Groovy little town of the medieval Popes

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Friday, June 16, 2006

If you have read my entries from Rhodes (Greece) and Valletta (Malta), you might be familiar with the name Avignon - a French city of great power in the middle ages and one of the vegetable-sounding 'auberges' that formed the Order of the Knights of St John.

This meant that the city was not a turnip but one of eight or nine European city-states that contributed knights and resources to the construction, maintenance and garrisoning of these mighty forts dotting the Mediterranean, which formed the last bastion of resistance to the wave of Islam that had taken Jerusalem and had then rushed across the Middle East and Turkey in the centuries leading up to the 1,500 AD.

Avignon became this powerful because the papal throne actually moved here, from a politically turbulent Rome, for most of the chivalrous 14th century. The result is a sparkling walled city of great religious and historic significance, even if it is a pleasantly quiet backwater today. I liked it a lot and would have stayed longer if only my accommodation hadn't run out...

I arrived in the early afternoon after taking my first ever ride on a super-fast TGV train. The distance wasn't great from Marseilles so I don't think the driver could really let her rip up to the 250-300 km/h top speed, but I'd say we were doing maybe 200km/h for a few minutes there. Pretty happy with that all the same. The station looked like what I'd imagine a lunar docking port would look like - a narrow, curved wedge of glass and chrome, which also lifted my spirits when it reminded me of my dream to one day write from space. Dare to dream man - dare to dream...

Shaken from my reverie by an annoying 'tubular bells'-sounding announcement chime repeating itself over and over, I realised I was on the banks of the Rhone river which one hears so much about, so I got on with it and headed out to explore.

Skies were blue, lavender was blowing in the fields (apparently a big tourist drawcard here) and a variety of birds were successfully singing for their supper on the streets. The walled section of town is full of gothic-style cathedrals which were the attractive fashion of the time, and many of them adorn the pleasant, shady squares that the locals hang out in sipping a coffee or a mid-morning beer. Not quite ready to take on the primary attractions in town, I headed to the southeast corner and found the oldest remaining road - Rues des Tenturiers.

What an nicely odd place! The sun was shining gold through the canopy of the plane trees, speckling shady cobblestones with intermittent light. A working water-wheel rotated quietly in front of one building, dripping water from its smooth paddles and maybe generating a little power for something hidden within. Some kids were rehersing on their acoustic guitars of the upcoming performing arts festival which lent a nice ambience and the Woolloomooloo cafe, which was just closing when I arrived, would have converted my custom by name alone. There must be some Sydney link there, no one could make up that name by themselves...

The street sat outside the original 12th century walls but was included in the defended city after the new walls were built in the 14th century. It underwent many name changes as new establishments replaced the old that gave it their names (including an inn, an orphanage and the portal openings in the walls themselves). Possibly some of the houses lining it were of the later era but the information plaques are mainly in French so I could only hazard a guess. No doubt has some some action though.

Pretty cool but it was time to head to the main attraction - the Palace of the Popes - which occupies the foot of a hundred foot high limestone hill picturesquely set into a sharp bend in the Rhone River. This was the site in which nine popes inhabited from 1305 to 1397, although the fortified palace that stands today was built over a 20 year period from 1335.

Although the battlements look like toy models in comparison to the Maltese versions (didn't have a bunch of muslims breathing down its neck I suppose) it is still pretty impressive all the same - a fairytale castle town pre-eminent at the height of the era of nobility. Now new roadways ring the north and western parts of the town, crawling with traffic and unfortunately degrading the effect somewhat.

Get inside the town though and you can get a close up view at a very sedate pace. A gold statue with a lightning rod riveted to the back of its head looks out over the Rhone vista benevolently. Below a Jesus on the cross is surrounded by praying angels with aghast expressions on their faces, maybe in horror at the baritone busker fitfully warbling tunes further down the square. The walls of the palace tower overhead and the result is quite a lengthy and imposing facade.

