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The Visit to Avignon

Okay, not the summer in Provence, but most of a week

Avignon, Provence (south of France)--Monday- Thursday

On Monday, the weather was warm and sunny, so I wandered about. I had my map in hand, and enjoyed walking through all the small side streets; there seems to have been a surprise around every corner.

On the advice of the hotel, I had lunch on a plaza away from the touristy centre, and enjoyed fish and rice in the warm sunny air.

In the afternoon, I took the week’s only English language walking tour sponsored by the Tourism Board. Our guide spoke English, but with such a heavy French accent it was difficult at times to understand her.

She helped us to understand the difference between the mediaeval and the 18th century age of the Republic, simply by looking at the architecture. Essentially, Avignon was the home of the Papacy for 100 years (in the 1300s). But when the Popes returned to Italy, Avignon remained a Papal state, and not part of the kingdom of France at all.

With the French revolution, most of the Church’s holdings were confiscated, and much of the medieval buildings destroyed. It out with the old and in with the new, French Republic style.

What was preserved was the magnificent Palace of the Popes; built when popes and cardinals needed new buildings, residences and chapels. Bringing the Papacy to Avignon was an economic engine to construction, arts and textiles. When the Papacy returned to Rome, Avignon’s prominence remained.

Tuesday, mailed home package of Starbucks mugs, trinkets and my last very warm turtleneck sweater (don’t think I’ll need that anymore).

It was rainy and cool, but little wind. Again I walked the city, this time following several self guided walking tours. I toured the museum home of Doucat, a French collector who had several impressionist paintings. There was an opera playing that night, and I obtained tickets: Romeo & Juliet, sung in French, of course.

When the rain subsided, I toured the famous half bridge, and treated myself to a sorbet as I walked. When the rain started once more, I went to Notre Dame Cathedral adjacent to the Palace of the Popes. As I walked into the dark, gothic Church, I noticed a vested priest; so I followed him into a small chapel. On the Altar was the Blessed Sacrament, exposed in the Monstrance, with lit candles: it was time for Vespers. I stayed and could follow along the format, but was hopeless with the language. I hummed the tunes and chants, and at the conclusion the priest gave us Benediction. There were two youngish (mid-30s) nuns, but the rest of the congregation were men.

Though it was closing, one of the nuns from Vespers recognised me and let me into the Chapel of Pope John XXII. There I saw some stunning vestments and a beautiful private chapel. It seemed a perfect ending to the day, and I went outside to the rain and a deserted square; deserted that is, but for a young German guitarist singing his heart out in English in the rain. He was quite good, so I bought his CD; a much smarter way to support one’s self than people tossing you pennies.

This was my van guided tour group to see the sights and monuments around Provence. Imagine when my guide, David, showed up in a Mercedes-Benz with two very nice Korean ladies in the back seat. I asked him if he was taking us to the tour bus, and he replied he was the four bus! Well, okay then! I could seriously get used to this; everyone else was on the van.

Our first stop was to the Roman Aqueduct, Pont du Gard, constructed in about 100BC, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Besides being beautifully constructed, it was extremely functional and well engineered. Rome wanted the native people to see their engineering prowess, to intimidate them; it still works today. When the Roman troops left, the barbarians came and the Dark Ages swept over, it would be over 1,000 before the engineering skills were regained to build something similar.

Of course, in the Rhône Valley, Rome left but the troops did not. This area was an area that retired soldiers (after 20 years of bearing arms for Rome) were given their pension and a plot of land. This is what Trip Advisor had to say about it:

David then took us to Sainte Remi, a small village where Vincent Van Gogh spent several years painting. It was at this point that he realised that he health was not good, and committed himself to an asylum (he suffered from manic-depression and epilepsy). Because he had committed himself voluntarily, he was allowed to go out during the day, and he did so. We passed through the olive grove where he painted several of his works.

Sainte Remi is also famous for their market on Wednesdays, and we browsed through the stalls, sampling olive oil, breads, etc. One of the ladies bought a whole quart of strawberries, and continued to share all day long. I love Provence strawberries!

We also walked past a house where the Marquis de Sade lived during his bouts of escape from the Paris prison, and then past where Nostradamus lived in the Jewish Quarter. Oddly, in his lifetime, he was best known as the personal physician to King Louis XVI; whereas we know him best today because of his late life dabbling in astronomy.

Then it was to a Chateau des Baux, a fortress city on a hill, which for centuries dominated the area. Once you see the photographs, you’ll understand why it was impregnable until modern warfare in the 16th century enabled a successful siege against it. It was an area of mining: first for limestone, then for baxault (sp) (used in making aluminum), and now for tourists. One of the highlights was the chapel hewn into the rock.

Arles was next, an ancient city which had the foresight to back Julius Caesar against General Pompey. Caesar won, of course, and Arles became a major Roman hub, eventually having a coliseum, a forum, the largest baths in Gaul and a hippodrome for racing chariots. We saw the Yellow Cafe which Van Gogh painted, along with several other of his sites. Arles is where Van Gogh first settled, but was chased out, due to his cantankerous nature.

As David drove, I asked how this former Australian had ended up in Provence, France. As it turns out, he has lived all over, including 3 years in San Francisco. He trained in wines, becoming a sommelier. But though a highly skilled profession in a nation passionate about wine, he moved on to being a tour guide, as this is what pays the rent.

He also likes the ideals of the French revolution of equality; where no one is too rich and no one is too poor. It was fascinating to hear the perspective of someone not French in origin, but who chose to live here, and who embraces both the ideals and culture of France.

Finally, it was back to the Avignon area, where we went to a chocolate factory, and engaged in pairing chocolate with wine; a perfect ending to the day!

Ciao, Provence!

Posted by stbrides 07:21 Archived in France

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