Farewell to 2005 in Avignon

Friday 30th December 2005, Avignon
This campsite is really so convenient we have decided to stay a little longer and even to use it as a base to visit surrounding areas. The weather continues to be bitterly cold but here we have hot showers and access to electricity for heating Modestine.

According to today’s Meteo (French weather news) temperatures in parts of the Jura are at minus 24 degrees so it is probably as well we did not take Susanne up on her suggestion that we should return to Champagne-sur-Loue for Christmas!

The wind had dropped today and the air felt marginally warmer as we walked across the bridge into the town. By lunch time however, snow had started to fall in swirling white flakes that settled without thawing. We sought shelter for a couple of hours in an internet café before discovering a little Thai restaurant in a side street where we enjoyed an excellent authentic lunch of nems, rice and pork with bamboo shoots. The accompanying cheap table wine however was so sharp we reckon it must have been specially imported. Such a fantastic wine producing area as this would be incapable of producing anything so acidic.

During the afternoon we investigated the picturesque rue des Teinturiers beside the little river Sorgue where three of the many original water wheels are still turning, though today so heavy with icy accretions one had frozen solid! Until the 19th century this quarter was used for dyeing cloth and calico printing.

Rue des Teinturiers in the falling snow, Avignon

Frozen waterwheel in the rue des Teinturiers, Avignon

The gloomy interior of the 14th century Eglise St. Didier hides a remarkable treasure – an incredibly expressive marble carving in high relief of Jesus carrying the Cross by Francesco Laurana. Unfortunately the church was too dark to appreciate the paintings and statues in its several side chapels.

In a small square just inside the ramparts stands Avignon’s original 17th century theatre, now transformed into an art gallery.

Original theatre, Avignon

Wet with snow and numbed by the cold we sought out the traditional haunt of homeless drop-outs during the winter time and headed for the warm seats of the reference section in the public library. This is not your average dosser’s refuge being housed in the Hôtel Ceccano, a 14th century cardinal’s mansion still with frescoed wall decorations and high ceilings with heavy painted beams! Here we slowly thawed out as we browsed through the travel books about Southern Spain and Portugal, gazing in awe at weather charts claiming January temperatures of 8 to 17 degrees!

Public library in the Hôtel Ceccano, Avignon

Leaving a puddle of melted snow on the cardinal’s carpet we headed back into the darkening streets of Avignon where, hunched against the chill and the ever-tumbling snowflakes, we walked back across the wide expanse of the bridge to our island in the middle of the Rhone where Modestine waited patiently. This is home to us and with the fire turned on, more welcome than any cardinal’s mansion.

Saturday 31st December 2005, Avignon
New Year’s Eve with one of the most magnificent views to be enjoyed anywhere in France just outside of Modestine! There is a restaurant nearby which we may explore later but with menu prices starting at 40 euros we decided to dine at home. According to the radio, to celebrate New Year tonight a couple can expect to pay around 500 euros for a meal with drinks included! Apparently bookings are down about 30% this year. We wonder why!

This morning the ground was still covered in snow but the air was warmer. Soon a drizzle began that gradually gave way to a mizzling fog. This time we walked across the bridge to the opposite bank and spent the day discovering Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. This is a lovely area and is anything but a ville neuve, dating back to around 1300. It was used by the cardinals as a residence outside the city to escape La Peste (Plague or Black Death.) It has a very different feel to it than that of Avignon with its bustling shops and tourist areas. Probably in the summer it would be well frequented but today we had the place pretty much to ourselves. There is almost a village feel to its streets of ancient white stone houses with their mullioned arched windows, ancient stone balconies and decoratively carved corbels.

Camping car or igloo?

Villeneuve-lès-Avignon with the tower of Philippe le Bel

Mediaeval windows in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon

Mediaeval house with stairwell, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon

As we descended the cobbled road between the buildings to the town centre we were offered spectacular views towards the fort of St. André, standing high above the Rhône facing the Papal Palace on the opposite bank. Throughout the day the views have been obscured by the dank mist but in its way it has added a charm of its own.

Fort Saint André from Villeneuve-lès-Avignon

There are two things not to miss in Villeneuve. The first is the Carthusian Monastery known as La Charteuse du Val de Bénédiction, which we visited during the morning. This had started as a property of Pope Innocent VI who donated it to the Papacy when he was elected Pope in 1352. It was later enlarged and developed to provide accommodation for 12 monks, each with their own cell. Actually they were each the size of a small house with a little herb garden. They were constructed on two floors with a fireplace and stone toilet that was better appointed than some we have seen in current use around France today! They were a silent order, each living in isolation and supplied with food, books and writing materials to enable them to spend their time in religious contemplation. (Sounds cushy to us!)

