Sur le Pont d’Avignon

Today a trip to Avignon, home of the famous bridge leading nowhere. It’s a couple of hours’ drive from Aix, where we were staying for a four-day break with my mother and her travelling companion George. My job for the week was driving the rented car. I can say I was quite impressed with the Toyota Corolla Verso we hired; the diesel engine had bags of pulling power making overtaking simple, but was quiet and used amazingly little fuel for a relatively large vehicle able to take four people and all their luggage with plenty of room to spare.

Avignon is quite a big place. I remember going there when still in my teens, some 45 years ago, and it’s grown hugely since then. Like most French cities the first thing you come to is the big car sales lots, warehouses and other signs of industrial prosperity, then the business parks, then the suburbs proper. Finally, in the middle of all this is the old walled city, where all the tourists head for.

Parking is surprisingly well catered for. We first followed signs for a car park inside the city walls but this was full. From there the roads became twisty and narrow, making for very slow progress with the proximity sensors letting off almost continuous beeps of protest at every bollard, parked bicycle or pedestrian. It was a relief to escape to the ring road running along the Rhône and we toured up and down this for a while looking for somewhere else to park that wouldn’t necessitate a half-hour route march back to the city. A sign pointed across a bridge heading well away from town but promised a free shuttle bus. The car park occupies several dusty acres of Ile Piot, the large island between the two forks of the river. I read somewhere this is the largest river island in the whole of… I can’t remember where, and who needs such boring statistics anyway.

The surprise was that not only is the bus free but so is the parking. And they even provide a toilet for while you’re waiting, which in my book – as readers of yesterday’s diary will know – is a bonus point for any town. The bus takes a few minutes to drop you at the gates to the city then circles back to do it all over again. And again and again. Hardly the most inspiring of driving jobs, I imagine.

The routine was much the same as for Aix the previous day. Walk to the centre, taking in the sights along the way. Avignon is an attractive place, but like Aix and other medieval towns has lost some of its character and quaintness to the compromises necessary for modern life and transportation. Even in the narrowest of pedestrian streets, from nowhere will appear a council truck or a carload of tourists looking for somewhere to park. Guilty as charged m’lud.

In Avignon you could spend a day browsing antique shops in between sampling any of the long line of restaurants lining the main square in front of the Hotel de Ville. Or you could take in a museum or two. But if like us you’re there mainly to see the bridge, and travelling slowly, time in the town centre is limited. At the top of the town is the Papal Palace, built at the time the Catholic Church was based in the town before moving to Rome. There’s quite a bit of walking up and downhill needed to do it justice, and with elderly legs tiring we parked ourselves at a cafe in front of the palace and took some lunch.

After which we turned back much the way we’d come, to go and visit Avignon’s most famous landmark; the Pont St Benézet, made famous by the round whose words I cannot remember. Mum and George chose to sit in a relatively quiet grassy area, sketching the bridge and river, while we would go up onto the bridge and wave inanely at them. As tourists do. However, although the car park is free the generosity of the town doesn’t extend quite as far as its most famous construction, so you have to pay a fee to get in. Since the bridge only extends half-way across the river, and since you can’t actually photograph the thing when you’re standing on it, we figured we’d waive the royal wave and just walk alongside the river for a while.

Shortly after the bridge we found a ragged hole in the city wall, which on closer inspection led to a spiral staircase going up inside one of the watchtowers, with no sign of a ticket collector. Up and up it went, offering regular views of the bridge that beat anything you’d pay to see, and finally debauched into a park – the Roches des Doms, which overlooks both the Papal Palace and the bridge. I think I must be something of a park lover as I always feel relaxed in one and reluctant to go back into the hurly-burly of the city.

And that was it, really. Hardly a textbook tour full of educational worth, I admit, but you’re free to do that kind of thing yourself if you prefer it. My liking is for somewhere quiet amid the bustle, and now I know Avignon has it.


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