March 17, 2013

Avignon and the Pont du Gard

Avignon, July 2012 - The Avalon Scenery sailed at night and we woke up in Avignon, the City of Popes. We'd finally arrived in Provence!

Avalon Scenery double-docked in Avignon

The ship had double-docked at the quay, so a ramp had been installed connecting us to the neighboring ship and providing us with access to shore.

The ramp between ships

The first thing we saw outside the city walls was a large Ferris Wheel, but it was not the place to be today. The famed mistral winds were blowing, sending hats tumbling into a nearby ditch. Many passengers wore sweaters and jackets for the morning walking tour of Avignon, as the wind was quite cool but I found it nicely balanced the heat.

Ferris Wheel in Avignon

The city's walls and lampposts were covered in posters for the Avignon Festival, an annual cultural festival taking place that week. Many posters fell victim to the wind.

Avignon Festival Posters

We first walked to Clock Tower Square (Place de l'Horloge) where there are lots of cafés, City Hall (Hotel de Ville) and an old carousel.

The Clock Tower, Avignon

City Hall, Avignon

Clock Tower Square, Avignon

Carousel in Clock Tower Square

Next we walked a short distance to Place du Palais and the Papal Palace (Palais des Papes), the residence of the Pope during the 14th century.

Palace of the Popes, Avignon

The palace dominates the skyline of Avignon and, along with the St. Bénézet Bridge, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are lots of stairs and no handrails, so passengers were given an option of touring Avignon without visiting the palace.

This was a day I had been looking forward to for almost two years. Avignon is the departure point for an optional excursion into the Luberon to see the lavender fields of Provence. It's on my Bucket List and my purpose for being here. But unfortunately I discovered that due to heavy rains, the lavender had been cut and there would be no excursion for me. I tried not to think about my disappointment while we walked the streets of Avignon, but I was soon reminded by the scent of lavender.

Lavender Shop, Avignon

Before returning to the ship, we stopped to take photos of the St. Bénézet Bridge, made famous by the children's song "On the Bridge at Avignon".

St. Bénézet Bridge, Avignon

The bridge was completed in 1185 and for a time was the only place between Lyon and the Mediterranean where you could cross the Rhone. Portions of the bridge were first destroyed in 1226 while Avignon was under siege by King Louis VIII. But it was rebuilt and suffered further damage due to heavy flooding of the Rhone in the 17th century. St. Bénézet Bridge has not been used since that time.

The planned Grill Lunch on the Skydeck had been cancelled due to the high winds but our chef prepared crêpes in the lounge. We tried them all - chicken ragout, ham & cheese, and a dessert crêpe with vanilla sauce and strawberries. Délicieux!

Crêpe Lunch Menu
Crêpes for Lunch
Dessert Crêpe
Salad Bar at the Crêpe Lunch

An optional Wine Tasting in Chateauneuf-du-Pape (44 Euros) had been offered in the morning, but we chose to visit the Pont du Gard and the City of Uzès (36 Euros) in the afternoon. I heard from passengers who had taken the morning excursion that when they visited Avignon later in the day it was very crowded.

Well fortified by our crêpe luncheon, we boarded a bus and headed across the Rhone into the Languedoc-Roussillon region, with our first stop at a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ancient Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard.

The Pont du Gard

The 50-kilometer long aqueduct was built by the Romans to carry water from a spring near Uzès to the town of Nîmes, and this is where it crosses the Gardon River. Visitors walk on a bridge built alongside the aqueduct.

View of the Gardon River from the Pont du Gard

Then we toured the medieval town of Uzès. In one of the shops I found the little ceramic garlic graters, similar to one I'd bought at the Cours Saleya Market in Nice a couple of years earlier, and bought three more. They work really well, turning a clove of garlic into a paste in seconds (without shredding your fingertips in the process) and are decorated in bright Provencal patterns. And they only cost 2 Euros! I also tried on some clothing, but it really was too hot. So we made our way to the shade of Place aux Herbes.

Place aux Herbes, Uzès
Fountain at Place aux Herbes, Uzès

Upon returning to the ship, we attended a brief meeting about the Provence Extension we had booked to follow the cruise and then had a pastis tasting in the lounge before dinner.

Pastis Tasting

This traditional Provencal aperitif has a distinct licorice flavor. The amber-colored liquor is usually served with cold water, which turns it a milky colour when mixed. I found it rather strong.

After dinner, Gypsy Guitars entertained us in the lounge. Every year in May, there is a  pilgramage to the town of Saintes Maries de la Mer in the Camargue when Gypsies from all over Europe come to honor Saint Sara.

Gypsy Guitars

My first day in Provence was amazing - I'd experienced the relentless mistral wind, heard the chirps of my first cicada (cigale) from a tree next to the Rhone and finally come across the scent of lavender. And in the morning we would awaken in the city of Arles, once the home of painter Vincent Van Gogh.

Next:  An Olive Farm & Les Baux de Provence

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