Friday, October 1, 2010

A full day in Avignon

Avignon, city of the Popes, built along the Rhone river at the border of three départements of France, called us away for our first full day. Alan had been here with his class (barely making it the afternoon after Mom and Dad arrived) but still had things he wanted to see with us. We gave a ride into town to a SCAD student, who stayed with us part of the day and was taking a train to Berlin for the weekend. Another student had asked if she could get a ride too—our car is supposed to have a third row of seats, but it seems the car lease people did not give us the seats to put back there (they are detachable, and they probably assumed we needed the luggage space), so we had to tell her no.

We made it to the city without mishap, and managed to find parking along the city’s old walls without too much trouble. Our first stop (after the tourist information center to get the free discount pass) was at a museum hosting an exhibit of photographs by Lartigue—unfortunately, our assumption that all museums are open in the morning was not correct, and so we had to plan to come back after lunch.

Our next stop was the large indoor market. Set up like the outdoor market we had been to where each vendor has a stall, this one give the feel of half supermarket half farmers market. It is open every morning, but closes in the afternoon so Alan hadn’t been able to see it last time he was in town.

A "complet" or whole wheat French bread
In the market
Palais des Papes, the Palace of the Popes, was our first museum of the day. Some guidebooks said it wasn’t worth it, but I think they were wrong. The Popes moved here in 1309 and stayed for about 100 years, building one of the largest residences of the time covering 3.7 acres. It was decorated in grand fashion, with tapestries and frescos befitting the currently very rich papacy. The audio tour told us more than we ever wanted to know about all the details, and I did cut if off a few times (like when it was listing all the thousands of different animals killed and roasted in this huge kitchen we were standing in for a single banquet).

Alan listening to the audio tour
Courtyard with the golden statue of Mary above

Grand hall
We left the Palais des Papes to pick a café for lunch. We sat under the place where Napoleon III was announced emporer (Mom thinks, away, as the sign was in French) and had a nice waiter who wanted to know why, if we were from Texas, did Dad not have a, what is it called? The hat? The big hat? Ah yes, a Stetson! (It is so much more fun to tell people you are from Texas when you are traveling because they have always heard of it and want to know if you are a cowboy.) After we were done eating the waiter told Dad next time, to wear a Stetson, and Dad handed him his napkin where he had drawn a Stetson! Dad meant just to show it to him as a laugh, but the guy wanted it, and we saw him go and show it to the other lady he was working with. Ah, cultural interactions… : )

We went back now to the Lartigue exhibit, which was very nice. He was a child protégé at the turn of the century, who announced he was going to be a photographer at the age of seven. His family was rich, and he took photos of high society, as well as lots of photos experimenting with movement. He is famous for his racecar photos, as well as other things. We also got to see the only Van Gogh in Provence (he worked here for a while) as well as painting by Cezanne, Manet, and a few other big names.

We headed back across town to what is left of the Pont St-Benezet, a bridge built in the 1100s that crossed two branches of the Rhone and the island in-between, coming to a length of 2,953 feet long with 22 arches. Legend has it that a young shepherd boy (named Benezet) had a vision that a bridge was to be built on this spot, but nobody believed him. So he picked up a huge bolder that should have been impossible to lift and threw it in the river. That showed ‘em! The Bridge Brotherhood was formed of volunteers, and money flooded in. Only four arches are left today.

Street with plane trees, which line many streets
and were supposedly planed all over France
by Napoleon to shade his troops as they marched.
Pont St-Benezet

After walking along the river, crossing the modern bridge to the island for a better view back of the ancient bridge and the city, and walking back again, we climbed the ramparts of the city wall to the Rocher des Doms, the garden next to the Palais des Papes that has a fine view across the river and of the city. We stopped in a quite café for some ice cream (for me) and a crepe (for Dad) before taking one last look at the city in the evening light, and heading home.

Mom and Dad on the rampart, dangling above the river
Me and Alan with the Palais des Papes
I love how ice cream flavors are slightly different everywhere.

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