Accidentally in Avignon
“You can’t get there from here,” is what the French rail website might as well have said when we were trying to get home from last week’s trip to Aigues-Mortes. Caught up in the excitement of staying on board our own boat, we anticipated that our return to Carcassonne would be as easy as the outbound journey. Unfortunately what should have taken a bit over 2 hours in travel time was showing up as 16 hours because of layovers, connections, and being sent up to Paris to catch the night train that has only seats, no sleeping berths. We then learned that because of track repairs no trains would be running for 3 days in the direction of home so it was time to get out the map and see where we could go. Since we knew that there were trains running northbound in the direction of the capital, it didn’t take long to settle on Avignon as the place to wait until the rails were once again open.
We were in Avignon 17 years ago, for about 4 hours, on one of those whirlwind visits we used to make to France trying to cram in as many cities as we could in a 12-day vacation. It was such a short stopover because we wanted to see nearby Arles on that same excursion before returning to Marseilles where we were spending the night. Living here, we now have the luxury of taking our time, even when it’s unexpected as it was on this occasion.
At the top of everyone’s list of must-see sights in Avignon is the Palace of the Popes that, when completed in 1352, was the largest Gothic building in the world; four times larger than any cathedral of the era. Because of a conflict between the French crown and the papacy, in 1305 King Philip IV forced the election of a Frenchman as pope who became Clement V and moved his residence to Avignon where it remained for the succeeding 6 popes until 1376. The palace has 25 rooms included on the self-guided tour (12 euros/10 for seniors) that shows you both the massive public rooms and the more intimate apartments once used by the primary residents.
Second on that must-see list is the Saint-Bénézet bridge that is much better known as Le Pont D’Avignon thanks to an 1876 children’s song of that name. It was built in the 12th century and originally had 22 stone arches but only 4 of those remain today. You can buy a ticket (5 euros) to walk out on what’s left, but we chose just to take a picture from the shore.
The Place du Palais, the big open space right in front of the Palace, was created in the early 15th century by Benedict XII who wanted to give his residence even more grandeur by demolishing all of the buildings that were hiding the view. Now you can sit with your coffee or wine and admire the other surrounding buildings such as the Petit Palais built in the 14th century for the archbishops, the cathedral that was opened in 1425, and the Mint that was renovated in 1619.
A similar lively spot for a bit of rest and refreshment is Place de l’Horlage, the main square named for the gothic clock tower with lifesize iron figures that strike the bells, although that has been mostly hidden now by the newer buildings in front of it. From there we walked to a street that travel website The Crazy Tourist described as “painfully cute”. It was here on rue des Teinturiers that the area’s silk spinning and dyeing industry was centered for 500 years beginning in the 1300s. The street follows a canal that’s adjoined by stone houses, cobblestone streets, and watermills that complete the charm.
Because the weather was so nice, we packed a picnic and took the free ferry across the Rhône river to the Île de la Barthelasse. The Pont d’Avignon used to cross this island so it’s only fitting that the ferry dock is just steps away from the bridge.
Since each area of France has its own local culinary specialty, we always seek those out when we visit someplace new. While we were already acquainted with the stew pot-au-feu and the universal steak frites, we still opted out of trying Pieds et Paquets that we would otherwise call “Tripe and Pigs Feet”. Same with veal liver and tartar. So, back to that stew and steak with fries…what wine did we drink with those? Châteauneuf du Pape, of course. There are vineyards literally in the shadow of the Palace of the Popes from which I fantasized that the wine we were drinking came but I doubt it. The town of that name is 12 km (7 miles) north of Avignon and strict rules apply including where the vines can be located, how often they can be irrigated, and even that the grapes must be handpicked.
Our return train to Carcassonne operated just as smoothly as the outbound one about a week ago, even if we did have to wait 3 days for it. Avignon turned out to be the perfect place to stop.
Travel tip: Up to 600,000 people a year visit the Palace that opens daily at 9:00 AM. We arrived at the front gate at 8:55 AM and were the first in line for tickets. We were almost alone inside the massive structure for the hour we spent there but a line had formed by the time we left. Tickets can also be purchased online at the link below.
Palace of the Popes: http://www.palais-des-papes.com/en