A Travellerspoint blog

In Avignon

Papal Babylon

sunny 27 °C

From Carcassonne, we headed southeast towards Narbonne. Narbonne had once been the Roman provincial capital of southern France, but now there is no trace of the old Roman city. We stopped for a late breakfast and wandered up to the cathedral. In the 13th century the Narbonnese had planned a massive new cathedral for the city, but ran out money shortly after the nave was completed. Ingeniously they enclosed the end of the nave to create a somewhat compressed, but functional church. Jammed in amongst the now useless arcade of piers that mark out the position of the original walls, the Narbonne cathedral is an interesting, although unattractive, ode to the failure of grandiose ambition.

From Narbonne we stopped in at Beziers - the city so notoriously destroyed during the Albigensian crusade. The new (13th century) cathedral towered grimly over the city. Perhaps out of sympathy to all those who died within the original cathedral, the new church had been built more like a fortress - grey, stout and unadorned - than the soaring gothic cathedrals we were used to. We didn't stop in the city though but visited the Canals of the Midi just outside of town. The Midi Canals were an engineering marvel of the 16th century. Sea transport was always more efficient than road during the Middle Ages but to get their produce to market on the Atlantic Coast (for transport up to northern France, Britain and the Netherlands) the French had to sail from the Mediterranean all the way around Spain - a route that was particularly vulnerable to both North African and English pirates. So they cut a canal all the way from the Mediterranean near Perpigan, across the base of the Pyrenees to Biarritz on the Atlantic coast. At Beziers the canals go through a series of seven locks that raise (or lower) the canal several metres above the level of the plain. We arrived just in time to see a canal boat and a number of cruisers passing the locks. It was an impressive sight and it was amazing how quickly they were able to traverse the locks.

Driving on, we arrived at Nimes at about 2pm. We had come here solely because I wanted to the see Nimes famous Roman amphitheatre. The theatre was built in the first century AD and would have held about 24 thousand people. It is slightly smaller than the amphitheatre in Verona, Italy (to which it bears a close resemblance) but is better preserved. The Verona amphitheatre was stripped of much of its marble facing during the Middle Ages, but Nimes is mostly intact. Nimes is also home to a very well preserved classical Roman temple and other Roman remnants. Once again we found ourselves boxed into a series of one way streets and directed in precisely the opposite direction we were trying to go. At one stage we ended up in the narrow back streets just behind the main boulevard. Insanely, although there was barely room for our car alone in these streets, they were dual carriageways, which caused us no small amount of anxiety. When we did manage to get ourselves to the centre of town we found there was no parking at all (including paid parking) so we had to do another couple of laps. Eventually we snagged a spot not too many blocks from the amphitheatre. The weather was scorchingly hot in Nimes and so we didn't stay long. We grabbed a fairly disgusting burger from the French fast food chain - Quick (no resemblance to McDonalds I can assure you... sort of).
Shelly was just chuffed to bits when I said I also wanted to visit the Roman aquaduct at Pont Du Gard (well, it was on the road between Nimes and Avignon) and so promptly fell asleep in the car in protest. In fact this was probably the only time on the trip when Shelly fell asleep while in the car. Pont Du Gard was built in the first century BC to channel water to Nimes. It was once part of an 11 kilometre long network of aquaducts but is the only surviving portion. Despite its mundane purpose, it is a stunning piece of architecture. It spans the Gard River in three tiers of elegant arches, each tier smaller than the one below it. Some of the stones are enormous and yet the whole thing looks light and effortless. There was no entry fee to visit the aquaduct, but parking cost 5 euro, which wasn't too bad. When we visited in 1998 there were almost no facilities - in fact the only thing I can remember of the facilities was a rather unsavoury squatter toilet set back in the bush a little way from the carpark. There was a probably a souvenier stall too. Now there is an impressive tourist complex with museum, shops and a cafe. Although we'd only planned a 5 min photo stop we ended up walking all around the aquaduct, despite the heat. Then it was off to Avignon.
In 1309AD, Pope Clement V and the Papal Curia fled from Rome and settled in the southern French city of Avignon. For the next 70 odd years the Popes - all Frenchmen - reigned from here under the protection of the French kings. Prior to their arrival of the Popes, Avignon had been a fairly small town. In the early 1200's it had been sacked and burned during the anti-Cathar Crusades, so the Popes were almost starting with a fresh slate. They threw up a magnificent (although quite obsolete) new city wall and built themselves an enormous palace to rival St Peter's. The Popes never underestimated the positive effect they had on this region of rural France; as one senior cleric noted with some sarcasm (but little irony) to an aggrieved town counciller 'before we came to this city a traveller would be hard pressed to find one lady for hire between the walls of the city, but now there are over ten thousand.'

