I don’t generally recommend that anyone spend only twenty-four hours anywhere. You don’t get much of a feel for a place when you whisk in and out and only take in “the major sites.”
That said, I’m becoming less and less of a city traveler as time goes on, and European cities in particular seem to wear on me. During my recent trip to Spain and France, I spent almost all of my time in towns with populations under 1000 people. That worked spectacularly well for me; I could go on long runs out the front door, chat with old ladies in the streets, and generally move at a slower pace.
I did, however, think that I needed to check out one large French city, and the one I chose was Avignon. I knew that it was one of few European cities that has kept its Medieval ramparts intact, and like everyone else in the western world, I had heard songs about “Le Pont d’Avignon” since my childhood. Besides, the four million people that visit the city each year couldn’t all be wrong, could they? Those seemed like reasons enough to muster up the courage required for an urban mission.
Courage was indeed required for this mission. I was in a rental car, and I had decided that if I was going to see a walled city, I might as well stay inside that walled city – always a risky move when you’re affiliated with an automobile. On top of that, Avignon’s streets are some of the most perplexing ones I have encountered. They are so narrow that you are forced to fear for the integrity of your side mirrors – even in a subcompact car. Names of these alley-like pathways change every two blocks (see directions below), at a minimum, and not all of the streets are signed. The streets that are signed aren’t always labeled with the same names that Google Maps has for them. Individual blocks are not always straight; some of the roads change trajectories halfway through a block. And, it pretty much goes without saying that all of them are one-way.
As an additional obstacle, about ten percent of the streets in Avignon host some sort of public works project. There are no warnings posted on these roads, so partway down one, you might find yourself looking at a huge hole in the Medieval cobblestone surface marked only by a single sawhorse. To extricate yourself from one of these encounters, you must drive in reverse back to the intersection from whence you came.
Parking is a big deal all over Europe, and I wasn’t so naïve as to think that I could avoid the 20-Euros-for-24-hours-6-story-parking-garage expenditure. Knowing this, I had written down elaborate instructions to one of the two parking garages located inside the walled city. These directions became completely useless the moment I passed through the 9th century fortifications. Luckily, there were occasional signs pointing to my destination, so, despite driving around in circles a few times, nearly hitting several pedestrians, and getting scowled at by several other drivers, the process was not too bad.
Believe it or not, my travel trauma was more the result of the walk from the parking garage to the hotel. It should have been a four-block journey, and, being the diligent navigator that I am, I had even written down explicit directions for it. Just like the driving directions, these too were completely useless. I wandered the neighborhood for almost thirty minutes in search of the “La Rue Banasterie,” asking three different shop clerks where the street was located. No one knew. Since all three of those shops turned out to be within two blocks of the hotel, I’m not sure if I chose my clerks poorly or if my French pronunciation was so bad that “I don’t know” was the reply they determined most likely to get rid of me.
In the end, I just walked in circles enough to eventually run into La Rue Banasterie. I made my way up that road towards the hotel of the same name, a totally charming six-room place with narrow winding staircases and cozy little sitting rooms. My room was equipped with a half dozen locally-made artisan chocolates which I wolfed down like a famine victim. Then I collapsed on the bed.
There’s not much rest for the weary when the weary only have twenty-four hours in town, so, shortly thereafter, I headed out to the Palais de Papes (Palace of the Popes), the most famous site in Avignon and the seat of the Roman Catholic Papacy between 1309 and 1377.
Apparently, this Gothic construction was the largest building in the western world in the 14th century, and here in the 21st century, it is still pretty darn imposing. Its area is nearly 120,000 square feet, and its limestone walls are seventeen feet thick. While most of the interior walls are now bare, they were at one time completely covered in paintings. If the few panels that remain are exemplary of all of them, they were brightly colored, busy, and incredibly ornate. Like St. Peter’s in Vatican City, this building was clearly constructed to make a statement about power and authority.
Just a few blocks from the Palais de Papes is the infamous Pont d’Avignon, or Pont Saint Benezet. This stone bridge was originally built across the wide Rhône River sometime in the 12th century, although it is possible that a Roman bridge previously existed in this spot. According to legend, the voice of Jesus Christ told Saint Benezet to have the bridge built, and he headed up a group of people who assisted him in executing this vision. The bridge originally had twenty-two arches, but only four remain; this is why the bridge only extends part of the way into the water, adding to the quirky and iconic appearance of the Avignon “skyline.”
While I’m glad I had chance to visit these UNESCO World Heritage sites, I had a far better time cruising the narrow alleys of Avignon on foot. Away from the “big draws,” I found unusual door knockers, hidden churches, and random little murals. I also found an overwhelming amount of high-end clothing stores and Provence-themed home goods boutiques which I rapidly steered myself away from.
Ironically, the highlight of Avignon for me was the food, even though I never set foot in one of the city’s renowned restaurants. I found two places that made me very happy. The first was a bakery called Violette. Their fougasse with baked in chèvre quite possibly saved my day after braving the school groups swarming the Palais de Papes, and, unlike most French bakeries, they actually had a good selection of muffins and quickbreads (I’m not much of a croissant and napolean girl, so most French bakeries don’t have that jaw-dropping effect on me). The other magical spot was the market at Les Halles, located on the bottom floor of the same parking garage I had been seeking during my drive into the city. Les Halles has a hanging garden on its exterior, and its interior holds about forty merchants selling everything from fresh fish and vegetables to curries and eggplant parmasans to go. Just what I needed.
After stocking up on provisions at Les Halles, I rode the elevator up to my car, took a deep breath, and prepared for a walled city escape attempt. This time, I didn’t even bother to write down directions – although, I had a printed map which helped me to at least orient myself towards one of the openings in the thick stone walls. I pointed the car down the street and followed the exit signs. I might have made it out in under five minutes were it not for one of those open manhole covers with a single piece of metal fencing in front of it. I didn’t run it over James Bond-style, although I wanted to. I backed up, went around, and got out another way about ten minutes later. Sitting through four rounds of red lights outside the walled city was actually a pleasure – I got a chance to breathe again.
Then I pointed the rental car towards the Luberon, Provence’s mecca of regional parkland and small towns – just where I belonged. City mission accomplished. Phew.