a stall specialising in mushrooms and edible fungi - cèpes, trompettes, pleurottes, and many other kinds - each doubtless with its own role to play in the culinary drama of local cuisine; a charcuterie stall with such an abundance of salads and "plats préparés" (precooked dishes) that one wonders why one would ever need to cook one's own.
And so on. I won't enumerate all of them, for fear of jading your appetite, but I hope this tasting menu will suffice to convey the fact that the place provides a visual feast as well as promising a culinary one.
* Other features and facilities *
Not quite all the stalls sell foodstuffs. There is one - La Petite Cuisine des Halles - that is devoted to teaching people how to use them, with noted chefs from local restaurants appearing by invitation to demonstrate cooking techniques. One morning while my wife and I were there a party of schoolchildren stood, seemingly all attention, while they were instructed in the art of sauce-making.
There is also a Point Presse - a newstand at which to pick up a copy of L'Equipe or the local newspaper to follow the fortunes of your team while you down a pastis or a glass of rosé at a bar. Talking of which, if you find browsing round markets thirsty work, you have a choice of three "buvettes" - open-counter bars - at which to refresh yourself. We paused for a coffee at the buvette run by 'Jacky et Fréd', because it offered the most seating, and it proved to be a pleasant place from which to watch the market in action. Many of the locals, though, particularly those who worked there, preferred to take brisk refreshment standing at the bar before moving on.
Finally, perhaps the most French touch of all, there is a stand called Espace Culturel (Cultural Space) displaying what seemed to me to be some rather uninspiring art. But man cannot live by food alone, not even - or maybe especially not - in France.
Oh, and there are loos, of course, as spotlessly clean as they are convenient.
* Prices and values *
I have to admit that during my two visits to Avignon Halles I was more intent on absorbing the ambience than studying the prices of goods. My ill-documented impression is that they are not particularly cheap, certainly no cheaper and possibly more expensive than the supermarkets located on the edge of town. But the stalls in the market shouldn't really be regarded in that context, more as good quality outlets for specialist foods that you may not always find elsewhere. The expression "bon marché" translates better as "good value" than simply as "cheap". On that basis the prices in Avignon's Halles are reasonable, given that everything in France is ruinously expensive at the current euro-pound exchange rate.
* Outlook *
It's hard to tell to what extent Avignon Halles are prospering. On the two days I was there (a Tuesday and a Thursday) they seemed busy enough, though certainly not bustling. Perhaps weekends attract a greater throng. But compared with the old prints one sees of the market in former times, when the stalls spilled out into the Place Pie amid crowds of customers, one has to suspect that there has been a decline in their business. Probably the rise of the supermarkets has affected them as it has all independent traders everywhere.
Less so in France, where the artisan food-seller is still respected, than in Britain, however. In French markets there tends to be a contrast between the food stalls, which are generally of a high standard and often thriving, and those selling clothes or furnishings, which are as shoddy as one could hope not to find anywhere. In Britain, too often both are shoddy and many traditional markets are in decline (though, of course, some small "farmers' markets" and similar recent innovations have done well). My local market in Maidstone, for example, has visibly shrunk over the past two decades to a shadow of its former self, going from "cheap and cheerful" to "cheap and cheerless" in the process.
Avignon Halles have avoided shoddiness by focussing on food, and superior food at that. To what extent this has mitigated decline I am uncertain, but if there has been decline it certainly it isn't remotely terminal. The atmosphere is still lively and positive, if not exactly vibrant. What's more, initiatives are afoot to upgrade the surrounding area, which can only work to the benefit of the market. Next year, the Place Pie is to be given a facelift, with traffic diverted, more trees planted and a bandstand installed, to attract visitors and bring more custom to the Halles in the process.
* Practical details *
Avignon Halles are open for business every day except Monday. On weekdays the hours are 6.00 a.m. to 1.30 p.m.; on Saturdays and Sundays there is an extension of half an hour to 2.00 p.m. (This may not seem very long, but think of how late by French standards this means the merchants will have their lunch - almost unthinkable, especially when they have been at work since dawn.)
If you are staying anywhere in the old town of Avignon, the Halles are within easy walking distance. If not, there is ample, purpose-built parking on hand, signposted Parking des Halles, though finding your way to it through the labyrinthine lanes can still present a problem. Several buses from outlying districts stop in the Place Pie; some of these are due to be re-routed when the square is given its makeover, but not to very far away.
* Recommendation *
Of course you wouldn't visit Avignon just to go to the market, but given that there are plenty of other reasons for visiting Avignon - as itemised in my recent review of the city - it's well worth having a look at the market while you're there. Choose a warm day, so as to stock up on ingredients for a slap-up picnic to be eaten perhaps in the gardens of the Rocher des Doms while you enjoy the view across the Rhone. Or perhaps, from next year, under the new trees in the Place Pie itself, while you listen to music from the bandstand.
© duncantorr 2009. This review will doubtless also be published under the name torr on Ciao UK when that site has sorted out its current diabolical design problems.
For a review of Avignon in general, see http://travel.ciao.co.uk/Avignon_France__Review_5878187