Thursday, 21 June 2007
Distance 17 km
Duration 3 hours 55 minutes
Ascent 63 m, descent 160 m
Map 66 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
Making our normal start at 6:50 am, we had no choice but the highway to get into Avignon, but at that hour the traffic was mild. We descended steeply, crossed over the great river of cars that was the A7, then under the railway line and into the grey streets of Morières.
Just as the traffic was getting heavy and the roadside verge was shrinking away, we noticed a cycle path signposted to Montfavet, a district a little to the south.
This turned out a wonderful success, taking us by a tree-lined path due west towards the centre of Avignon. It eventually ran into the Rue de la Folie, which continued over the ring-road and straight to the massive walls of the old town, damaged but still impressive.
Through an archway and some unromantic alleys, we arrived at the Place des Halles, distinguished by a large modern building entirely clad with living plants. There were bars and a boulangerie, so we had an excellent second breakfast there at 9 o’clock, in the company of a few locals.
Penetrating further, we soon found ourselves in tourist land at the Palace of the Popes, whose wide forecourt was already filling with tour groups.
Beyond that we got down to the river and saw the bridge for which Avignon is famous, the original crossing point that had made the town rich. It was built in the twelfth century, when it was the only bridge over the Rhône between Lyon and the Mediterranean.
It suffered frequent collapses and was finally abandoned after the great flood of 1668 swept most of it away. Now only four of the original twenty-two arches still stand, jutting out uselessly into the water like an amputated leg.
Remembering one of our golden rules, we went back into the town to look for the Office of Tourism rather than dashing off impulsively to the camping ground, visible across the river. We also wanted to send an email.
The Palace of the Popes was now a seething mass of visitors. It was nearly 700 years since the papacy moved its operation from Rome to Avignon, and just about 600 since the last pope was expelled. The power and influence of the French kings, and the Vatican’s desire to get away from the infighting in Rome were responsible for the original move.
All the Avignon popes were French, including the two so-called antipopes, who resided there after the move back to Rome in 1378, in competition with the ones in Rome.
In the fashionable Rue de la République, I asked a woman at a market stall where to find the Office of Tourism. Taking me by the arm, she marched me into the centre of the road and pointed to a distant stand of trees.
This saved us a good deal of thrashing about and we were soon the possessors of a pile of maps and brochures, as well as a list of cybercafés. After sending our bulletin we returned to the riverbank to eat our simple lunch of bread and cheese and salad.
There were three camping grounds in Avignon, all on an island in the Rhône opposite where we were having our picnic. We went over to the nearest one, right next to the bridge, a big place reminiscent of the one in Paris, with a bar, a restaurant and a gîte in the grounds.
We were assigned to a raised area inaccessible to cars, with all the cyclists (there were no other walkers that we saw).
As we lay in the shade for our afternoon rest, we were aware of a muffled caterwauling, which turned out to be a contribution to the Fête de la Musique which was taking place.
Later the volume increased greatly and we walked along the grassy riverbank in an effort to get away from the din, but no amount of distance seemed to dull the sound. The group had speakers like wardrobes connected to their synthesisers and were playing to half a dozen blank-eyed youths.
Later we had a drink at the little bar in the camping ground and met a group of young Australians doing their first tour of Europe with a company called Busabout.
They could get off the bus at certain fixed points (Paris, Rome, Barcelona, Vienna, etc) and pick up the next bus whenever they wanted to, but food and accommodation were for them to find. They were aghast that we were on foot.
One of them consumed a full plate of chips and a pint of beer while we were chatting, and the theme of his conversation was the price of beer and cigarettes in the different countries they had visited.
We left them to it and went back over the bridge. Inside the ramparts the squares were a sea of eateries. We ended up in the Place de l’Horloge, a long, tree-covered square with the slightly squalid liveliness of a fairground.
The fifteen or so cafés packed along the edge each had a long outdoor strip, divided from its neighbours by a low plastic partition, and each had a spruiker proclaiming its unique virtues to the mass of humanity shuffling past. It was like an auction in the cattleyards, and was accompanied by an ear-splitting band with more enthusiasm than skill.
There was little to choose between the eateries, but we settled on one which offerred ratatouille as well as frites with the inevitable steak.
For €13 we also got a first course of onion soup and crudités, and a dessert of icecream and coffee. The streets were jammed with strolling couples as we made our contented way back to the camping ground.