Avignon was a city I’d heard of, but didn’t know much about. I was planning an activity for us in the general area of Avignon, so it worked out good to stay there for a couple of nights.
We had one day to wander the streets to see what we could see.
Our hotel was a bit outside of Avignon’s center near the TGV (high speed) train station. There is a shuttle train connecting the TGV station with the Avignon train station that leaves every 30 minutes.
Even though Avignon has a long and very eventful history, I wasn’t finding much in the way of specific things to look for when I Googled “what to do” in Avignon. Imagine my delight when we walked out of the train station and saw that Avignon has city walls! The city center is completely enclosed by approximately 2.75 miles of wall.
There was a “gate” directly across from the train station -so we entered the city there. The first thing that caught my eye as we followed the road into the old city was a quirky looking park next to the sidewalk. It was the Square Agricol Perdiguer. This was originally the cloister and garden of an abbey built in the mid-1300s. After the French Revolution, it became a public square. Agricol Perdiguer was an author and politician from the 1800’s. The square itself seemed to be a collection of various things – a statue, some ruins, some benches, a statue and the “library” in the picture below.
We kept walking…
We peeked through an open gate and saw this lovely courtyard. The building was once a private home -built in the 1700s- but is now a museum.
There was an art display in this space -but I can’t seem to find out anything about the building.
We slipped back outside of the walls along the river side of town to view the famous bridge.
The Pont Saint-Bénézet (or Bridge of Avignon). In the early 1200s a stone bridge was built across the Rhone River to replace an older wooden structure. By the 1600s, the bridge was abandoned because the flood waters would routinely collapse sections of it and it was too expensive to keep repairing it. Today, there are only four arches left. The bridge is considered a landmark of the city and is designated a World Heritage Site.
There is a very famous song called On The Bridge of Avignon which dates back to the mid-1800s -although there is a similar song dating back to the 1500s. During the bike & barge trip, when I mentioned our plans to visit Avignon in two different conversations, the person began to sing the song to me both times.
The bridge extends from the city walls over the road.
After viewing the bridge, we entered the city walls again.
Our next stop was the “Palais des Papes” – or the Pope’s palace. There was a very large open square in front of it.
This is actually two buildings combined. The original one dates back to the mid-1200s. The second part was built in 1335-1355.
In 1309, Pope Clement V found the atmosphere in Rome too chaotic after his election as pope and decided to move the papal seat to Avignon. It remained there until 1375, after which the papacy was moved back to Rome.
The palaces are located next to the Avignon Cathedral. The original cathedral was built in the 12th century, but additions and changes have been made over the years.
We climbed the steps up to the cathedral and peeked inside. I thought it was quite modest as cathedrals seem to go -especially considering that Catholic Popes worshiped here.
Outside they had this overlooking the plaza beyond.
It was hard to get a picture from the front because there wasn’t much room before the wall that overlooks the plaza.
This was a building across the plaza from the Pope’s Palace. It was built in 1619 and from what I can find out, I think it was originally used as the mint. (A mint, being the place where the official coins of the government are made).
From this part of town, we started heading back in the general direction of the train station. The narrow streets had a variety of restaurants and shops.
I liked the juxtaposition of the old facade of the building with the modern restaurant frontage overlaying it.
We took the shuttle train back to the TGV station and then back to our hotel. A bit later that day, we had to walk back to the TGV station to pick up our rental car for tomorrow’s adventure!
As many of you know, Mike and I are great fans of the Tour de France coverage. My initial interest in watching the Tour was more about the scenery -especially from the helicopters- than the biking. Now it is about 50/50. One of the places I’ve seen more than once over the years when the Tour is in the Ardèche region is the Pont d’Arc. It is a large natural stone bridge carved out by the Ardèche River over time. It is a very popular kayaking and canoeing area. The helicopters provide a bird’s-eye view of the Pont d’Arc, with the river going under it and tons of paddlers standing on the beach waving their fool heads off. I had told myself that if I were ever anywhere near this area, I was going to paddle beneath the arch.
We had to drive about 50 miles into the countryside to get to the town of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc which is the headquarters for something like 45 canoe and kayak outfitters. Knowing that, I’m glad we were paddling in September…I’d hate to see the crowding they must have on the water in the summer months. The canoe outfitter I’d picked wasn’t too busy when we arrived.
