Bonjour, madames et messieurs! Bienvenue en notre retourné à France! (Bad grammar, but point being – I’m back in France!) This next blog post will cover the several cities I visited in the eponymous region, and the different things I did and saw in each. Much fun times many tourism wow.
Avignon – Neuf de Juin
Avignon is best know for being the largest township by area in France, and also for a short period (just under a century) where the Papacy left Rome and took up residence there, leading to the Great Schism. Now, this was the 14th century, when the Papacy was not only extremely wealthy, highly influential in European politics and the undivided head of European Christianity, but it also held a kingdom of its own across the north of Italy and south of France. Rome was rich and powerful essentially due to the Papacy, so when the Pope decided to leave, then stacked the College of Cardinals with Frenchmen so that he was repeatedly succeeded by French Popes, it was disastrous for the city (this is not to mention the many religious appeals to keep the Church in the place of its founding – most notably from the writer Catherine of Siena, who successfully convinced the Pope to return in the early 15th century). But it was very, very good for Avignon. This little town – still little by modern standards – suddenly became the centre of power for the Papal States, and to a significant extent the whole of Christendom. Monarchs and emperors visited the city, diplomacy and great events took place. Avignon became a very big deal. (If you want to know more about the Papal Schism that came afterwards – at one point they had three Popes at once in different cities – either talk to me or speak to my brother Aaron, who is studying it at the moment!)
The greatest survivor of this century is the monumental edifice of the Palais des Papes, built around the middle of the period. Based around a system of towers linked by galleries, the Palais housed the Pope and his attendants, the Papal treasury, and all the meetings of the curia. New popes would be elected by conclave here. It’s always hard to know what to expect coming in to a historical building of any large size. It could be beautifully restored or preserved to the peak of its splendour (Stirling Castle or Versailles), it could be something of a hodgepodge of different periods and purposes (Edinburgh Castle or the Tower of London) or it could be simply an empty husk of a building, preserved as a ruin or a cryptique bare stone edifice, fully touched by the ravages of time (Linlithgow Palace or Inchcolm Abbey). The Palais de Papes was something like the latter, but it still had a roof on and was easy to move around in, and included many signs and displays to make it more like a museum than a ruin. And farther in, there were rooms where the decoration had been painted over or otherwise preserved in the intervening centuries, and this gave a stunning glimpse of what the Popes would have walked through every day (a festival of colours and patterns from floor to ceiling). I think the lack of restoration is not so much a deliberate decision to maintain it as it stands, but a lack of funding – I know from Stirling Castle’s £12 million renovation project that bringing back the opulence of a royal palace is a very expensive undertaking, but they are restoring the Pope’s personal gardens surrounding the Palace, which are currently a dust bowl, so they can’t be that committed to leaving it how it is.
The information inside all the rooms – you can visit pretty much everywhere (27-odd rooms), which makes a nice change from a lot of places where you hit ‘private – no entry’ doors every five minutes – was well-ordered and very educational, and there was a good mix of pictures, films and models in every room. If you want to know how palaces and the Papacy worked in the period, it is excellent – plus there’s a free audio guide, which delivers what is on the signs as well as optional extras (which of course I took up :P). There was only one or two weird things that made my enjoyment wane a little: the great courtyard had been crammed with grandstand seating (I presume for the Avignon festival, but that’s not for a good month so I’m not sure) so you couldn’t go into it really; and an art exhibition had been put on in the great chapel that seemed to mostly consist of abstract renditions of nude women in a variety of positions (not disputing the artistic status of life drawing, I thought it was pretty incongruous in a palace built for the celibate). But otherwise it was a great look at the period, one which many people would know very little about. It was also refreshing after quite some time focused on Roman ruins, Islamic architecture and Gothic cathedrals in Spain to see something from the Medieval period in a different style. Also having everything in English was nice.
After leaving there, it was getting later (it was a long trip up from Barcelona so we weren’t able to get out into the city until mid-afternoon), and the only stop we had time for was the Pont de Avignon, the first bridge built across the Rhône from 1177-1185, originally nearly 1km long but now sadly reduced due to raiding barbarians and such. It was moderately interesting, but probably not worth springing for the combined ticket, and certainly not on its own – the cost to visit doesn’t get you much that looking from outside won’t.
Aside from these two main historical artefacts – and its amazingly complete old city walls – Avignon seemed a pretty standard town for the South of France – good weather, cobbled streets, cafes and shops reasonably scattered under flats of about three or four stories, a decent couple of parks, and a new town and old town. It was pleasant, but didn’t take a long time to tick off the tourist boxes. You could easily stay there for a chilled-out immersion in French culture if you were that way inclined. There’s a decent amount of live music going on most nights, too, and there’s the massive Avignon arts festival in July. I like Avignon, but I didn’t need to visit for long.
Arles and Marseilles – Dix de Juin
Although Avignon itself is not a massive tourist hub, it turns out to be a pretty good base to get out and see places that are (or that should be!). It lies right at the centre of a collection of World Heritage sites – Arles, Orange, Nimes and the Pont du Garde are all short distances from Avignon and contain amazing Roman monuments. We decided to go to Arles first, it being a 20-minute train ride away and seemingly the most crammed with Roman artefacts. It was really hot, so our attention spans were short. Getting there, we walked around and looked at the outside of a Roman theatre, baths built by Constantine, an enormous amphitheatre (theatre and amphitheatre are very different – see the photos!), and a medieval cathedral. It was enjoyable but the heat was prohibitive so we walked back up the riverside and jumped back on the train. At this point, ruins fatigue was pretty pronounced, and there was no inclination to try for the same stuff again (just possibly less impressive) in Nimes or Orange, so instead (after some kerfuffling with getting on the wrong train) we decided to go to Marseilles – a bigger city with a maritime focus should be something different. It turned out, after a ride of a couple of hours, that Marseilles is big, dirty and incredibly crowded, overall not that pleasant to be in. There was an impressive staircase up to the station with statues representing the different colonies of France that were run from Marseilles; and a history museum that would have been great had anything past 800 AD been open for business (I’m starting to think I’m cursed with restoration closings – from Saint Chappelle to Cordoba Synagogue, they’re always fixing something up!) and if the Roman ruins in the garden didn’t close at 5 when the rest of the museum closed at 7. However, the junk food was extremely numerous and quite cheap, so that was a plus. Don’t bother with Marseilles, is my advice.
Train strike – Onze de Juin
Another short write-up on this day – we planned to get to Lyon in just an hour or two but we were repeatedly messed around by an SNCF train strike, that meant we ended up taking over 7 hours, including three trains and two buses and hours of waiting in between. By the time we made it, there was so much heat and botheration that the day was a complete write-off.
Lyon – Douze de Juin
Despite being foiled on having two days, the second day was definitely going to be a success. We left early in the morning, walking down the hill towards Old Lyon. Lyon as a whole is a nice city – decently large enough to have a functioning public transport system and good infrastructure, as well as an old town that is very agreeable, a shopping district and a financial district. It is entirely liveable. Highlights of the visit are photographed below – the Musee Miniature et Cinema (an absolutely unique experience that is a must see), the Notre Dame de Fouviere (the most attractive cathedral I’ve seen in Europe, though it was built in 1870 so not really historic) and others.
One highlight I didn’t get a shot of was getting into some of the lolly and biscuit shops in the Old Town – they are expensive but get into the pick-and-mix and they are amazing. There’s a kind of thick round one that comes in bright colours – get the brightest because the flavours are strongest. Otherwise that’s about it! Do ask me questions about my trip, if you’re interested in coming to these places. Bye for now!