Thursday, January 31, 2013



Sunday morning.

For a change there was no rush to get to the train station. Our overnight hotel was just a 1000 feet from Paris’s Gare Lyon TGV train station. With a nine o’clock departure to Avignon we even had time for a cappuccino and a croissant before boarding.

After a week of iffy weather and all the rain in the Loire we were ready for some sunshine and we were not disappointed upon our arrival in Avignon, two and a half hours after we left Paris. I simply love those bullet trains. Glorious sunshine and a warm breeze greeted us at the TGV train station. This was further reflected by a warm and friendly and very opinionated taxi driver (the November 2012 American Presidential election was the main topic) who promptly “ripped” us off by taking a bit of a detour to get us to our apartment in the walled part of Medieval Avignon. I guess he was just being friendly and wanted to practice his English and show us a bit more of Avignon while he had the opportunity. At our expense of course! Taxi meters don’t stop for anything.

 Avignon's 14th century ramparts.

Stepping through a time warp

And what an introduction to Medieval Avignon it was? The cab driver, instead of just slipping onto Boulevard Saint-Roch and then enter the city through Porte de la Republique and up the main street with the same name to our apartment close to the top of the street, decided to take us on a more scenic, but slower drive down Boulevard de l‘Ouille with the Rhone River on our left and the weathered ramparts of the ancient city on our right and entered the city at Porte de l’Ouille close to the famous Avignon bridge, half of bridge washed away by the Rhone River in a flood many years ago.

Immediately upon crossing the city’s threshold, tiny, narrow and crooked streets with ancient stone buildings closed in upon us. We have stepped through a time warp into another time period. Moments like these always make me feel so small. Our current moment so fleeting in time. How many thousands or millions have not entered those ports since 1355 when they started to build the present day walls.  

 View of the Palais des Papes complex and Avignon's city walls in the foreground.

Layers of civilizations

Of all the places I wanted to see in France Provence was top of my list. There is something about this region from what I read and saw before our trip that has always excited me and inspired me to one day go there. From a historical interest I think the layers of civilizations throughout history who inhabited this harsh but also luscious southern belt of France and their impact on the soul and general outlook of life of today’s occupants mixed with the rugged, stony landscape are building blocks of an interesting culture. The place is living history.

Modern day marketing of Provence’s many hilltop villages, the lavender and sunflower fields, the vineyards and vintners of Chateauneuf du Pape and Gigondas, the laid-back Mediterranean lifestyle and the popularity of the Mediterranean cuisine contribute greatly to the popularity of Provence among tourist and travelers alike.
The Rocher-de-Doms gardens and St. Mary on the Cathedral de Notre Dame-des-Doms. 
The region was first inhabited by the Ligures people and then followed by the Celts. Then the Greeks came in 600 BC and established a settlement at Massalia, today’s Marseille. They were followed by the Romans and when Rome fell in the 5th century AD Provence became a battleground for centuries as wave after wave of tribes and kingdoms tried to claim Provence. First the Visigoths, then the Ostrogoths, the Burgundians, the Franks, the Normans, the Arabs (Saracens as the French calls them), the Catalans from Barcelona and eventually at the end of the 16th century Provence became finally French under the Bourbon Kings. Today Provence still has a streak of independence and even the French they speak is laced with words from Spanish, Italian and Arab influences.

Our itinerary was packed. There was simply so much to see and do in Provence and we had only 5 days. However, we decided to move to a slower lane. Life in the south and for that matter all around the Mediterranean Sea is slower in pace than up north. So we must fit in. When in Rome…Our base was an airy and surprisingly spacious 5th floor apartment within spitting distance of the Palais des Papes. It was well located on rue Carnot with a beautiful view over the lighted palace at night. In the evenings we would open the windows and the sounds of the city from the narrow ancient cobbled-stone streets below and the ringing of the bells from the Eglise Sainte Pierre church down the road would drift into the apartment while we sipped on a glass of Cotes du Rhone and had our tired feet up. We had a rented car and the plan called for visiting two villages per day and one whole day was set aside for a wine tour through Chateauneuf du Pape. And Provence didn’t disappoint.

 The palace of the Popes at night from our apartment window.

Sunday afternoon

Most of that glorious sunshine that greeted us upon our arrival in Avignon gave way to patches of clouds and periodic light rain. More a nuisance than anything else. From our apartment we walked the narrow alleys from rue Carnot to the square in front of the Palais des Papes, Palace of the Popes. But first we climbed the natural outcrop to the Rocher-de-Doms gardens, took a quick peek into the Cathedral de Notre Dame des Doms before we entered the Palace. The palace and the gardens are situated on a natural outcrop with stunning views over Avignon, the mighty Rhone River that flows just below and outside the city walls, the famous Pont d’Avignon (officially Pont St.BĂ©nezet), and the Rhone valley beyond.  

View from Rocher-de-Doms gardens and the Pond d'Avignon.

Between 1309 and 1377 Avignon was the new “Rome” for the Catholic Church. In 1305 the Curia elected the Archbishop of Bordeaux as Pope Clement V, the first French Pope. Although summoned to Rome for his coronation he instead decided on Lyon for his coronation and later moved his court to near Avignon instead of moving to a dangerous and unsafe Rome.  

 Palais des Papes, Palace of the Popes in Avignon, France
Started in 1334 by Pope Benedict XII   and complete in 1364 the place is more fortress or castle than palace and absurdly huge. Monstrous! 15,000 square meters. The largest Gothic palace in the world. Grey stone block upon stone block (probably from the nearby Luberon Mountains), soaring 50 meters into the sky. The palace is rather bare inside thanks to the French Revolution (1789) when the palace was ransacked, and during the Third Republic (1870) when the palace was seriously vandalized. However, a few beautiful statues and frescoes still remain.


Although huge and impressive the palace is rather cold and characterless. Nevertheless, it is still worth a visit if you happen to be in Avignon and have a free Sunday afternoon. Oh, and the panoramic views from the Rocher-de-Doms gardens is not to be missed.

The Grand Chapel (on the left) and another huge hall in the Palace of the Popes.

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