07 July 2008

Rolling on the (Rhône) River

"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
They are dancing, they are dancing
On the bridge of Avignon
They are dancing all around"
- Chorus from Sur le Pont d'Avignon, 15th century French chanson, traditional

Another weekend during my summer of study in Paris and I found myself once again without plans. I decided to head south on another solo journey. This time to my favorite part of France: Provence
After getting out the map and train schedule I saw that the TGV Méditerranée line (southern high speed rail) could take me from 
Paris Gare-de-Lyon to Avignon in just over 2-1/2 hours. Not bad for covering 465 miles. I had never been to Avignon, and was excited to spend an entire weekend alongside the Rhône river.

After class on Friday afternoon I took the métro to the train station and bought a round trip ticket. I was in Avignon before evening. As I didn't have a reservation I decided the first thing to do was find a place to stay. From the train station I walked into the old town and began to poke around for a hostel. The first few that I stopped in were full. I stopped in at a tourist information kiosk and found out that the Festival d'Avignon was taking place that weekend - one of the oldest and biggest arts and music festivals in all of France. Hmmm... not the best time to be there without a reservation. I inquired further and was told that there might be room at a youth hostel/campground outside the city on an island in the river. Being outside the city was not what I wanted, but the idea of being on an island in the river was intriguing. It was a hot trek in the late afternoon/early evening sun to get out of the city and across a bridge to the island. The hostel wasn't open yet and I had to wait a while, as more and more travelers contiued to show up. Eventually they unlocked the doors, and I was lucky enough to get a bed in a dorm style room. Many of the people that arrived after me had to continue their search elsewhere.

Once I got my pack settled in and paid the fee, I had a look around the Ile de la Barthelasse. It was a long island that followed the bend of the Rhône across from the mainland. It had magnificent views of the city just across the water. The medieval city walls rose up from the far bank and to the north was the broken remnant of the Pont d'Avignon - the famous medieval bridge that now only spanned halfway across the river. Behind the walls towered the imposing Palais des Papes - the palace of the Popes, home of the head of the Catholic church after Pope Clement V moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon in 1309. Off in the distance, the "Giant of Provence" - Mont Ventoux, rose into the sky, it's bald crown reaching for the heavens. I decided this had been a very opportune find.

As the sun was setting I made my way back across the modern bridge and into town. I found a small, out-of-the-way bistro that had an empty table in the corner. I started off with a Lillet apértif and a cold tomato-melon soup seasoned with olive oil and basil. I then had an excellent dinner of roast lamb scented with lavender, lentils, and fresh baked bread with olive oil. Since the vinery was just up the road, I splurged and ordered a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. After dinner I wandered the twisted lanes and small alleys of the old town. It was ancient and breathtakingly beautiful. It was July and after the hot day the warm summer evening felt inviting. The sky was a deep midnight blue and the stars shown out like diamonds. The moon was just beginning to rise behind the timeworn city walls. Art exhibits, painters, jugglers, acrobats, and impromptu musical performances were around ever corner. People were out strolling, holding hands and laughing. I ached for my fiancé. I stopped at a small bar to enjoy a Ricard pastis. I leaned against the bar rail and watched the human theater unwind before me. I ordered a simple bottle of Côtes du Rhône to take with me. Once back across on the island I didn't feel like turning in just yet. I walked down to the water's edge and sat down on the soft grass under an old, gnarled Willow tree. Now that it was full dark the walls and towers of Avignon were lit up across the river. I laid there on the grass with the fragrant night enveloping me in a warm embrace and sipped the dry red wine. The crooked and delicate branches hung down to frame the spectacle of the slow-moving river, the old city, and the moon and the stars. Lulled into a sense of serenity and peace, I drifted off to sleep...
KJT - Avignon, France (2000)