This entry is one of three entries that include my upcoming weekend trip out of the country of France. Due to my lack of time and my use of Spanish, I don’t feel the need to write this in French as well. So, here is an entry about my day in Avignon and my drive to the itty-bitty country called Andorra on the Spanish border.
We left bright and early from Arles on a tour bus to head to Avignon, a much larger city about a half-an-hour away by car. Although its population is twice the size of Arles, it is a mere fraction of its land size: Avignon has 25 square miles, whereas Arles has 300. Arles is a much less densely populated city and probably one of the main reasons why I ended up preferring it the more I walked around Avignon.
My first impression of Avignon was that it’s grimy, and I don’t just mean because of the nuclear spill in 2008 that contaminated the rivers around it. I just noticed a lot of graffiti and a lot of people everywhere who were contributing to the chaos. We started our day next to the Pont d’Avignon (Pont Saint Bénézet) over the Rhône River, a bridge famous for its ancient construction in such a horrendous water flow and which has since suffered the consequences of its location and now remains as only half of a bridge. We bypassed the bridge and instead ascended into the town and had a tour within the Palais des Papes, or the Palace of the Popes.
This palace was built for the Catholic popes during the times of Gaul and after. It had to be restored after much damage and idling over the years. There’s an enormous concert space in the courtyard, which is now used for the Festival d’Avignon every year. The building otherwise remains as it was, with stones marked by the artists’ “signatures” and paint chipping in all the pretty rooms which did not permit photography. Also, as with many places in France, the statues are all decapitated as a symbol from the times of the guillotine and the French Revolution.
I left from the palace after the tour with some others as a result of miscommunication. We were excited to fit in as much as possible and had less than an hour before lunch to tour the bridge. It wasn’t very exciting, but I took photos from the end of the palace behind and tried to imagine the construction process in those times (yes, I’m a dorky engineer but we studied this bridge in my Construction Materials class). We then got lost outside of the palace and wandering around Le Jardin des Doms at the top of the hill where we were supposed to eat lunch. My friends and I eventually caught up with the others after my rapid explanations in French over the phone with one of the directors who told us where to meet her. Lunch was sandwiches at the windy top of the hill in the gardens with many children running about. We had deep conversations about political issues in America before taking a group photo overlooking the river and going our separate ways.
I went alone. I chose to do this because I knew what I wanted to see, I wanted to see a lot quickly, and everyone else seemed interested in dillydallying at a café or coming back another day to see more. I wanted to see it all now and know what to return to later, so I went at my own pace. I descended the east side of the hill, walked briskly along the north wall of the city (one of the few in France which has kept its original boundaries), and headed directly towards the University of Avignon. I took photos of every church and plaza along the way, including some photos of cacti and wisteria that is classic to this region. At the University, I went inside and photographed some of the spaces, including the cafeteria, the library, and the courtyard between the two. Then I walked back off of campus, passed the science campus, and continued towards Place Pie and Les Halles.
Les Halles are in most big cities. They’re like indoor markets in more permanent booths, similar to the Strip District in Pittsburgh like Wholey’s Fish Market or even West Side Market in Cleveland. I walked along the walls, inside and outside, through some arches, visited every plaza and every church, photographed nearly every museum, and also documented hundreds of houses with wisteria growing along their walls and in their gardens and many road signs. I was disappointed to find some areas, like Rue des Teintures, to be completely shut down, boarded up, and spray-painted all over like mad. The windows were grimy and the people were sketchy. The life was certainly closer to Place Pie and the northwest end of the city because there was not much going on west of Rue de la Republique save for a few museums and hotels, like Hotel d’Angleterre
One of the prettiest areas was Place de l’Horlage where I photographed the carousel (there’s one in most cities) and the Hotel de Ville. One of my favorite areas was the church and gardens of Saint Martel, right beside Rue de la Republique. I photographed the flowers, the arches, and even the bright red telephone booth whose door would not budge open. My friend Johannes arrived from Arles just then and I left to go meet him outside of Les Halles at Place Pie. We bought some things in Carrefour City, failed to rent bikes with my pouce-less credit card, and took off marching towards the northern end of the city. We found the dock for the ferry and picked up a free ride, pleased to find how often the ferries run: every fifteen minutes to and from the island in the river for the majority of the day
We walked from the island and crossed one of the modern bridges back into the city, passing the Ferris wheel set up along the bank on our way back into the western end of old Avignon. We didn’t have an interest to ride it, so we kept walking to view more churches and shop a little at Zara for Les Soldes (the time in the summer in France when everything is madly discounted for weeks, and increasingly so). Finally, it was time to meet Kate, Gina, and Erin at Les Halles to jump in Johannes’ packed car and make our way out of the city – and out of France.
