“Fools for Avignon” – by Debbie Ambrous

IMG_9247-1April 1, 2016 – A few days ago when I was planting marigolds, zinnias and verbena, I heard the birds singing: “Skinny, skinny, skinny …Pretty, pretty, pretty…” No, it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke! My hearing isn’t what it used to be, but I heard the birdies’ warbling to me as I dug holes for my flowers, kneeling on the ground, wearing my big straw sunhat.

Today, only an April Fool would attempt planting flowers in Alabama with severe weather alerts of flash flooding and possible tornadoes. With one eye on the keyboard and the other on the weather channel, I thought it would be a good day to write about Avignon, the chief city of Vaucluse and gateway to Provence. Obviously, we had to visit. But husband Jim and I went there rather by accident for our first discovery of this medieval city.

October, 2015 – Our intended destination was a bit north of Avignon. We followed our Google map directions, and everything was cool until we reached the overpass, underpass, rabbit hole that dipped down and around to the major highway north. We took the correct exit number and following the Google directions we circled the round-about to the fourth exit which went into a massive shopping center parking lot. We went around again, counting the exits in case there was a rabbit-hole that we missed. In desperation, Jim took road number five which was the desperado route directly into Avignon with all lanes of drivers competing for the Grand Prix. There was no turning around. Forget it. The river was on our right, so no exits either. Purely by blind coincidence, we stumbled into an exit for the entrance to the center of medieval Avignon. I took charge of the directions for our fast track entry into the Grand Prix and shouted, “Quick! Get in the left lane and make a U-turn in the cross-over ahead. Go! Go! Go!” We drove directly into an underground parking lot, found an empty space and walked to the exit for the city. Two options with arrows pointed the way, and one sign showed a baby buggy. Remembering the rusty baby buggy sign in Oppède-le-Vieux, we chose the walk without stairs and quickly found our way directly to the front of the Palais des Papes.IMG_9252The papacy left war-torn Italy and escaped to Avignon where seven French popes ruled from 1309 to 1377. In 1348 Pope Clement VI bought the town from Joanna I of Naples. Papal control continued until 1791 during the French Revolution when it became part of France. The Italian language was spoken for many years in this area. The Palace of the Popes is the largest Gothic palace in the world with 15,000 square meters (161,458 square feet) of living space. In 1995, the Palace of the Popes, the cathedral and the Pont d’Avignon became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.IMG_9232The ramparts encircling Avignon were built by the popes in the 14th century. They are one of the finest examples of medieval fortification in existence with great strength, surmounted by battlements and 39 massive towers. Incredibly, the name of the city dates back to around the 6th century B.C.IMG_9250During the time of the grand life at the Palace, they owned their own mint. They baked a vast number of loaves of bread every day, and did you know that Pope Clement VI appointed a Great Mustard Maker to the Papal Court in Avignon? However, surprisingly, at the entrance to the Palace on the day of our visit they could not provide a brochure with information for my review before we handed over our money. They asked for my camera also! Now, you know I did not find that acceptable.IMG_9239We fled to rethink our strategy since I didn’t have all of my homework prepared for an A+ tour. At the moment I didn’t know about the Chief of Mustard, or the Italian-speaking French folk. How many kisses did they require in greeting upon an autumn day in the Place de l’Horloge square?  The answer is at least three.

A cute tourist tram was parked there in the center of the square. We rushed to catch it, but other younger legs left us behind on the baby buggy route, wobbling on the cobblestones. Another tram arrived, and we claimed seats hastily while the young crowd got their last minute sips of wine. While we sat on the bench-like seats, I thought the atmosphere seemed more Italian than French. A young man was asking the Brit folks seated behind us to change his Brit currency to euros. They dug into their pockets and couldn’t find an equivalent match except in their favor.IMG_9280 He kept bugging the ticket attendant and trying to reach into the money bag for the exchange. Annoyed and rolling his eyes, he exchanged a glance my way loaded with irritation at the guy. I felt sorry for the young man if he needed euros for the ride, or food. I suggested to him that a bank was just around the corner. He replied, “Why would I want a bank?” I explained to him like any good mother would that he could change his Brit currency at the bank. With a shrug of his shoulders, he blurted, “I have money!” Then, he walked to the front of the tram, cranked it and drove the petite tourist train across the cobbled square. Yes, he was our driver – the fellow scrounging for a money exchange and trying to dip into the money bag! Yep, it was Italy in France.

We whipped around the narrow lanes, turning in impossible angles and passing so close to street-side diners that I could examine their cuisine. A lady with zebra-striped stockings extended her legs shockingly close to our parade. I wanted to lean over and ask where she purchased her chic hosiery. Window shopping the easy way, I spied a shirt that I liked. The words – STRONG ENOUGH – were spelled out on the front. I wanted that shirt. I need the confidence it proclaims on days when I feel like a wimp inside, on days when people conspire to make an April Fool of me in October!

The driver wound our little trolley up and up for a view of the Pont d’Avignon, but he didn’t stop for photography. In fact, unlike the tour buses in Paris, he didn’t stop period. The Pont d’Avignon (Saint Benezet Bridge) is known the world over thanks to the beloved children’s song bearing the name of the bridge. If you are not familiar, I suggest that you look for it since it is a charming tune, and the French version is much sweeter than the translation to English. I thought of young children dancing on the bridge like the words in the song. Boys, girls, soldiers, dolls, frogs and gorillas dance on the bridge of Avignon. Did I leave anyone out? Oh, such fun!

The bridge was built, according to legend, by a young shepherd in the 12th century who heard voices telling him to build a bridge in Avignon. When completed in 1185, it was the only place to cross the Rhone between Lyon and the Mediterranean Sea. It is a true feat of engineering and a subject of much research. There is a new museum with multimedia displays, a super fun way to learn the eventful history.

One of the famous citizens from the 14th century was not very impressed with Avignon. The great Renaissance poet Petrarch considered papal Avignon to be a “sewer” and a place of corruption. Petrarch is credited with initiating the 14th-century Renaissance and is often called the “Father of Humanism”. There is a connection here that I should have known when I wrote about Marquis de Sade.

I found that when Petrarch was no longer a priest, he saw a woman named Laura in the Saint Claire d’Avignon church and his passion for her inspired his writings. It is thought that this Laura may have been Laura de Noves, the wife of Count Hugues de Sade (an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade). Laura, who is described as quite a looker with fair hair and dignified bearing, refused Petrarch. That’s the best I can dig up for a scandal in this story.

The day was cloudy and dismal, still spitting rain after the threat of the Mistral on the previous days. We built our energy with a relaxing meal at a street-side café while people-watching with the music of the carousel in the background. After our meal, we walked in the flow of pedestrians through the Place de l’Horloge, admiring the Gothic clock tower above the town hall and trompe l’oeil windows in a mansion.  You can CLICK for the smaller images for larger display.

IMG_9265Before our turn for the baby buggy path I saw a young female photographer spread on the ground aiming for her best shot. It could have been me on the ground in any setting from Alabama cow pastures to the sidewalks of Paris with Jim nearby playing traffic control, or pretending not to know me. Admittedly, there was one big difference! The photographer kneeling on the pavement, the subject of my photo, was young, cute and pert, not – well, you get the picture!IMG_9240I still have the tweeting of the birds, “Skinny…skinny and Pretty…pretty” to keep me company whether I wear a STRONG ENOUGH tee shirt, or not.

Come around again to travel with us!  Three kisses to ya’ll for your wonderful support.

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