A few hours in Avignon, Provence

Travel Tales

I knew I would go to Provence, the region of the dreamy landscapes that has inspired so many impressionists I so admire, any time I went to France. Given that I had only a day for long distance travel, I chose Avignon, three hours away by the TGV (high speed) train from Paris.

Avignon interested me as it had been the Pope’s seat for 70 years, starting in the first decade of the 14th century, and would give us a good first taste of south of France. It turned out that day we got a real taste of France as well.

We reached the train station, Gare de Nord about 50 minutes before the train time and went to the information as our train number was not showing on the monitors. The girl on the counter very matter-of-factly said that we had to change our tickets. Apparently, there was a strike and our train was cancelled. After waiting for nearly two hours we finally found out that while we could take any train that day that stopped at Avignon, if we changed our tickets it would cost 150 euros more each person. They had told us that our return train should still run (we imagined we would get our seat in that one), so we went ahead with our plan, albeit delayed. I sat behind the last seat in a cabin in between the luggage rack and the back of the seat. My husband sat with his back to the luggage rack!

We reached the walled city on a bus and stood looking at the map for landmarks at the stop when a nice man asked if we needed help. He told us that our main interest for the day--Palias des Pape--was only a short walk away. The walk was really nice along the main street of Avignon, Rue de la Republique, which has beautiful, restored buildings and hotels, originally build around 1852-70.

At the very entrance to the street is the visitor centre from where we bought a map and some lavender pot pourri, as Provence is world famous for its lavender fields. We passed by the St. Didier Church, just one of the many churches, with a beautiful garden in its premises.

Unlike Paris, Avignon was sunny and hot. We stopped at one of the numerous cafes, and bought a basil-flavoured goat cheese and chicken sandwich. It tasted heavenly and we almost forgot the morning hassles.

At the end of the street is the city square and heart of Avignon-- the Place de l'horlodge. It has a series of cafes, on cobblestone pavement, each offering very tempting cuisine. It was too late for lunch, so, I picked a cafe for dinner later. Just straight down that street and through a smaller street we caught our first glimpse of the enormous Pope’s palace. The Palaise des Papes is a UNESCO world heritage site and is the largest Gothic palace in the world.

We barely had five hours in Avignon. Many people sat around in the courtyard, where musicians were playing a guitar and a cello. Adjoining the palace is the Notre Dame des Domsd’Avignon cathedral with its gilded figure of Mary.

Visible from the palace was a picturesque cobblestone street carved through a hill, which led us to our surprising find for the day, another cathedral, of Saint Pierre. Rebuilt in 1385, again, in Gothic style with beautiful stained glass, it was here I regained all my good spirits. The place is not to be missed, it has so much soul and peace.

Next, we followed the arrows to the Pont de Avignon, or the bridge built by Saint Benezet. This bridge has an interesting origin. Saint Benezet was a goat-herder who was one day visited by God. He single-handedly moved a boulder that many men together had been unable to move to prove that God indeed wanted that bridge to be built and had spoken to him and given him magical powers. The bridge only has four of the original 22 arches remaining, which historically were rebuilt several times after flood damage and basically does not span the Rhone anymore.

I wanted to see the small shopping streets of the city, like Rue des Marchands. The buildings have excellent superposition of the old, retrofitted with new shiny facades of department stores, with a very unique European look.

Short on time, we went to my previously chosen cafe for dinner. I asked the waiter how long it would take as we only had about 45 minutes to the next scheduled bus to the train station. In true French style he said, “Relax, you have an hour!” And for a change, I did. It was very good advice. Because not only did I really enjoy the food and the mojito, it helped me not get too mad in the next phase.

We made it to the bus with plenty of time to spare. We were expecting to catch our train this time and hoped to get our seats, since if you have booked seats you have the right to oust whoever is sitting on them (like we had been on the train coming in). However, we never found ours. We came back sitting on top of the cafe coach's tables. This journey was a little shorter though, two-and-a-half hours. The last one had been nearly three-and-a-half.

It did spoil the day somewhat. But that is traveling for you. No, I wouldn't buy first class tickets ever again.Yes, that is France. And I would take it any day.

(The writer is scientist working extensively on autism)

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