After spending 16 days in Europe we were weary of seeing grand palaces, museums, cathedrals and basilicas in famous cities along with thousands of other tourists. We needed to get away from the crowd and have a new and different experience. And that was when Provence came to our rescue.
Provence is a region in south-eastern France that borders Italy. The region itself is quite vast and has a long and rich history dating back to prehistoric period which makes it a delight for people like us who have an affinity towards history. Provence was a Roman colony for many centuries from 2nd century BC onwards. Many of the towns and cities were built by Romans during this period due to which Roman architecture is quite prevalent in this region. Thus, one can get a glimpse of ancient Roman Republic/Empire here without actually visiting Italy.
Covering entire Provence without a car would have required at least a fortnight but we had just six days hence we decided to cover only the western portion of Provence i.e. Avignon, Aix en Provence, Arles, Nimes, St. Remy de Provence, Orange and Le Baux de Provence.
THE WALLED CITY
A part of us has often longed to experience the charm of living inside a medieval walled city, passing under the huge gates, admiring those seemingly indestructible walls and towers while entering and exiting the city and exploring the narrow cobblestoned streets with a large palace or castle dominating the landscape. In the era of Game of Thrones, this longing had become a real desire and it was Avignon that ultimately fulfilled this desire of ours.
Located on the banks of River Rhone, the ancient city of Avignon’s claim to fame was that it served as the capital of Christendom and the residence of seven successive popes between 1309 and 1377. We had chosen Avignon as our base for exploring Provence over six days.
Avignon has two railway stations – Avignon TGV and Avignon Centre. Avignon TGV is located about four km away from the city and is dedicated for long distance high speed TGV trains while Avignon Centre is located just outside the city and mainly serves local and medium distance trains. Our TGV train from Paris reached Avignon TGV at around 3:30 pm after a journey of little over 2.5 hours. From Avignon TGV we took a shuttle which dropped us at Avignon Centre in five minutes. As soon as we stepped out of the station we encountered heavy drizzle. It seemed like rain had followed us all the way from Paris to Avignon. But once we lifted our heads all concerns about rain were washed away from our minds because right in front of us were the ramparts and the main gate of Avignon. Probably not as big as we had imagined but who cares; we were going to stay inside a walled city!
We quickly got a cab which drove us to our hotel in five minutes. Hotel Regina, where we were going to stay for the next six nights, was located on the main boulevard of the city and was just a stone’s throw away from the primary attractions. Though our room was not entirely satisfactory, the location more than made up for it. Our balcony provided a wonderful view of the main street, the palace and the cathedral of the city.
As soon as the rain subsided a little, we took our umbrellas and set out to explore the city. Just two minutes away from our hotel was the main square – Place de l’Horloge, where a stage was erected and a dance performance was taking place. After watching the performance for some time we walked further and came across the opera theatre of Avignon.
Next up was Place du Palais, where the Palace of the popes and the cathedral was located. As it was already evening we did not have enough time to see the palace. We continued walking through those narrow cobblestoned streets and eventually exited the city through one of its gates.In front of us now lay the River Rhone and the famous Pont d’Avignon.
Pont d’Avignon, also known as Pont Saint-Bénézet, is a bridge that was built over Rhone in the late 12th century to connect the towns of Avignon and Villeneuve-les-Avignon. It originally consisted of 22 arches which frequently collapsed during the flooding of Rhone. The bridge now has just four arches remaining and extends over half the river.
The ticket office of the bridge was built in a tower of the city wall. We went inside the ticket office cum souvenir shop and bought our tickets. A side door from the ticket office led into a small courtyard. As soon as we stepped into that courtyard it was like we were transported several centuries back in history. From the courtyard a stone staircase led to a small bridge which connected to a gatehouse. There were large wooden doors at the entrance of the gatehouse and inside there were several pictures and diagrams detailing the history of bridge. The same was explained via a video in the lower level of the gatehouse. A drawbridge connected by chains to the gatehouse led to Pont d’Avignon.
By this time it had started drizzling again but we went out on the bridge undeterred and walked up to Chapel Saint Nicholas, a small two floor chapel built on the bridge. We took shelter inside the chapel and spent time admiring the wide river, the greenery and the medieval ruins around us. We took some photos and returned via the same path.
We stopped for an early dinner at a restaurant in Place de l’Horloge and with that our first day inside the walled city of Avignon drew to a close.
AIX EN PROVENCE
Our second day in Provence was reserved for a visit to Aix-en-Provence, a historic city in South France. We were pretty excited at the prospect of visiting this city as we had read a lot of good things about it and at one point of time we had also considered making it our base in Provence before eventually going with Avignon.
We had the option of going to Aix via train and bus both but we chose to go by bus as it took almost the same time as the train but at a lower cost and we figured that we would see more of the countryside by bus. So we took a morning bus from Avignon bus station (Gare Routiere) which was just beside the Avignon Centre railway station and reached Aix in less than 90 minutes. That was the moment from which everything started going downhill.
Aix was the most unremarkable city that we visited in our entire trip. It had nothing which we can honestly say was worth seeing. In fact we did not spend a more wasteful day in our entire trip than we did at Aix. From the Aix bus station we walked to Place de la Rotonde, a square which is famous for a fountain known as Fontaine de la Rotonde. The fountain had 3 statues and some animal sculptures and overall seemed pretty ordinary to us.
Place de la Rotonde also marks one end of Cours Mirabeau which is the most famous boulevard of Aix but again we did not find anything special about it. We walked along the boulevard and sat there for some time absorbing the ambience.We also tried shopping for some souvenirs but did not find anything good.
From Cours Mirabeau we walked to Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur commonly known as Aix Cathedral. After having seen some huge and famous cathedrals in Italy and Paris, I can’t even begin to describe how big a disappointment the Aix Cathedral was! There was nothing of note either about the exterior or the interior of the cathedral. After visiting the cathedral we walked around for a bit, found a restaurant which appealed to us and had a scrumptious lunch and that was probably the only saving grace of the entire day.
After lunch we again walked the streets of the city for sometime unsure what to do. Eventually we decided to visit the studio of Paul Cezanne, a famous French painter who belonged to Aix-en-Provence. A one km walk to the suburbs of Aix, some of which was uphill got us to Atelier de Cezanne.
The complex contained a two-storey building of which the upper level was the actual studio while the lower level was the ticket office. The building was surrounded by lots of wildly growing plants and trees on all sides. There were chairs laid out for people who wanted to enjoy the atmosphere while waiting for access to the studio. The ticket was only charged for visiting the studio while the grounds were free to all. We walked around the complex before facing the inevitable question of whether we should buy the tickets and go up. After some dilly dallying we decided that we had come too far to return without seeing the studio so we bought the tickets and went up and as per the recurring theme of the day, it was a total waste of time and money. The studio contained some things that Cezanne had used in his lifetime but there really wasn’t anything to hold our interest apart from a couple of skulls and letters written by Cezanne himself. Moreover, there wasn’t a single original painting of the renowned artist. Anyone who is really interested to see the studio would be better served by the searching for its images on Google.
After our latest setback we decided not to spend any more time or money in Aix and return to Avignon. On our walk back to the Aix bus station and subsequent journey to Avignon we cursed ourselves for wasting a precious day in Aix but also congratulated ourselves for not selecting it as our base in Provence.