Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Early this morning, my parents and the other tour participants were transported to Avignon.

The journey took little over an hour.

En route, the tour guides warned tour participants about crime in Avignon, much of it directed against tourists. Avignon has suffered a crime wave against tourists going back to the late 1980s, and local authorities have proven themselves unable or unwilling to address the problem. Violent muggings of tourists in Avignon have become commonplace—and tour participants were advised to hide all valuables and to remain in groups.

Upon arrival, the tour group was given a guided walking tour of the walled portion of the ancient city.

My parents were enthralled. They described Avignon as “stunningly beautiful” and “itself worth crossing the ocean to see” and “the highlight of the trip thus far”—which means that my parents like Avignon very much.

The old Medieval ramparts of Avignon remain in place, one of the few cities in Europe of which this may be said. Twelve thousand persons currently reside within the Medieval ramparts of Avignon, signifying that old Avignon was a town of some size.

Of course, Avignon is all about its papal legacy—and, after the walking tour of the walled town had been completed, the tour group visited Avignon’s Papal Palace, seen here in a stock tourism photograph taken from the air, the only way to capture an image of the giant complex in its entirety.

The stock tourism photo not only presents the Papal Palace whole, it also shows how the Papal Palace completely dominates the town of Avignon.

(Avignon’s Cathedral, with a gilded statue atop its tower, may be seen immediately behind the Papal Palace. Part of The Bridge Of Avignon may be seen in the lower-left portion of the photograph.)

Avignon was seat of The Papacy between 1309 and 1377. Construction of the giant Papal Palace was begun in 1355 and completed less than twenty years later, an extraordinary achievement given 14th-Century technology.

The tour group was given a special guided tour of the palace supposedly unavailable to members of the general public.

Once again my parents were enthralled. The various churches and chapels inside the palace, the elaborate public passageways and stairwells, the lavish private apartments, the stately cloisters and courtyards: all were magnificent, brilliantly-designed and brilliantly-executed.

The Papal Palace was clearly intended to impress upon visitors the power and wealth of The Roman Catholic Church. Everything was on the grandest possible scale. Even the Pope’s private chapel, designed for the Pontiff’s exclusive personal use, was enormous.

The Papal Palace tour was ninety minutes in duration; at its conclusion, my parents believed they had barely scratched the surface—and vowed to return.

After the visit to the Papal Palace, the tour group was guided to a specialty cheese shop noted for “artisanal” cheeses. The tour group was allowed to sample any of hundreds of varieties of cheeses—and members of the tour group were expected to buy cheeses as well. Perhaps simply to demonstrate that they were good sports, my parents purchased four different cheeses for shipment to the U.S.

I doubt there will be a recurrence of what happened the last time my parents bought a unique food item in Europe.

I recall well the two boxes of marzipan my parents purchased three years ago in Southern Portugal under similar circumstances. Once the marzipan had been shipped home to Minneapolis, everyone took a bite—and called it a day (except for my nephew, who spit his marzipan out). Not even the dog would eat the marzipan.

Once tour participants were allowed to escape the cheese shop, they had the afternoon to themselves, free to explore Avignon on their own.

My parents had wanted to visit Musee Calvet, which is supposed to be an excellent art museum, but Musee Calvet is closed on Tuesdays. Consequently, my parents decided to devote their time to visiting Avignon’s Cathedral and Avignon’s famous bridge, after which they would spend any remaining time simply walking around the town.

Avignon’s Cathedral was in place almost two centuries before the Papal Palace was erected.

Almost overwhelmed by the mighty papal complex next door, Avignon’s Cathedral is an important structure in its own right.

The base of Avignon’s Cathedral is Romanesque, built in the 12th Century, and the interior remains largely Romanesque. However, the Cathedral’s exterior has been much-altered and much-expanded in succeeding centuries. The tower was not begun until the 15th Century and was not completed until the 19th Century. A gilded statue of the Virgin Mary lies atop the tower; it is the highest point in Avignon.

The interior is restrained, typical of Romanesque ecclesiastical architecture.

Numerous monuments are situated within the Cathedral, including at least two tombs of Popes who served during the years Avignon was seat of The Papacy.

Below the hilltop on which sits the Papal Palace and Avignon’s Cathedral lies The Rhone River. Immediately at the base of the Papal Palace and Avignon’s Cathedral is the famous Bridge Of Avignon.

The Bridge Of Avignon was constructed between 1171 and 1185. The original bridge was almost 3000 feet long, crossing an island and both channels of the Rhone, and was made of twenty-two arches. Over the intervening centuries, all but four of the arches have collapsed. One of the surviving arches supports a chapel devoted to Saint Benezet, the young man who planned and participated in the construction of the bridge.

The Bridge Of Avignon, whose pathway is only twelve feet wide, was a vital part of the Medieval transportation system not only within France but between Spain and Italy as well. For centuries, all overland travel between Spain and Italy involved a crossing of The Bridge Of Avignon.

Everyone who travels to Avignon walks the famous bridge jutting out into The Rhone—and my parents did, too.

Having explored Avignon’s Cathedral and Avignon’s famous bridge, my parents spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the town. They passed countless ancient churches and buildings of great interest. It was all too much for them to take in. My parents said it would take ten days to explore Avignon to satisfaction.

Early in the evening, my parents proceeded to a designated restaurant in the center of town, where tour members were to participate in a demonstration of authentic Provencal cooking by a renowned Provencal chef. According to my father, the cooking demonstration was “not unnecessarily painful”, which means that my parents survived the activity.

Quite naturally, at the end of the cooking demonstration, tour participants were treated to a Provencal dinner in the same restaurant. My parents said the food was quite good.

It was only after the Provencal dinner had concluded that tour members were finally transported to the hotel, located on the city’s outskirts (and across The Rhone River from Avignon), where the tour group will spend the next four nights.

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