It seems like the whole of France goes en vacances* in August. Shops are closed, cities empty out, and traffic revs up on the highways. We’ve been in Grenoble for 2 months now. Some might say we’ve been on vacation for the whole time, but we’ve been jealously listening to travel tales from friends we’ve made and had an itch to get out to town. Without our OFII stamp we still can’t leave the country, but we weren’t going to let that keep us from hopping on a train to leave the city for points in the south of France.
So, on a whim, we started looking at some guidebooks and at hotel rates and availability online last Wednesday. We wanted to go somewhere unlike Grenoble, but didn’t want to spend lots of time traveling to get there. At last, we decided to go to the Provence region. We could get there by train in a little over two and a half hours! On Friday we walked to the nearby gare in Grenoble and boarded the 8:38 to Valence Ville. After arriving in Valence we connected 20 mins. later with the train to Avignon Centre . We arrived in Avignon at 11:20. I love trains!
We arrived with just one bag with wheels and our daypacks, so we headed from the gare into the center of town. The weather was perfect – sunny and about 25ºC (77ºF). It was an easy stroll down Rue de la Republique to place de l’Horloge and the Palais des Papes.* Kids were riding the carousel there and there were umbrellas galore for all the restaurants’ outdoor seating in the Place du Palais. We stumbled upon the Place des Corps Saints where L’Église des Célestins built in the 1350s is being worked on, but it also was housing an art exhibit. As we approached we heard two 20-something girls laughing and singing beautiful arias in the church. Even in its present condition, the acoustics are still amazing.
There’s no denying that Avignon is a tourist spot. The famous St. Benezet bridge immortalized in the Sur le pont d’Avignon* ditty attracts all who come to the city. (Don’t miss the song at the very end of the blog.) Parts of the 12th c. bridge have been knocked down by floods over the centuries. Up until the 17th c. they would keep on rebuilding it, but now the bridge ends partway across the Rhône River. There’s a chapel on the bridge dedicated to the saint, and it was fun to walk across to the middle of the river.
The big show in town is the Palais des Papes. In the 1300s the Roman Catholic Church had bought Avignon and moved its headquarters here from Rome. With 15,000 m2 ( 161,459 ft ²) of floor space, this is the biggest Gothic palace in all of Europe. Needless to say, it took us a while to get through it, but we were amazed what could be built and still be standing when they didn’t even have slide rules at the time. At the tower at the top, there’s a great view and, since this is France, a café. We also visited the Musée du Petit Palais. It was jam-packed with the Church’s collection of 350 Italian paintings – lots of gold leaf, lots of saints, angels, and beaucoup des virgins with child paintings. We were kind of tired by this time so we did a survey walk-through and headed out for a glass of wine!
We had heard there was a fun side-trip to be had 20 minutes by bus to l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Some refer to it as the “Venice of Provence” because it is surrounded by the Sorgue River. So on Sunday, armed with the Office of Tourism’s map (heavily subsidized by Les Villages et groupements d’Antiquaires), we took a bus from Avignon to the stop across from Esplanade Robert Vasse. What met our eyes was a colorful and busy marketplace all around the town. Merchants were selling food, clothing, pottery, linens, antiques , furniture, jewelry and more. The entire town was set in this frenzy. There was an organ grinder with a hat on the ground in front of him, performers who appeared to be Native Americans were dancing, singing and playing instruments (and selling CDs). We picked up some paella from a street merchant and settled down on the stones by the river with our forks to eat lunch. Just as we started eating, canoeists in fantastical costumes (Elvis, Batman, the Flintstones, Greek gods, nursery rhyme characters) started passing in front of us. They were having a race on the cold-water river. They had to duck down into the canoe to navigate under the low clearance bridges. Quite a few cap-sized into the bracing water.
Not knowing when we might want to go back to Grenoble, we hadn’t booked our return ticket as of Monday. So we made our way to the Gare and bought tickets for the afternoon train. We still had a few hours till then, so we boarded a bus to take us across the Rhône River via Pont Daladier to Villeneuve- les -Avignon. Mondays are lazy days in France. Most of the shops that are open on the weekends are closed on Mondays. We found the town to be like a ghost town, but that allowed us to roam around and find little alleys along the way. We passed vines with hanging grapes above front doors, frescoed murals of olives, and interesting iron sculptures casting shadows. See, travel doesn’t have to be scheduled or expensive!
If you would like to hear the song, Sur Le Pont d’Avignon, click on the grenouille* version of it below the translations.
en vacances: on vacation
Palais des Papes: Popes’ palace
Sur le pont d’Avignon: On the bridge of Avignon