It took me about five minutes to decide I loved Avignon. After a long day walking in Marseille, my brother Tom and I reached the TGV train station in the outskirts of the city. We were pretty sleepy, so the trippy white latticework of the station was a little dizzying for me.
The shuttle train from the TGV to the city’s central train station took just five minutes. I thought I might need a moment to orient myself, but the city helped us. The preserved 14th century remparts (walls) still serve to separate the town’s historic center from the later developments, with the N570 beltway running just outside. Since we were staying in the historic city, it was plain that we should follow Cours Jean Jaurès through the gap in the walls.
Why Avignon needed walls has had a different answer depending on the century. From prehistoric times, Avignon has occupied the Rocher des Doms, an enviable high ground overlooking the Rhône River, quite close to where it merges with the Durance River (and then flows into the Mediterranean Sea). Just where the Roman walls bounded the city is only vaguely known today. In 500 CE, Clovis laid siege to the city, and in 581 CE, the city intentionally flooded its boundary to avoid capture. During the eighth century CE, Saracen occupation of Southern France (lasting 40 years in total) required Charles Martel to take the city twice! All of these sieges came long before the challenges imposed by the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453 CE) and the Wars of Religion (1562-1598 CE). The 14th century ramparts were not intended to be decorative.
Two squares of note
Within a few minutes of passing the wall, we saw a pretty church with an accompanying garden. Tom and I spent a half hour there while waiting for our train to Orange on our first full day in the area. The church is Saint-Martial, a Protestant church that started its life in the 14th century under the Benedictines of Cluny. It was only in 1881 that the city signed the church over to the Lutheran community; it had spent the time since the French Revolution in a variety of “odd jobs.” The Revolution also changed the neighboring Square Agricol Perdiguier to a botanical garden after having served as a cloister for the Benedictine Abbey. Remnants of its arches still stand as sentries in the beautiful grounds.
Before we leave that part of town, I would also like to give a shout out to the Crêp’ Café. My brother made it his goal to eat a French crêpe while in the country, and their prime location between the city walls and the gardens I’ve just described made it an ideal place for people watching. Eating there was nearly our last act in Avignon, but in retrospect we should have stopped on each pass!
I have more mixed feelings about the Place de l’Horloge (“Clock Square”). I am still shy of large crowds in this phase of the pandemic, and the area was pretty popular at some times of the day. Tom and I stopped there for a big dinner on the end of our full day in Avignon. We chose a less-crowded restaurant with a pretty wide menu. At my recommendation (!) Tom tried a duck cassoulet; duck is surprisingly inexpensive and popular in France. I believe I had a baked lasagne, because there are few baked pastas I don’t enjoy. We had the restaurant patio area largely to ourselves at first. As we finished our food, however, an overtly drunk person sat down for drinks and appetizers. His loud speech wasn’t such a big problem, but soon he pulled out a set of bluetooth speakers so that he could share his music with everybody. We finished up in a bit less leisurely manner than we might have.
Despite that experience, I think the Place de l’Horloge is pretty cool. Vendors sell knick-knacks at its northern end (which leads to the biggest tourism draw in Avignon), and the pedestrian mall is surrounded by lovely buildings including the 19th century town hall and theatre. It even offers a carousel!
The Rocher des Doms
I will have a lot more to say about the Place du Palais and the Palace of the Popes in the next blog, but for now I will skip past that to the northernmost (and oldest) part of the city, the Rocher des Doms. The high grounds are now home to a beautiful garden, offering views of two of the premier sites of the city. As we climbed the stairs to the high garden, we briefly shared a landing with a freestyle bicyclist who was recording a video of his stunts. The sun was angled close to the earth on our last night in the city, and I just loved the way it made the buildings “pop” against the earth.
I feel we overlooked Notre-Dame des Doms Cathedral. It is to the Avignon Papacy what St. Peter’s is to the Vatican. If one is accustomed to the Gothic churches of Paris, it might be confusing that the basilica of Avignon is built in the older Romanesque style, befitting its origins in the eleventh century (like Saint-Germain-des-Prés or Saint-Martin-des-Champs). I would have liked to have seen the tombs of the Avignon Popes or the precious items in the treasury.
The St. Bénézet Bridge was a marvel of 12th century engineering, just as the Eiffel Tower was a marvel of the 19th century. It was such a landmark that it is the point of view for many maps of medieval Avignon. One of the reasons I find this bridge fascinating is that it was also a controlled border for much of Avignon’s existence. To the west of the Rhône was France, and to the east was the Holy Roman Empire or another political body. Sadly, the repeated flooding of the Rhône periodically swept away the bridge footings, so we have only the Avignon half today. I am glad Tom and I could see the bridge, even if we didn’t get the chance to walk on it or visit its chapel.
All in all, Avignon is a city that rewards tourists handsomely. Yes, it’s a modern place, but its core is easily navigated on foot. From time to time, you will turn a corner as you wander and feel like you are in an altogether different era of the world. A person from four hundred years ago would still find familiar points in its streets.