After surrendering our bikes at the end of Day 4, we spent the next day hanging out in Avignon, home to the popesters in the 14th century, thereby supplanting Rome as the seat of Western Christianity for a hundred years. The Papal Palace still remains, as do the walls of the medieval city, which gave it a compact, intimate feel.
Seven popes and two antipopes resided in Avignon between 1309 and 1403 (the real reason we’re mentioning this, of course, is so we could use the vaguely sinister term “antipope”). The Palais des Papes was built to house and protect the popes, becoming in the process the largest Gothic palace in Europe.
A closeup of the portal on the palace church reveals that all of the religious figures around the portal were either hacked off or beheaded during the French Revolution:
From the palace, we could see the Pont d’Avignon, which spans (well, used to span, anyway) the Rhone between Avignon and Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, where we began our bike tour. It’s the inspiration for the song Sur le pont d’Avignon. The bridge was built between 1177 and 1185, then destroyed 40 years later during the Albigensian Crusade when Louis VIII of France laid siege to Avignon to purge the Cathars (we still have Carcassonne, a stronghold of the Cathars, on our list of places to visit in southern France someday. . .).
The bridge was rebuilt with 22 stone arches, which tended to collapse when the Rhone flooded. The bridge was eventually abandoned in the 17th century. The four surviving arches on the bank of the Rhone are believed to have been built in around 1345 by Pope Clement VI during the Avignon Papacy.
The town of Avignon was great – we hung out, ate roasted chestnuts (it was, after all, early October), and enjoyed the place.
We had two memorable experiences while in Avignon. The first was when Kevin was having a few beers in a bar on one of the city squares while Lisa was shopping. It was pleasant out, so he took his beer and went to sit out in the square and enjoy the afternoon. One of the waiters came out to check on him a while later, went back in to get Kevin another beer. He returned returned with two. He sat down, had a beer, and they both gawked at the cacophony of the crazy drivers honking and trying to navigate the square during what appeared to be Avignon’s rush hour. After looking bemused at the mayhem all around them while they were happily drinking beers, the waiter laughed, stood up, and declared, “Le theatre!”
The other experience involved pastis, the regional liquor of Provence. We saw the old guys in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence drinking this yellowish liquor while playing bocce and we asked them what it was. That evening in Avignon, we ordered some as an aperitif at dinner. The waiter brought two glasses of clear, amber-colored pastis out, along with a small pitcher of water. We looked at this arrangement, shrugged, and drank the pastis. It was definitely an anise liquor, and really strong.
On the ride to the airport the next morning, we struck up a conversation with the taxi driver. He asked if we had pastis while we were in Provence. We told him about our experience and asked him what the deal with the pitcher of water was. Just like the waiter the day before, he laughed. He said that you don’t drink it neat – you add whatever amount of water you need from the pitcher to dilute the pastis and make it palatable, changing its appearance in the process to a creamy yellow.
It’s supposed to look like this:
(Note that the pastis we had in Provence should not in any way be confused with another Pastis, the undisputed master of the complex and agonizing pun setup.)
Actual travel date: October 4, 2002