I stepped into the chapel first off, which had a spiffing eagle and castle coat of arms engraved into the floor outside but little inside, then walked up the hill to get a view over the papal domains and the Rhone river basin. Looking pretty nice over the new Avignon village as well, and it is interesting to note that all of this land was still under papal command as late as 1791, even though the papacy had moved back to Rome centuries earlier. Maybe they used it as a bit of a wee holiday home on a few hundred square kilometres of prime river frontage.

Finally I plucked up the $E7.50 to go inside the palace itself, which is apparently the largest remaining gothic palace in the world. It is pretty big but unfortunately they hold concerts in the main courtyard so the first thing you walk into is a maze of scaffolding and tiered seating threatening to come down on your head. Would be quite a view otherwise but I suppose the performances pay better. Anyway, escaping from that and you have access to 25 rooms set around the two internal courtyards.

Favorites of mine were the cloister courtyard (above left) and the massive halls of the Great Tinel and the Grand Hall. Lots of fine gothic vaultings that really give the large rooms a feeling of enormity. They create some funky patterns too, so much so that you have to admit it's one of humanity's more graceful architectural eras. In one of the final rooms there is a collection of paintings of the popes who resided here but on the whole, but when you think of it in hindsight, there isn't a great deal to report inside.

That said I was tempted to stop just inside exit where they have a sizable local wine tasting operation, of course using a 'resolutely educational approach' to their business. I suppose the Catholics have never had a problem mixing alcohol and religion so I shouldn't have been too surprised at the brisk turnover.

Back on the river shore and it was time to investigate the other main attraction of Avignon, the hapless Pont d'Avignon. What remains is a nicely preserved ruin of what would have been a very graceful bridge in its time. Built in the eight years to 1185, it was destroyed and rebuilt a few times due to war, flooding and Louis the VIIII before finally being being abandoned in 1633. For another $E7.50 you get to walk along the remains but I settled for a longer range view to save money for an apres clensing beer.

Which soon came by, just in time to see Argentina smash some hapless footballing nation 5-0 in the Mondial. Too bad I couldn't understand the commentary. Anyway, there is lots to see in the shops, back alleys and older quarters of town but it is all easily done within a few days, even if you count the museums I didn't bother with. If I had stayed in the area I would have had to head out of town, but Arles - Van Gogh's stomping ground - doesn't have a gallery showing any of his works so that seemed a bit extravagent in terms of both time and money just to see the view. Accommodation finally presented itself in Barcelona so I booked the bus and saved myself the trouble of finding another room here. Le phew (as they probably don't say around here...)

So off to Spain. Looking forward to a few easy weeks travelling around in the north to see if it suits me, so I hope the summer accommodation situation doesn't cause headaches here too. Think I'll have to start actually booking ahead...

Krazy Kontraptions

You may or may not be familiar with a bidet.

I know one by sight but I've never been too sure what is actually meant to be done with it. However a combination of having to pay extra for a shower, the cheesy stench of stale sweat and the flagrant use of eu de toilettes around here have coalesced an idea in my mind as to what they actually are designed for.

As a washing device it is no longer as crazy as I once thought them to be. Still, I prefer a good douche (shower) any day. Thanks for Monseuir Bidet for one of the crazier ablutive contraptions ever designed.
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technotrekker on

Re: Finally, your first step in france ...
Hi Nicholas,

Nice to hear from you - I've heard a bit about you but didn't know you'd heard of me. I guess that's a yes... Cheers for the feedback and hope your preparations for the big day are going well.

My time in Avignon has been a nice little intro to France and I will probably head up the west coast (from San Sebastian to around Bayeaux) before I go to the UK. In Spain, I will probably stay north (have been to Ibiza) and on the mainland but if you have any other little places to drop by then let me know.

And if I don't completely run out of money then I might see you at the wedding in late August. We shall see.

Cheers mate,

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