Waking up in Puy-Sainte-Réparade, we were still undecided as to where today would take us, if indeed anywhere. The weather was dictating our progress and, to some extent, our general mood, as we hoped to escape the dull, repetitive, activity-supressing rain. We had a slow breakfast and a bit of map-reading as we searched for options, before deciding it was time to stop procrastinating or awaiting a weather window to allow us to cycle, and instead continue northwards. We had a skiing date in the mountains arranged before we left home that was drawing close, and we had to commit to a route – from our current position we could approach Serre Chevalier from Italy via Turin, over the mountains from Nice in the direction of Barcelonnette, by motorway through Gap, or from Grenoble by first heading north along the wine route from Avignon to Orange and Valance. We finally chose the latter, both for the ability to stay as low as possible for as long as possible before entering the Haute Alps and for the opportunities to visit and enjoy tasting tours at many vineyards bordering the Rhône. So, decision made, we headed off with our first stop to be at the historic city of Avignon.
We stopped off en route for a quick shop and a bite of lunch, before reaching what we thought would be our stopping point for the night, an aire in the village of Barbentane. On arrival it looked sad and neglected, overgrown and pitted with so many deep puddles that we chose not to stop, but with limited options we instead preferred to treat ourselves to a night in a busy campsite right in the centre of Avignon. Situated less than five minutes from the walled enclosure of the historic centre, the views across the river and the Pont D’Avignon from the site were quite spectacular.
The rain had followed us for most of the day, but had neatly relented just as we readied ourselves to visit the city. Our easy walk across a nearby bridge afforded a fantastic high vista over the city, and our timing in the mid afternoon light, as the rain clouds retreated, lit up the water and stone with a hazy, subtle glow. The four remaining arches of the Pont D’Avignon, extending halfway into the shimmering Rhône, became a counterweight to the huge Palais des Papes that dominated the Avignon skyline.
We entered the city through a wide archway in the huge stone city walls, into a bright and beautiful square with the obligatory plane trees providing wide cover and shade. We fell in love with Avignon almost instantly; the colour of the stone, the neatness of the squares and the easy class they exuded, the elegant demeanour of the city streets, obvious even in the dull, grey rainy air. We walked slowly and observed the details, a carved timber doorway here or an ornate lamppost there.
We walked through, across and around the centre streets, constantly looking around, ticking off churches and key sights in a casual way, as we absorbed the city more by osmosis than by intellectual study. We watched the light change on the stonework as we passed, loving just walking through the busy streets, until the clouds and rain came back and coated the city with a dull, damp sheen and an ever-darkening greyness. We decided to head back to our campsite to dry off, relax and revisit the city early the next morning.
The next morning we walked first along the river bank to view the city from a different perspective, low and dark in the morning mist. We passed by the broken end of the Pont D’Avignon, allowing us to see it set differently against the city behind. The banks were lined with tall, yellow reeds that contrasted with the stone arches reflected in the dark grey waters. The bridge, officially called Le Pont Saint Bénezet, was first built in 1177 across the Rhône, but was damaged by floods on many occasions. It was repeatedly repaired and rebuilt over the centuries and up until the end of the 17th century, when the repairs ended. Only four of the original twenty-two arches are still intact today.
We had hoped the free navette boats would take us over to the gardens opposite, but we found they were out of service until mid-February. So we retraced our steps along the bank and returned to the city by the same bridge, crossing the river in a very different, much greyer morning light. This time, to avoid the persistent dampness of the day, we visited the Palais des Papes.
During the Western Schism (1378-1417) the Roman Catholic Church was split between two allegiances, with one Pope reigning in Rome, another in Avignon. The Palais des Papes was the grand resident of the Avignon Pope during this time, built as part comfortable palace, part defensible castle, with aspects of each jostling for dominance. The second Avignon Pope, Benedict XIII was confined to the palace, where he withstood two bloody sieges before finally fleeing the palace in 1403. After years of constant wandering, he would later find refuge with the King of Aragon. The Papacy was finally reunited under one banner in 1417 with the election of Martin V at the Council of Constance.
The rooms were spatially very grand, but cold, stark and often lacking light, occasionally looking more like a solid prison than a fine residence. We saw into treasury rooms with secret floors under which the main coin of the Papal wealth was stored. Some private bedrooms still had the original painted wall decorations, of a style that would not aid sleeping. The larger halls felt more like Gothic churches, with tall decorative windows and vaulted ceilings. The roof edge ramparts were the most interesting part, allowing both views over the internal courtyards and the empty plainness of the elevations there, and also views out over the entire city roofscape. We could see out over the nearby gardens, the Rocher des Doms, and the main square in front of the palace.
We left the Palace and headed up into the gardens, to enjoy the views back down to the river, to the Pont D’Avignon and beyond. We then buried ourselves back into the tightknit streets, wandered at will and greedily took it all in. We briefly visited La Maison Jean Vilar, dedicated to theatre and the Performing Arts, before continuing our morning walk through the pretty squares of Avignon.
We had to return and leave our campsite by 1pm, so we reluctantly tore ourselves away from the city. We returned by the same bridge, had one last look over the river and the city skyline before we made our way back. We had only been in or around Avignon for around 20 hours, such a short time, but we felt an immediate connection to its beauty and history, much stronger and more defined than in other French cities we’d recently visited; la destination idéale pour une escapade provençale.