Avignon (Provence) France

Of course, when we first think of Provence, we think of lavender, sunflowers and sitting under a plane tree drinking rosé while munching on olives from the market and cooling off by the fountain. Unfortunately, the lavender and sunflowers are harvested in mid-August and we were in Provence in mid-September, but fall days are glorious in their own right, sun kissed days and walking in history’s footsteps.

The other thing you quickly learn about Provence is its gale force winds. Mistral winds are cold, dry and blow through the Rhone valley on their way to the Mediterranean. We explored the area around Avignon and the Isle de Barthelasse by bike, but the long, hilly vineyard rides were left to David while Karen bought a new sweater and sipped hot chocolate. David battled the winds, thankful for an electric motor on his bike.

Home to seven successive popes, Avignon is the heart of the medieval Christian world, scene of several sieges, this unique palace played a vital role in European history and has UNESCO World Heritage status. From 1309 to 1376, Popes based their court in Avignon instead of Rome; their legacy is a monumental building and the world’s biggest Gothic Palace (the Vatican of France) along side Notre Dame des Doms, the St Peter’s Cathedral of its day. It is impressive in its architecture, even today. The now partial bridge lead directly into the lands and city controlled by the Vatican. It was for many years the only stone bridge along the 186 mile stretch of the Rhône between Lyon and the Mediterranean. So if you elect to cross it, the Vatican would know who you are, what you are transporting, and would collect a tariff. Like other medieval towns, you can imagine toll takers collecting their fees, merchants and peasants passing on the cobblestone streets, people collecting water from the well in the square, meat roasting in the fireplaces, and sumptuous banquets in the great hall.

The evening at the Popes Palace is where magic happens. In a 360° screening that lights up the medieval walls of the inner courtyard, an extraordinary 3D light show reviews the dramatic history of the Avignon Popes and the central role of the Palace. It makes history, the Hundred Years War, the mafia, the royal guests, come alive and explains the human and political dynamics of WHY the Papal Palace was built in France, and WHY it was compelled to return to Rome. It was the finest sound and light show I have ever seen.

Our time in Avignon was short, and very windy. We are constantly reminded that you need to make choices . . . You could wander around France for a year and still not see it all, but we did come to a new and profound appreciation for rosé wine and sitting in a small cafe enjoying your days.

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