The night before we paddled, I took out a small waterproof bag that I’d packed for this outing and started putting all the things we’d need for it inside. When we left that morning, I grabbed the bag, confident that we’d have everything we’d need for the day. It wasn’t until we got there, checked in and were getting our gear together that I noticed my water shoes weren’t in the bag. I asked Mike if he’d already taken them out and put them elsewhere in the car? Nope. They never made it into the bag! I’d dragged my water shoes all the way to France for this ONE afternoon of paddling …and forgotten them in the hotel room on the only day I needed them? Fortunately, the outfitter had some basic water shoes for sale since water shoes were mandatory.
We jumped in a ratty van with a hippie-ish driver (who would have looked at home working for any river outfitter anywhere in the world) and were taken to the launch spot. The van with the kayak trailer in my picture had left ahead of us with a larger group departing from the same spot. I told Mike we should probably get out on the water ahead of them if we could -just to avoid ending up in a bumper-kayak situation.
The outfitters have fixed put-ins and take-outs that allow for paddlers to travel specific distances. The shortest possible is about four miles. The longest possible descent is about thirty-six miles down the river with opportunities for camping along the way. We chose to paddle the (roughly) nine mile descent.
This was an unguided trip. They gave us a very basic print-out of the route with vague instructions like… When you see the big rock in the middle of the river, go to the left there and set us loose. When I pulled the print-out out of my pocket when we were further down the river to check the information, it was a soggy mess! We saw a few different “big rocks” in the river. Hah. Even so, we managed to get to the end in one piece!
The upper part of the descent had five dams. I knew that in Europe they often use chutes for small boats to bypass the dams. We were told to just line the kayak up with the chute opening, put the paddles in the air and slide. In the USA, there are all sorts of warning signs, buoys, and gates at the dams we’ve seen, but these dams only had the edges of the chutes to look for. They often had some yellow paint on them -but that was about it. If you miss the chute, you’re going over the dam the hard way.
So it was with trepidation that we approached our first chute, which came up quick after launching. What a blast! It was really fun. Basically it was a big cement water slide. I’d been concerned about how the kayak would handle the landing at the bottom of the chute. It was a pleasant surprise that we hit the water at the bottom of the chute smoothly without feeling like we were going to tip over or be tossed out of the kayak.
There was a spot where we could see that there was a road along the river -and the cars were going through a tunnel. After we were picked up for the shuttle back to our car, we got to experience the road. It was interesting. Mike joked… “You mean we could have driven to see the arch instead of paddling nine miles????”
After the five dams, we entered a stretch where we started getting into the rapids. The river was very shallow through the rapids -so we had to make sure we didn’t get stuck on the rocks. Luckily, it wasn’t crowded so we had space to maneuver when we did run into the rapids. I can imagine that this river can have some gnarly rapids in higher water, but it was relatively tame the day we paddled.
Toward the end of the trip, we were coming up on what looked like the most challenging set of rapids we’d seen yet and I noticed there was an awning type tent set up right in the middle of the river. I was very curious as to what it was doing there. As we wrestled our way through the rapids, I looked over and there were two photographers sitting there taking pictures of everyone going through the rapids. Just past them, where the river calmed down again, there were signs on the banks letting people know what website to go to buy their picture. Of course I had to buy our picture!
And then we came around a bend and saw the arch!
This last picture is looking upriver after we’d passed under it.
They had the take out points for the various outfitters well-signed along the shore: We needed #7. We’d told the hippie dude we’d need to be picked up in about two hours. He didn’t believe us. He said he’d pick us up after three hours, but if we got there before that to just call the office and they’d come get us. As I predicted -we finished in about two hours. When I called the telephone number (three times), I wasn’t getting any answer. I looked at the time… it was around 1:45 P.M. I said to Mike, “Based on our experience in France so far, I’m going to guess that everyone is at lunch until 2:00 PM.” There was another couple who landed shortly after us and they told me they had a pick-up time for 2:00 P.M. Thank goodness they did because that meant we got picked up at 2:00 too.
It was a really fun afternoon and it was amazing to experience a place that I’d seen on TV while watching the Tour de France.
Categories: France - Avignon