Thus began our long, long drive. We drove from about 6pm to 11pm, including stops, before we left France. We drove along the coast straight towards Perpignan and then paralleled the Spanish border through the Pyrenees on nauseatingly winding roads. Driving those roads is a chore enough, but driving a standard made it that much worse. We stopped at the only gas station we could find at one point – in Prades – where I had another MacDo experience and ordered a McFlurry with French candy mix to say I did. It was the laziest thing in existence (ice cream with toppings and not blended), thus I said “I knew I wouldn’t get a McFlurry here; it’s just “McF*cked Up”. We continued our drive. Not long after that, we jumped out of the car to run into an apricot orchard and picked a large back full of fresh fruit. Then it was back on the road again. We listened to American music and didn’t stop the car until we reached Andorra.
The road leading into the country was not pleasant at all. As we approached the border, we were welcomed by thick fog. The fog disappeared, then grew worse as we climbed the mountain towards lights at the border control, following a long line of cars rolling at a slow pace into the country. The girls with us booked a hostel in La Vella, the capital city, so we paid the fees to come in and were faced with another leg of the trip to their hostel. Fortunately, the country is so small that we arrived to the middle of the country and the city in less than an hour. We stopped at McDonald’s for directions and, instead of paying for parking, Johannes and I got in line at the drive-thru to wait for the others. We bought more time by pretending to order. We were upset that we had to pay and made references to my “McF*cked Up” by saying “f*ck this”. Inspired by our joking, Johannes, in his somewhat British accent, asked the woman at the window if he could have a “McF*ck You with cigarettes”. His countenance was completely calm and serious. The woman, who probably speaks Catalan and maybe some Spanish and some French, didn’t understand. He repeated calmly. She brought another guy over and he didn’t understand. “So, you don’t have any?” Johannes asked. “No, we don’t,” the man said politely, and so we left, bursting out laughing as the others came outside. We slipped the car into an alley and joined them outside.
Still unsure of where to go, Gina asked some police in the drive-thru for directions. We all sprinted towards our illegally-parked car before the police could see, then we turned around and followed them down several roads until they slowed down, pointed out the window, and drove on. The others checked in. Johannes and I told them when and where to meet tomorrow, then took off to find a place to camp for the night that was free. We accidently drove to the border of Spain then turned around, finding a smaller offshoot towards some villages in the mountains. We wound up the switchbacks past things we could no longer make out in the dark and finally found a gate to a field that was open. We sneaked along the retaining wall between the road and the field and set up camp next to a large pile of dirt. We could see the village lights glowing from farther down, the stars all around us, and the orange glow from the capital city. We set up a tent, wore our thickest clothes against the 6,000-foot elevation chill, and had a beer before trying to fall asleep. Finally, Andorra.
Looking out at the concert field in Palais de Papes.
Me at the bibliotheque (library) at the Univeristy of Avignon.
Pretty flowers in my favorite garden.
Me by some old arches by the Rue de la Republique.
There was also a telephone box…Guess I’ll see more of these in London next month, eh?
Cacti are usual here in the south.
Me outside of the walled city of Avignon.
On the Pont d’Avignon with a view of the Palais de Papes behind me.
Me on the island that Johannes and I got to by ferry, Avignon in the background.
Place Pie from the top of Les Halles; good place for du vin, du cafe, or even du kir!
Me picking apricots in an orchard in France near the Spanish border as we made our way to through Prades towards Andorra.