Sunday, August 25, 2013

Excursion à Avignon et Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

Dimanche, 25 août.

A few months ago, when I was accepted to study abroad in Montpellier, I changed my Facebook cover photo to a shot of me, cheesing on the ramparts of some city. I knew it was taken somewhere in the South of France, and I had a feeling it was Avignon, but I wasn't sure. I decided I'd keep a look out for anything that looked familiar during our visit, but didn't think I'd have too much luck.

Me in Avignon ... approximately age 8?
Can you even imagine my shock as I realized that not only was my cover photo definitely from Avignon, but it was taken on the very ramparts next to which the bus had parked! You can recognize the tower and -- if you look closely enough -- the hole in the back wall. I couldn't believe it! Naturally, I had to take a picture.

I couldn't get onto the exact same part on the ramparts (for that privilege, you have to visit the Pont du Gard and pay an entrance fee), so I settled for a slightly different version! But hey -- same squinty eyes, same cheesy smile, and same red jacket!

We walked up the ramparts to the Jardin des Doms, so named because of its location on top of the Rocher des Doms. This rocky outcrop overlooks the Rhône River and the Pont d'Avignon and was used throughout the Middle Ages as a natural place of refuge from attack and even disease. However, as I have since learned, archaeological finds on the site prove that it was inhabited as early as the Neolithic Era ... which began over 12,000 years ago! Now, the gardens are apparently among the city residents' favorite spots to spend a relaxing afternoon ... and can't you see why?

This next photo isn't that great, but I love it because you can see a Franciscan priest in the upper righthand corner! As we passed by into the gardens, he was just sitting on that bench, looking out over the river. I would love to know his story.

The gardens themselves were beautiful, with tons of statues and even a stunning waterfall. It reminded me of Disney Robin Hood, when Robin Hood and Maid Marian get married and run behind the waterfall! But I digress.

As beautiful as the waterfall was, our favorite part was actually on top of the waterfall! From there, one can see the Rhône River, the Pont du Gard, the surrounding countryside, and a solid amount of the city of Avignon. It's absolutely breathtaking ... which is why about 3/4 of our group whipped out their phones to take a panoramic picture. Myself included:

Although I bet I could have spent all day on the sunny top of the Rocher des Doms, we had more to do and see! We descended from the garden and continued onto the Notre Dame des Doms, a beautiful 12th century Romanesque cathedral. You can take a virtual tour of the cathedral here, although the website's pictures just don't do it justice.

You have to feel a little bit bad for this cathedral. On its own, it's absolutely gorgeous -- a truly impressive work of Romanesque art with a pretty fab gold statue to boot. However, in Avignon, la Cathédrale Notre-Dame des Doms d'Avignon is absolutely DWARFED -- in size, beauty, and historical significance -- by its neighbor. (Sorry, cathedral! Better luck next time!)

What is this awesome mystery building? I'll give you a clue. It's BIG. So big, in fact, that I had to buy a postcard in a souvenir shop to even attempt to have a photo of the whole thing. It's OLD. Fourteenth century, in fact. And, hey, it just so happens to be the biggest Gothic palace in all of Europe.

Give up? It's le Palais des Papes -- the residence of seven popes (and one sort-of-pope) during the 14th century. I don't want to bore you with too much history, but suffice it to say you could write a book on this place ... if there weren't already dozens! Benedict XII was the first pope here in 1335, when the Catholic Church decided to move its seat to Avignon, which provided a much more central location from which to rule the Christian states. Six popes followed Benedict XII, including the extravagant Clement VI who greatly expanded the palace. In 1377, the Catholic Church returned to Rome, triggering the Great Papal Schism. During the Schism, which lasted from 1378 to 1418, the Catholic Church had two popes: one in Rome, and one in Avignon. Ultimately, the Avignon pope was removed from power and his palace fell into disrepair. Over the next several hundred years, the Palais des Papes was stripped of its decorations and virtually destroyed. Under Napoleon, it became military barracks and in the late 19th century, the palace was used as a stable!

Unfortunately, centuries of disrespect mean that the building is missing much of its original glory: the intricate tile floors and painted ceilings have been replaced, the walls have been whitewashed, and the furniture is long gone. Still, you can see what remains of some of the frescos, as well as a lot of other remaining artifacts. And although the rooms are mostly bare, videos and an audioguide help to paint a picture of exactly what the palace looked like at its height.

And even empty, it's breathtakingly impressive.

Posing with our handy dandy audioguides!

Casual papal gardens.

Randomly, part of the palace has been converted into a sort of funky art museum? You can see some of it in the photo above on the right. I guess I get it, but I think it takes a little bit away from the historical "wow factor" of the palace.

Of course, that didn't stop me from posing with a recreation of the Princess and the Pea's bed!

