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Published: June 10th 2017
Geo: 43.9486, 4.80597
It is August already, and our last days on this tour are being spent in ancient Avignon. I have wanted to come here for decades, since a slightly older friend of mine (she was a junior in college, but I was still in high school) spent a semester studying in southern France. Her travels were unreachable for me back then, impossible financially, and, at that time in my life, mentally as well, although I could vividly imagine all the wonders she described, places that I dearly wanted to experience for myself. As a teenager the way I travelled during the summers was by hitchhiking, expanding my borders by hitchhiking all the way north to Canada, and south to Kentucky, with friends I'd met (as a counselor) at summer camp or even a few just here and there. It was relatively safe back then; I never got into any trouble hitchhiking, and met some very interesting people. But that is a different story in the distant past.
Avignon is absolutely magical. It is one of the last cities in Europe surrounded by ramparts. The Palais des Papes, Palace of the Popes, hovers over the city, intensifying the feeling of stepping far back in time, although the large ferris wheel just across the street from our riverboat made for a strange and unusual juxtaposition. To step into the city one needs to enter through an opening doorway in the ramparts, crossing narrow cobblestone streets that cars and motorcycles roar and race through. On our first afternoon in Avignon Bill and I began to explore the city, climbing up to the lovely gardens above the Palais, looking out over the Rhone River and identifying the Pont de Avignon (also known as Pont Saint-Benezet), the truncated bridge famous from the children's nursery rhyme: "Sur le Pont d'Avignon, Tout le Monde y danse danse..." The song keeps running through my head, but at least now I know one version of the French words; many lyrics have been written since the 14th century but this is the one I like best.
We continued walking through the streets, enjoying the center square with restaurants galore, shops, and another carousel. The French love carousels, it seems. This one had two levels, with ancient horses and other animals, sleighs for the less adventurous or very young, and interesting music. We walked along, listening to the tinny songs played on their calliope. It was indeed very pleasant! And we found ourselves on Rue de la Republique, one of the shopping streets that are always packed full of people, either shopping, or wanting to be seen, or both. We are not shoppers, but the Office de Tourisme was at the far end, and that was our destination. I always want to learn as much as possible about the places we visit, and sometimes the local guides do not offer enough to satisfy me, so we picked up brochures and flyers, maps and information about possible places to investigate the next afternoon. And we did stop into a market to buy some good French mustard (Moutarde au Cassis de Dijon), olives noires, and, of course, dark chocolate. Such delights!
The next morning our groups had tours with local guides, but in our meanderings the day before the two of us had already visited most of the places the guide took our group. But in the afternoon Bill and I went on our own to explore the enormous Palais des Papes. Winding through hidden corridors, climbing up and down secret stairways (not so secret any longer, as hordes of visitors come to see this magnificent palace), marveling at the enormous chapels, the chambers of the popes who lived here, the vast rooms where banquets were held, where people's petitions were heard, through rooms whose walls still held centuries-old painted murals, walking on wondrous ancient floors made of colored tiles, climbing from the cellars up to the high rooftops: this was where popes walked, slept, made important decisions. Traipsing through this palace was something I sometimes have dreams about: walking through inviting doorways that suddenly appear in what had been solid walls, exploring narrow passageways with twistings and turnings offering other routes to take, running through endless openings promising excitement and adventure, always beckoning me onward, opportunities to explore the unknown. And I take each and every turn. These are fantastic dreams, but in this extraordinary Palais des Papes, they were reality for all who lived here. I would love to be let loose in this palace, to be able to pass through the roped off stairways, corridors and rooms, to explore without restrictions, perhaps to sleep here one night (impossible!), to feel the energy here not just for a few hours' visit but to actually live it firsthand. At the end, of course we had to leave. But, a comforting thought: more explorations lie ahead; untold wonders await!
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