Thursday, September 2, 2010

Avignon

On Thursday, August 5, I took the train down from Brussels to Avignon.  It was a long ride (5+ hours), but relatively uneventful.  I got into the Avignon TGV station, then took a bus to the Avignon Centre station, which was a five minute walk from my hotel. I checked in around 9:00 pm.  That was a hard night for me.  It was my first evening on my own, and it was hard to go from staying with a family and a close friend to being in a strange town where I knew no one so entirely by myself.  Making it harder were the facts that (a) I didn't have a cell phone yet, and (b) I had no way to connect to the internet.  Being so alone just made everything feel more overwhelming and difficult, and it made the rest of my trip seem impossibly long.

For a little background, I planned out my entire trip - the whole month of travel around France followed by a week in Paris - with a good friend.  He is French, and his family has a car that he assured me we would be able to borrow to drive all over the country.  After a lot of discussion and planning, I bought my flight in June.  A few weeks before I left at the end of July, he contacted me to tell me he was too busy to do the whole trip with me, and he would only be able to join me for 3 weeks.  Given my new situation, I decided to buy a Eurail pass and do half of the trip on my own by train.  Thank goodness I did, because within the week before I left the US, my friend again contacted me, this time to say he wouldn't be able to come at all.  So, to bring us back to the point, I had never planned to do this trip alone.  I don't think I ever would have had the idea to, on my own, take six weeks to trek across Europe and visit over 20 cities - it is a huge undertaking.  So being so completely, terribly, terrifyingly alone my first night in Avignon was something I was pretty completely unprepared for - and it was rough.

Friday, 6 August

A good night's sleep makes everything better.  I had a lot of errands to run in the morning: finally getting my French cell phone working (which required buying a new SIM card), visiting the tourist office for a map, finding an cybercafé, finding lodging for Saturday night, buying a train ticket to Orange and reserving my next Eurail trip (from Aix en Provence to Lyon), and most importantly, finding some breakfast.  For the last one, I stopped in a little boulangerie and picked up a gourmand chocolat orange:

Gourmand chocolat orange
It was a small loaf of bread, maybe six inches long, dotted with pepins au chocolat (chocolate chips) and small pieces of candied orange rind.  The orange flavor permated throughout the bread - not a bad start to my gastronomic experience in Provence.

After running all my errands, it was about 1 pm and time for lunch.  A café just around the corner from the cybercafé advertised a Lou Provençau:


Lou Provençau
A sandwich with a tapenade verte (green olive spread), poichichade maison (a spread made from chickpeas, garlic, lemon, olive oil, and herbs, made in-house), grilled eggplant, jambon cru (a cured, uncooked ham), fresh goat cheese, tomato, and lettuce.  Hello, flavors of Provence!  The tapenade was definitely the strongest flavor, but it was not overpowering, and each element added nicely to the whole - the smokiness of the ham, the tanginess of the goat cheese, the crustiness of the bread... This is what I came to France for: fresh, local flavors.

I had a little time before my train ride to Orange for the evening, where I had tickets for a concert that night - more about that soon. I spent a little time exploring the city.

Avignon's major historical significance was it's role as the home of seven popes during the Avignon Papacy.  But what people know best about Avignon is not its religious significance, but that we dance on the bridge, thanks to the well-known children's song Sur le Pont d'Avignon.

Sur le pont d'Avignon, l'on y danse, l'on y danse
Sur le pont, d'Avignon, l'on y danse tous en rond
On the bridge of Avignon, there we dance... all around

The bridge referred to in the song is pont St-Bénezet, which still stands today...


...mostly.


The bridge had been out of use since the middle of the 17th century after a major flood.  Today, only 4 of the original 22 arches remain, and the bridge is only a tourist attraction.

But there's no time for visiting partial bridges today!  I had a train to catch.  Turning back to the city, you can see that the medieval walls still stand around the city today.  As in olden times, the only ways to get into the city are at the gates through the walls:


Pretty cool.