By the time we left the Palais des Papes, my feet were aching and my stomach was growling -- it was time for lunch! Luckily, after only a short and slightly confused walk, we were back in the town center at a delicious little café! The dessert selection everywhere we go is seriously overwhelming -- this is just a small section of what they had where I bought my lunch.

Although I managed to fight the urge to buy every pastry in the shop (and half the ice cream flavors too), I did buy an incredibly delicious Brie/lettuce baguette sandwich that more than made up for the fact that I had subsituted until that point on a very meager amount of yogurt!

With lunch in our bellies, we headed back through the city to meet up with our bus. Luckily, we had time for a photo pit stop or two! Because, you know, sometimes, in France, you're walking down a tiny cobblestone street and suddenly you walk straight into a beautiful cathedral and listen to a French choir sing Mass...

And sometimes you run into people taking wedding photos with the French police in front of the Hotel de Ville....

Seriously, it's just too beautiful. Definitely my favorite place that we've visited so far. I am so so thankful to have had the chance to visit Avignon -- and to have done it on such a perfect day! It wasn't as hot today as it has been these past few weeks; that, coupled with the fact that Avignon is notoriously windy, meant that we even had a chance to wear jackets for a little while!

Unfortunately, with all of our aventuring and learning, we didn't get a chance to visit the Pont d'Avignon. But I did get to get a few photos from across the street...

... and when our guide asked for a volunteer to show the group the traditional dance that goes along with "Sur le pont d'Avignon," guess who was volunteered? (Note: not volunteered but was volunteered. Thanks, Valerie!)

Humilitation always makes for a definitely highlight...

After leaving Avignon, we headed south to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. It's a small town that dates all the way back to the fourth century, although it didn't get its name until the 1800s. It's called "Saint Marys of the Sea" because of a French legend that states that after Jesus' crucifixion, Saints Mary Magdalene, Mary Jacobe (related to St. Joseph), and Mary Salome (St. James' mother) set sail to escape persecution and wound up on the coast of France. With them was Joseph of Arimathea (who gave his tomb for Jesus' body) and the Marys' Egyptian servant, Sarah. Perhaps because of her dark skin, Saint Sarah became the patron saint of gypsies. Every year, Romani people make a pilgrimage to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, upon which hey take the statue of St. Sarah from the town church and carry it down to the ocean.

If this story sounds at all familiar to you, it's probably because of The DaVinci Code. In the book, symbologist Robert Langdon discovers that Mary Magdalene and Jesus had a child and that, after his death, she sailed to find safety in Gaul (modern-day France) for herself and her child -- Sarah. According to this theory, Jesus and Mary Magdalene's bloodline was preserved and passed down through the Merovingian dynasty (which, coveniently, ends with Sophie, one of Langdon's companions). And now I want to reread The DaVinci Code... maybe I can find a copy in some French bookstore!

Anyhow, Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer is a pretty chouette little town. Although it's only a couple thousand people, it's the capital of the Camargue, where a huge river delta turns almost a thousand square kilometers of land into marshland filled with wild Camarguais horses, cattle, and all kinds of protected species of birds. We got to drive through part of the Camargue on our way in and out of the city and had a great time looking for horses and flamingos!

In the town itself, we had a chance to go to the beach and take our first steps into the (very cold) Mediterranean! Once discovering that the cold water was perhaps not for us, we decided to explore the beach and take pictures instead. (No surprise there.) We picked up more friends along the way and a nice French woman even offered to take our photo while we posed on the rocks, trying way too hard to look casual.

Right before that picture, I turned around and said, "Guys! This is so exciting! If I were here with my family, my parents totally wouldn't let me walk on these rocks." And then I felt five years old.

Then it was time to dry off and have some ice cream before taking the bus back to Montpellier! The great thing about eating cheapily during the week in Montpellier (and I say this while eating a cucumber for dinner so you know I mean cheap) is that when we do go down to the centre-ville or spend time in other cities, I don't feel bad buying a couple of souvenirs or stopping for ice cream! (Or gauffres. Still haven't forgotten about those suckers.)

Tomorrow, it's back to the daily grind -- classes in the morning and afternoon and potentially a trip downtown to purchase a French cell phone for the next few months. Life in Southern France can be so rough! ;)

(PS. If you've stuck with this post all the way to the very end, I apologize. It might have gotten a little bit longwinded. I just really really liked Avignon! Haha.)


  1. Ma tres cherie, pas trop long c'est sur. Super! Tellement interessant, j'adore! Cecile a vu ta photo sur Facebook et m'a envoye un email pour me dire qu'ils seraient a nouveau a Carpentras pour la Toussaint (1er Novembre) et qu'elle espere bien te voir...:-)

    Bisous, Nanny

  2. Daddy and I hung on every word! We loved it all!
    He wanted you to know that those were not policemen, they looked like American-WWII-paratrooper reenactors and that was an American military jeep from that time period.
    Thank you so much sharing!

  3. I am overcome with emotion; you love all this so much and it's as though I'm there too when you write. Thank you for sharing.