barges moored barthelasse avignonSet on the Rhône river between Avignon and Villeneuve lès Avignon, Barthelasse Island is a relaxing haven of peace and greenery just a few minutes' walk from these two cities.

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One of the largest river islands in Europe, it's eight km / five miles long and three km / two miles wide at its widest point and spans 700 hectares / 1,730 acres. It's the perfect spot to escape from the tourist crowds.

A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

The Île de la Barthelasse is known as such thanks to a man called Jean Richard but known as Barthelucius.

In 1447 he acquired a long lease to the island and it soon became informally known by his name.

Barthelasse was once an archipelago. But, thanks to the construction of dykes and sea walls, the various islands slowly fused into a single land mass over the centuries.

The island to the south-west of Barthelasse became joined to it in 1812 but is still called the Île Piot, although it's no longer separate.

There is a reason why Barthelasse is so rural: it has always been vulnerable to serious flooding, most recently in 2003.

barthelasse island river walkThe floods have deposited rich alluvial soil which is what makes the island so fertile. And they have led to strict regulations limiting building development.

In bygone times Bartelasse teemed with guinguettes (open-air bars with music and dancing) and was a popular party destination.

The famous song Sur le Pont d'Avignon (On the Bridge of Avignon) was originally called SOUS le Pont d'Avignon (UNDER the Bridge of Avignon) and referred to this revelry on the island. Today things are quieter, but Bartelasse still hosts a number of bars and restaurants.

HOW TO GET THERE

It's very quick and easy to get to Barthelasse Island. Pictured, the free boat shuttle (navette fluviale, also known sometimes as the Bac du Rocher des Doms) departs from a point about 500 metres east of the Pont d'Avignon.

barthelasse boat shuttleIt runs at frequnt intervals for most of the year, apart from late winter and on days of high winds. The crossing takes about ten minutes and the ferry accepts bicycles and wheelchairs.

Alternatively, you can walk across the Édouard Daladier bridge: this also takes about ten minutes.

If you want to take your car, a third possibility is to drive to the Île Piot car park near the Daladier bridge.

This is a very large, free, guarded parc relais (park and ride facility) with shuttle buses - also free - to and from the city centre every five or ten minutes.

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You can also go on a one hour boat tour around the island which takes you from the Palais des Papes to the Tour Philippe le Bel on the river bank at Villeneuve, and back again.

 

WHAT TO DO

If taking the Daladier bridge, you'll arrive at a little tourist area known as the Bagatelle. It includes campsites, a youth hostel, a riverside bar-restaurant, a large skate park and a small parking area, though you're better off leaving your car at the big Île Piot parc relais.

avignon from barthelasse islandThere's also an Olympic-size open-air swimming pool, La Palmeraie, but this has been closed since 2015 due to a dispute between the owners and the Town Hall, and its future is currently uncertain.

One alternative on the island is the (rather expensive) Beach Club at 1458 chemin des Vignes.

Along the bank are moored long river barges, pictured top left, some of which offer B&B accommodation: we have stayed at the Péniche Qi, for example, and it was a very enjoyable experience.

The star attraction is the popular riverside tow-path. Closed to road traffic, it makes for a lovely promenade, whether you're on foot, cycling - or in a horse-drawn carriage.

Pictured, the view across the river to the Palais des Papes and the Pont d'Avignon is breathtaking, especially in the late afternoon. Many visitors like to visit the Les Halles food market first and buy the ingredients for a gourmet picnic.

You can also go horse-riding and canoeing on the island or drive your car along Barthelasse's rather less interesting north-western bank (the one facing Villeneuve).

The interior of the island is criss-crossed with little country roads which wind past farmhouses and bastides (country houses) through woodland, pear, apple and peach orchards, vineyards and wheat and sunflower fields. Good news for cyclists: the land is almost flat.

heritage tomatos barthelasse farmBarthelasse is also rich in fauna, including herons, cormorants and badgers. It hosts one of the largest beaver colonies in France. The best place to spot them is in the north of the island.

Aside from that you can sample the local produce. The Ferme La Reboule at 1250 Chemin de la Barthelasse is a brilliant little farm shop packed with organic vegetables fresh from the fields and locals snapping them up at bargain prices.

It's a short-ish walk from the Daladier bridge. Pictured: some of the dozens of varieties of heritage tomatos sold at the shop.

Somewhat further, at 784 Chemin des Poiriers, the Distillerie Manguin makes eau de vie from locally grown pears, as well as other liqueurs. There are free guided visits on Saturdays.

On its website, the Distillerie claims to be five minutes from the Palais des Papes. That's by car, of course!

At the far end of Barthelasse, the Mazet des Papes at 634 chemin du Mazet has an organic farm, a restaurant, B&B accommodation and concerts in summer.

Photo credits (from top): © JPS68 for Wikimedia Commons, SJ for Marvellous Provence, Avignon Tourist Office, Chimigi for Wikimedia Commons, SJ for Marvellous Provence.

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