I spent that evening in Orange, where I met up with my very close friend from college, Justine, for an amazing concert in a Roman theater.... but that is a story for another post.  So for now, I'll skip ahead to

Saturday, 7 August

After a slow morning getting ready and checking email (thank goodness for laptops and wifi), Justine and I set out to explore the city.  We visited Les Halles, the covered market, and picked up a baguette aux céréales - whole-grain baguette - which we ate outside in Place Pie. Afterwards, we headed over to the flower market, which happened to sell not only flowers, but also had a few fruit and vegetable stands, where we got some perfect juicy, ripe peaches.  If I had to pick my favorite thing about France, it's the markets - so much good produce!

We started wandering somewhat at random, and found a staircase that wound its way up behind the papal palace, which still stands today in the middle of town.  The staircase let up to the "Promenade des papes," another hill to climb which set you on top of the city and afforded a pretty incredible view of the surrounding area:



There was a café at the top of the hill in a nice park with a koi pond (all totally authentic to how it was when the popes lived here, I'm sure).  We decided to stop for a quick café to write out a few postcards.

My first expresso in France in 2010!
After soaking in the view (and the caffeine), we descended back down the hill and came around to the main open area in front of the papal palace.  The heart of this square is inhabited by an enormous, seemingly precarious upside-down elephant, a fun juxtaposition next to the regal austerity of the papal complex.  Though I've never been to the Vatican, I doubt you find such playfulness there - what a pity.

Justine and elephant - can you guess which is which?

Though I would have loved to visit the papal palace as well, we had limited time and decided to devote our attentions to the famous pont, so we headed that way... but first we had to stop for some glace à la lavande (lavendar ice cream):
 
glace à la lavande

Though I didn't see any of Provence's famous lavendar fields up close and personal, I felt I tasted them with this refreshing treat, which was sweet and floral and had a beautiful but not overpowering lavendar flavor.  Perfect for a hot day!

We also stopped to pick up a couple of souvenirs - I got some herbes de Provence, a classic mixture of dried herbs including savory, fennel seed, basil, and thyme.  Such a strong, gorgeous aroma - I can't wait to cook with them!

Finally, we got to the bridge.


The reduced entrance fee (for students) was a little over 3E, and included the audioguide.  The bridge had a beautiful view over the river and of the papal complex sitting on its hill - but obviously the real reason to visit the bridge is to dance.

Sur le pont d'Avignon, l'on y danse tous en rond
The audioguide informed us that no one ever danced on the bridge as it was too narrow; instead, they danced underneath the bridge.  But that doesn't make for nearly so good a song, or picture for that matter.

After a little dancing, we headed back to our hotel to collect our bags and head for the train station to go to Aix-en-Provence.  But I couldn't resist just one more stop on the way: a pâtisserie called Péchés Gourmands, filled with all kinds of local goodies, including navettes, calissons d'Aix, nougats, fruits confits, and many others... I got a couple of fruits confits: clementine,


and apricot (which was not nearly so photogenic.)  They were whole fruits (skin or peel and all), with the seeds removed, that had been preserved in sugar.  The apricot had a crisp sugary exterior that crackled and split when you bit into it, and tasted like a fabulous jar of apricot jelly.  The clementines were still in their peels, and tasted like orange marmalade.  The peel was a little chewy, but once you bit through it the interior was super juicy.

I also bought a navette:


Navettes were originally made in Marseille, and I'll have more to say about them soon.  This one was crisp and a little flaky, and flavored with orange - a nice, basic cookie.

We had a train to Marseille and then a connection to Aix, but unfortunately our first train was delayed over an hour so we ended up spending a lot of time waiting in the Avignon train station.  We missed our original train to Aix, and had about 45 minutes in Marseille before we could catch the next one.  While in town, we went to a grocery to pick up what was, if not my best meal in France, undoubtedly my classiest:


Apple, Brie, toasts of brioche, a Cotes du Rhone, and two liters of water, all for under 4E, eaten on the train - that's pretty hard to beat.

Thanks for your patience as I slowly make my way through writing about this trip... I will be back to the US in a couple of weeks, and then I promise I'll be better about getting posts up more quickly!

Coming soon: Orange, and the incredible concert

A bientôt,

2 comments:

Kate said...

Val! Thank you so much for your postcard(s)! I love all of your pictures. Especially the ones on the bridge!!! I can't wait to talk to you. Enjoy your final days. xoxox Kate

I need orange said...

I can't wait to see the rest of your pics, either. :-)