Sunday, March 20, 2016

Sur le pont d'Avignon

A few weeks ago I decided I needed a weekend away from the sea so I pulled out my much loved Lonely Planet France book and started flipping through the pages. The number of destinations that remain on my 'to see in France' list is quite large so I had to invoke a few criteria to pick a weekend spot - easily accessible via train in 2-3hrs (direct if possible and had to depart Cannes in the afternoon), not freezing cold, a few sights to see but not too many, and accommodation and whatnot wouldn't be too expensive given my last minute planning.

With a few possibilities earmarked I ultimately settled on Avignon. I'd skipped past this walled city and former home of Popes on the banks of the Rhone last spring on my way to the south of France so I thought I'd give it a go. After a bit of reading and talking to a few people I felt confident that this would be an easy yet interesting spot just about three hours away by train. Avignon is definitely a more popular summer destination - with a massive theater festival in July and all of the surrounding areas of Provence just a short drive away. But as it turns out my visit was perfect - just what I wanted for a quick weekend, a change of scenery, and best of all very few tourists. The town was bigger than I expected but absolutely manageable and perfect size for a two day visit.

All photos here.

While there I lucked out with the weather and though it wasn't particularly warm the sun was shining most of the time so it was quite nice for walking around aimlessly through the town's small streets and even a sunny breakfast and coffee in one of the many squares. I can certainly see how in late spring and summer this would be a fabulous spot to visit. I would absolutely go back and just spend my time sitting out having a drink moving from square to square watching the world go by.

Avignon's fame and appeal come from a few different things but the two highest on the list are that it was once home to the Pope, and second, the bridge of Avignon which is sung about in a nursery rhyme that every French child knows. The city itself is surrounded by about 4km of quite well preserved ramparts. Unlike some other walled towns you can't actually walk on these walls but they're quite lovely to look at and admire.

During some tumultuous times in the Catholic church during the 14th century the Pope decided to make Avignon home. Over the course of almost 70 years 7 different French Popes helped build the massive Papal Palace in Avignon. Apparently this is the world's largest Gothic Palace. What stands today is an enormous yet mostly bare structure. As with most buildings over the years after the Pope returned to Rome the Palace had multiple functions (including a prison) and many of the original wall frescos, tiles, etc have been removed. Yet just walking through the rooms listening to the audio guide you can't help but feel the history.

The Pont d'Avignon (really called Pont St Benezet) as it stands today is only a fraction of the original structure built in the 12th century. This bridge originally spanned 900m across the Rhone and contained 22 arches. Today only 4 arches remain as rest were washed away in the 1600s. You can walk out on the remaining span (buy a discounted combined ticket with the Palace) or you can view the bridge from multiple free vantage points - Rocher des Doms gardens on the hill behind the Palace and along the banks of the Rhone from Avignon or Ile de la Barthelasse. I of course opted for all options to see the various views each provided. I'd say the best is from across the river on Ile de la Barthelasse. Perfect picnic spot on a sunny day!

As for the children's song, I think there are a lot of stories around it and as I heard in the audio guide there never really was dancing on the bridge as the song states. But anyway, I suppose it's like most kids knowing and skipping around to London Bridge is Falling Down, Sur le pont d'Avignon has dug itself into every French child's brain. And no, I did not see anyone actually dancing on the bridge singing the song when I was there.

In addition to the Palace and the bridge I spent my time just wandering the streets heading from square to square. As with French towns there are so many little alleyways to weave your way in and out of once you'e off the main drags. And the nice thing here was that while it was possible to get lost I always knew that I'd run into a wall soon enough and couldn't get that far off course!

One of the most interesting streets that I read about and ventured specifically to was Rue des Teinturiers. This is a cobblestone and tree line street with a canal running along it. Here you can see four waterwheels (remaining or mostly remaining) telling the history of this street as 23 waterwheels once powered mills for the textile industry.

As for food I found myself taste testing olives, spreads, and other treats in the large covered market (Les Halles) on both Saturday and Sunday morning. There was no shortage of restaurants to try out for dinner and since there were no crowds I just took my pick and was very satisfied. On Saturday evening I had a delicious (and ridiculously messy) burger and incredibly sweet Pavlova for dessert at L'atelier des Thes. There was a coffee shop (Milk Shop) that I really wanted to try but of course I made the mistake of telling myself I'd go there Sunday and check out another spot on Saturday only to find that of course it was closed Sundays. Next time I suppose! I'm still getting used to the whole idea of things being closed on Sundays. In the states we mostly take for granted that most shops and restaurants are open every day of the week just waiting for us.

And with that a weekend in Avignon was successfully in the books. I returned to Cannes mid-day on Sunday and even got myself to do a little French school work on the train.