Entrance to La Charteuse du Val de Bénédiction, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon

The monastery had several cloistered gardens, a laundry room, cells for the sick and for prisoners – monks incarcerated for sins of the flesh! Pope Innocent VI has his tomb in the remains of the church. The monastery was sold off at the time of the Revolution, its rich library and works of art being scattered and the building severely damaged.

Church cloister, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon

Tomb of Pope Innocent VI, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon

Cemetery cloister showing chimneys of the monks’ cells, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon

14th century fresco by Mateo Giovanetti depicting the life and death of St. John the Baptist, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon

The best thing about sight-seeing in the winter is that we have everywhere to ourselves which is great for photos. The worst thing is that the dank stone buildings chill us to the bone. The melting snow and mizzling rain on the roofs meant the gargoyles where permanently spewing water into the cloisters and Jill was soon so numbed by the cold she ceased bothering to struggle through the display panels in French explaining the complex religious history of France, the Papacy and the crusades. Ian though is made of sterner stuff, so it was well after lunch-time that we eventually emerged and headed for one of the town bars. Inside all was warmth and light and crowded with locals drinking, chatting, smoking and betting on the Trotting, which they followed on the overhead TV behind the bar. (Trotting is a really popular sport in France though doesn’t seem to exist in Britain. Basically it’s a lightweight, horse-drawn chariot raced around a course by a jockey.)

The patron said lunches had finished but he could cook us a bavette (sort of half-raw steak) served with a pepper sauce, French fries and runner beans. Bliss! We sank into a corner, peeled off soggy jackets and steamed gently with a glass of wine, watching the clientele until our meals arrived. Feeling warm, fed and comfortable we indulged in people-watching which in France can be a very colourful experience with lots of kissing, back slapping and joking taking place between regulars. The bars are social centres, almost clubs, where friends gather together, rather than inviting people to their homes.

The patron bought us coffee, explaining apologetically that he was just rushing off for the weekend and had to drive to Toulouse, four hours away, but that his assistant would look after us. He then shook hands with everyone in the bar, including us, wishing us all a happy New Year and disappeared in a great flap to his car, clutching a bottle of champagne and a huge bouquet of red roses.

Outside in the street, with full stomachs, the temperature seemed less penetrating and the rain had practically stopped, so we climbed up to the second sight not to be missed in Villeneuve, the Fort Saint André with its enormous, overpowering entrance of twin towers. Here we were shown into a small door at the base of one, which was locked behind us, leaving us to explore at leisure and make our way up three floors of spiral staircases onto the roof, across and down the stairs on the opposite side. Huge, cold, bare, empty stone chambers some with little dark, damp passages leading off to stone latrines overhanging the outside walls. On one floor was a bread oven, on another a prison. If the prisons were anything like as cold as today, residents would not have survived there for long. We were glad to leave as the outside air was considerably warmer!

Twin Towers, Fort Saint André, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon

Bread oven, Fort Saint André, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon

Latrine outlets, Fort Saint André, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon

Fort Saint André through the mist, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon

Benedictine Abbey inside the Fort Saint André, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon

Views from the roof would have been spectacular had visibility been better. Tant pis, we had the place to ourselves and an atmosphere not often experienced by visitors.

We continued along the near complete rampart walk around the fort before descending back into the town. By this time it was dusk so we made our way back across the bridge to our campsite and Modestine.

As midnight approached we crossed the bridge into Avignon to see what may be happening. Everywhere was bright with coloured lights, restaurant windows showed couples and families celebrating the New Year with huge tiered salvers of seafood,
crowds of young people were milling around street corners, and groups of young gendarmes strolled around looking rather intimidating with their guns and batons. There was a general happy feeling but nothing specific seemed to have been organised and the square in from of the Papal Palace was completely deserted.

So we returned to our campsite which tonight is full of Italian camping cars. They were busy setting off firecrackers, drinking champagne and generally being as cheerful as only Italians know how to be. It felt more festive here than back in the town!

So we end 2005 with that view we mentioned earlier. It comes with our love and good wishes to all of you for a truly happy and healthy 2006.

Le Pont D’Avignon at midnight on New Year’s Eve