Avignon is an elegant city. The full circuit of city walls have been well preserved but within the walls the city is no museum piece. People still live and work within the old city - quite unlike Carcassonne. We had managed to jag a room at the Etap Hotel directly outside the southern gate of the city. We wandered up through the modernised residential neighbours until we hit the main boulevard that runs through the centre of the city. Avignon was obviously a fairly wealthy city and the main boulevard was like a little Champs Elysee. Shelly was keen on visiting the boutiques but I wanted to photograph the city before the light disappeared. I dragged her down some sidestreets, across the busy ring road and over one of the many bridges over the river Rhone. The sun was setting and the Papal Palace, towering over the city was aglow in the last rays of the sun. We then wandered back into the city and found our way to the main square. The Papal Palaces tower oppressively over the main square. They are enormous in scale but as graceless as St Peter's in Rome is graceful. These were palaces built by men in fear and were intended to convey a dark sense of awe rather than rapturous wonder. Inside, the palaces are bare and a disappointment, like the Abbaye Royal. The bare limestone does not convey anything more than emptiness. We stopped for dinner and drinks in the new main square, just below the Papal Palaces. The tree lined clock square, decorated with the obligatory carousel and Hotel de Ville (town hall) was relaxed and atmospheric.
The next morning was spent taking care of business. We'd recently had some financial difficulties which had led to a few calls back and forth to my bank. To sort things out we needed to find an internet cafe - never easy in regional France. Needless to say this caused us unwanted aggravation and took up a surprising amount of time. Shelly tried to get a little shopping in but after the morning's adventures her heart wasn't in it. I still had some sightseeing to do and led Shelly on a wild goose chase around the old city (yes, I did get lost again). We eventually found our way up to the Papal gardens that sit on a limestone bluff at the northern end of the city. The gardens were quite basic but the view over the river was delightful. But it was time to move on - almost. I had another personal matter to attend to....

Did you know that after the Reconquista in Spain the Jews and Muslims were given the choice of converting to Christianity, leaving or being killed? Some left, most converted. But the Church was never entirely convinced these conversions were genuine (really?) so the Popes sanctioned an inquisition into activities un-Christian. Amongst the many un-Christian activities that could get you denounced to the Spanish Inquisition was bathing. You see Muslims and Jews had a peculiar obsession with cleanliness - ritual ablutions, daily bathing, personal hygiene and clean clothes. Christians on the other hand tended to wash at least once a year, whether they needed to or not. So the first thing the Inquisition did was to destroy all the public toilets and bath houses. Then they began destroying the baths in private houses. Having a bath or wearing clean clothes (except on very special occasions) was enough to get you denounced and that, well...., you really didn't want that to happen.... The hygiene factor alone was such a differentiator between ye old Christians and ex-Muslims, that the agents of the Inquisition literally would "sniff out the heretics." Hence the origin of another old saying (oh, I'm full of it!).

I had been complaining for days to those who would listen (that's basically Shelly) how I would give anything for a meat pie or something not French. In Avignon that morning my prayers were answered and I found what we would call in Australia a "sausage roll" or something very similar, and I ate it with gusto. But several hours later, while wandering the Papal gardens, my stomach advised me that perhaps that sausage roll wasn't such a good idea after all. And it was quite insistent. The priority became - find a public toilet, very quickly. By good fortune there was one in a far corner of the garden. Now, I may not have the nose of the Spanish Inquisition ("nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition") but even from a distance I could tell this was not going to be a very pleasant experience. Yes, I know that squatter toilets are better and more healthy for your bowels, and yes, I've been to plenty that were sparkling and clean. But this was not one of those. Suffice it say Avignon's public toilets are not on my list of highlights of France.

Posted by paulymx 22:02 Archived in France Tagged backpacking

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