With its Euro-centric location, its relatively open borders, and its wealth of natural and cultural wonders, it’s really not surprising that France stands out as the most visited country in the world.
For all of these reasons and more, France became the focal point for our month-long road trip around Europe.
France boasts an incredible 41 UNESCO World Heritage sites, and the history teacher in me couldn’t help but plan a route that would allow us to visit as many as possible. So, after our tour of Le Cité de Carcassonne, we ventured to the historical hub that is Avignon.
Some of my favorite stories center around the intrigue and deception that was Avignon in the 1300s. Popes who imprison and murder kings. Kings who exact revenge and tear at the very fabric of medieval Catholicism. Competing popes who denounce each other as anitpopes and excommunicate each other’s supporters. For a brief period, every Christian was technically condemned to hell for following a rival pope.
And Avignon sits right in the center of all that delicious history.
In desperate need of some rest and guaranteed air conditioning, we decided to spend a couple of days in Avignon, staying at an Ibis Budget Hotel just inside the ancient city walls that skirt along the eastern bank of the Rhône River.
We were within walking distance of the Palais des Papes, that renowned seat of heresy, or legitimacy, depending on your politics. We ventured through twisting, cobblestone-mosaic medieval streets, enjoying baguettes and pastries created from timeless recipes that smelled too good to pass up. Milling through street performers, organized tour groups, and skateboarders who somehow navigated the rough roads with ease. A mix of the very old with the very new that had a dizzying effect.
Skateboard kids lounging where pikemen once stood rigid at attention.
The palace itself is a grand and austere thing, with an imposing facade designed to intimidate as it impresses, with cross-shaped meurtrières guarding the entrance and a host of formidable buildings surrounding the courtyard. Once the lodging for lesser religious officers, these structures now house high-end hotels, restaurants, and coffee shops.
On this day, the shade was scarce and the heat oppressive. We wandered to the north end of the palace and through a side gate that led to a rocky hillock known as Rocher des Doms. Capped by wonderful, lush gardens that include several fountains and a splendid little café, this peaceful place served as the cradle of civilization for Avignon. Artifacts from the neolithic period have been found here, evincing that the site of Avignon has been inhabited for 12,000 years.
But the papal palace is only one of four UNESCO World Heritage sites within a thirty-minute drive from the walls of Avignon, the others being the triumphal arch of Orange, the Pont-du-Gard aqueduct, and the Arles amphitheater. We had some history to see!
We first drove north to the commune of Orange. Once a powerful provincial city of Rome, Orange now claims just over 30,000 residents. But the vestiges of the city’s Roman power remain in the form of several heritage sites, including a well-preserved amphitheater and a triumphal arch that still welcomes visitors with a demonstration of Rome’s ancient reach.
Next we looped to the southwest for a visit to the Pont-du-Gard, a Roman aqueduct dating from the first century A.D. Admittedly, none of us were initially excited about the stop. It was a UNESCO site, so that was enough for us to make the journey, but the thought of an aqueduct just didn’t seem too thrilling.
Like so often happens during travel, however, the lowest expectations often deliver the greatest rewards.
In a word, the Pont-du-Gard is amazing! It is a massive, well-preserved, and accessible structure. You can walk its length and swim in the Gardon River beneath its central arches. Kayak tours cruise along the length of the river and local kids leap from the low cliffs along the river banks.
Even the accompanying museum was intriguing.
We are not typically museum people. I mean, we enjoy an art museum, but those that focus on artifacts seem a bit sad to me. Important, precious things taken from their place in time and space to be put on display, sterilized and undervalued. Like a museum of natural history where the animal eyes that look back at you are cold, distant, and dead.
Such was not the case with this museum, however. It was beautiful, dark, and playful. Instead of bringing artifacts into a modern world, this museum transported the visitor to an ancient time in a way that both informed and entertained. Even the children wandering among the vignettes spoke in hushed tones.
We enjoyed the Pont-du-Gard site and museum so much, in fact, that time got away from us. We emerged from the cool, dark museum to a quickly setting sun. Unfortunately, that meant we would be unable to visit the Roman amphitheater in Arles on this trip.
Our time in and around Avignon was done, and we had dinner plans that evening with our dear friends in Marseilles. Arles would have to wait for another time.