Rollicking Road Trip Through France: Chapter 9
Between driving from Aix-en-Provence to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue (which would be our next homebase for exploring the Luberon villages), we planned to spend a day in Avignon. In contrast to doing almost nothing in Aix, we accomplished quite a bit in our short day in Avignon. And also…we are nearing the homestretch of our road trip!
Avignon is a walled medieval city in the south of France. Walled cities in the south are a little like the chateaux of the north in that they seem to be everywhere.
- We drove directly to Les Halles – the big covered market in Avignon, and decided to make that our lunch stop. If you can’t tell by now, we are suckers for a market. The building itself is pretty interesting. The facade on the front of the building is covered with bright green plants (Le Mur Végétal). Upon walking inside, you’ll see about 40 stalls selling cheese, charcuterie, bread, meat, fish, spreads, etc. For lunch, we bought squash beignets, slices of mushroom pizza, slices of pain d’épices, and nibbled on free samples. Pain d’épices, by the way, is a delicious French spice cake that tastes like Christmas. We went to the square directly outside Les Halles, parked ourselves on a bench, and dined on our goodies.
- Finally satiated, we embarked on our first stop: Palais des Papes – a huge Gothic palace that was the papal residence during the 14th century after Clément V moved the papacy to Avignon to escape the violence in Rome. Seven popes ruled here, and during that time Avignon was the seat of Christianity. Interestingly, even after the papacy was moved back to Rome, a papal court was reestablished in Avignon, causing the Papal Schism.
- Aside: This schism talk reminded me of the Tool song. Check out this haunting orchestral arrangement of the song here. Go ahead and play it – it can accompany your reading of this post. Especially since I’ve gone ahead and written the rest of this post in a meter that perfectly synchronizes with that song. Not really.
- After that, we walked out onto Pont Saint-Bénézet (or Pont d’Avignon). This bridge spans the Rhône and was originally built in the 12th century, but was destroyed and later rebuilt in the 13th century. Now only four of the original arches remain, so it’s basically a bridge that takes you a bit over the water and gives you great views of Avignon when you look back. It was violently windy so we didn’t linger too long on the bridge. The legend behind the bridge is that Saint Bénézet heard God instruct him to build a bridge across the river. He is initially ridiculed by the Avignon people, but he performs a miracle of lifting a huge stone and ultimately garners the support needed to construct it.
- For our last official sight-seeing stop, we hiked up to a small viewpoint and hilltop park called the Parc de Rochers des Doms. There are beautiful panoramic views of Avignon, the Rhône, and the Pont Saint-Bénézet from here. The park is also surprisingly sweet and romantic – trees, ponds, ducks, etc. I even spied people munching on cotton candy (yeah, so when I said sweet, I meant literally), but I couldn’t figure out where they got it from. Otherwise, I would have been right there with them.
We’ll Be Back
For the rest of our time, we just strolled through the city. And we fell for it. We were surprised we would even have an opinion after such a short time. But there was an energy here. It was bustling with people, had a sort of cool, young, interesting vibe, but with this whole old medieval wall thing as the backdrop. As we were descending the Rocher des Doms and entering the square next to the Palais des Papes, we crossed paths with two girls holding huge bundles of blue balloons. And just seeing them and those bright blue balloons with the Palais des Papes at the back – it was just such an illustrative moment of the contrast that exists within this walled city.
For our last taste of Avignon, we found a really hipster looking coffee shop (that was actually full of hipsters) and picked up coffees for our walk back to the car.
In keeping with all of this papal history, I thought we’d spend a moment on the current Pope. My husband reminds me from time to time how fascinating the current Pope is. He is the first Jesuit and the first non-European in almost 1300 years. He is especially devoted to the poor and isn’t particularly interested in the normal trappings that come along with the papacy. Unlike his predecessors, he’s chosen not to live in the papal apartments and opts for more modest vestments. He’s been portrayed as a little more progressive than previous popes and seems to be a little more willing to speak off-the-cuff. I think it will be interesting to watch what he does, says, and writes over the next few years — especially in these times. I’ll leave you with a quotation by him that is worth a little marinating:
…greater attention must be given to ‘the needs of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable, in a debate often dominated by more powerful interests.’ We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. There are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalization of indifference.
~Pope Francis, Laudato Si