Orange and Avignon
January 15, 2002
(Written January 19)
Dear Friends and Family,
Saturday morning, we left Lyon on the express tollway south and saw our first signs to "Barcelona". It really felt like we were on the road again. We were headed toward Avignon and all the history and art of Provence. I'd even caught up on writing these diaries within a week or so of the events. Great.
The road out of Lyon is pretty industrial. I got excited at seeing one or two of France's big nuclear power stations off to the side but Marianne just saw industrial pollution. No vision. However, as we entered Provence, the scenery changed. It was drier and reminded us of California. The hills were dotted with farms, vineyards and ancient castles and ruins.
At lunchtime, we stopped in Orange and ate an excellent Vietnamese (Indochinese?) food next to the old Roman theater. (Picture #1) We hadn't planned a tour stop so we just looked in from the outside. Later we read that the theater at Orange is one of the best-preserved Roman theatres in all of Europe and not to be missed. Another lesson we must relearn: don't hurry past what we'd come to see.
Less than an hour later we drove through the walls of Avignon. We started our routine search for lodging. Our guidebook-recommended a place, the Medieval Hotel, which sounded and looked interesting, but they were closed for vacation. Chalk one up for the downside of off-season travel. We looked at one or two other charming places (charming means "in old run-down buildings or shabby chic") but ended up at a Mercur hotel. This is a French chain of nice modern hotels normally outside our budget. But here off-season helped, as did a two-for one deal for seniors in which two people 55 or over could stay for the price of a single. We believe this was the first concrete benefit of our newly acquired senior status. Anyway, we were comfortable and settled and ready to tour.
Thumbnail history: Avignon has been settled since the earliest days of the Roman empire but was arguably most famous in the 14th century when it was the seat of a half-dozen Roman Catholic popes. It was a time of turmoil and conflict and the "Papal See", as the Catholic command and control organization was called, left Rome to seek safety elsewhere. Avignon was part of the papal lands of Provence and there they strengthened the existing walls and built a large and sturdy palace. Over the years they added a church and eventually, another palace. The Pope made wine at his up-river dacha in Chateauneuf, a region now called Chateaunuef de Papes and justifiably famous for good wine.
On Sunday, we accomplished a "maximum tourist" day: art museums and historic sites for six or eight hours straight. We normally can't handle this much, but in off-season Avignon it was a breeze. We started with the Musee Lapidaire. This wonderful collection of Grecian and Roman stoneworks is set in a medieval church. The stone heads, statues and such were fun. Seeing a number of Etruscan urns we could not help but laugh, remembering the old Marx Brothers joke: "What's an Etruscan urn? About $2.50 an hour." Bad joke but we couldn't stop laughing. We're simple folks.
From urns we moved on to modern art in the Musee Angledon and the Collection Y. Lambert. Everything was special but I was particularly taken by the Soy Art installation. I think Marianne has a talent for this medium although for the life of me I could not tell if this was serious art or not. No matter, we enjoyed both museums. Somewhere back in Berlin we had vowed "no more installations" but here we had entire museums to ourselves and we could laugh and joke while trying to understand exactly what the brave artists were trying to convey. Rockwell it ain't.
From art museums we moved on to the Palais du Pape, the Pope's Palace. This Avignon centerpiece is most impressive. Inside there are a number of clues into the 14th century life here. Central was the treasury, where a dozen clerks worked to keep track of taxes from various papal lands. Hidden beneath floor stones were the gold, silver and valuables that constituted the base of transportable papal power. Besides the treasury vault, the most impressive rooms were the huge dinning and meeting halls. Each was the scene of elaborate ceremonies and formal gatherings that served to strengthen the bonds between powerful bishops and cardinals with their pope.
From the highest platform on the palace, there was a wonderful view of the palace walls and the neighboring church. Below were the later "Small (Petit) Palace", the bridge "Pont Saint-Benezet and, across the Rhone, the 10th Century Saint Andre Fort.
We took a few dozen pictures from up here and left only as the sun was going down and we realized we needed to see the old bridge itself. When we got to the bridge, we realized we were too late to take yet more pictures of the Palais du Pape, but we were rewarded with a wonderful sunset, nonetheless.
We ended our perfect tourist day with a pleasant French meal. I can't even remember what the delicacies were but I do remember that, after running around for a long day, the fine dining was a welcome opportunity to stop, sit, and remark that this was a good day.
On Monday, we went out for a drive in the countryside, but that's the next story.
Take care. Stay in touch. And be in place for those good days when they come around.
John and Marianne.
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