For as much as I love thinking of myself quasi-nomadic, I sure like to talk to myself about someday settling down. Every place we visit is looked at through the lens of could-we-live-here? Avignon is one of those places. We spent 6 weeks there in 2016-2017. It was near the top on our list on our oft-mentioned 9 month arewereallygoingtodothis? withabaseorasfullnomads? test drive. We went back to Avignon for a visit on one of our last excursions from Montpellier, and I was smitten all over again.
I used to joke and say that if I bought a pair of socks and got a haircut in a town that it counted as having lived there. This is the simplest definition of living somewhere: spending time on day-to-day chores vs on tourist frivolities. After the chaos of this past year, I’m adopting a new definition: did I make a friend there? If not, I’ve only seen it, more or less thoroughly. And then, given that there’s always something new to discover even in places I think I know well, I’m wondering when can I say I’ve really seen a place? We’ve been to at least 120 towns in France alone, for day trips, overnights, or longer. (Yes, I counted.) Does that count for having seen France? It’s fractal; the more I see, the more I realize I haven’t seen anything. But I digress.
Avignon is famous for its half bridge, wholly completed in 1185. Back then it was an important crossing on pilgrimage and trade routes, given that it was the only bridge across the Rhone between Lyon and the Mediterranean. Three quarters of the bridge was destroyed in 1226 during a siege, rebuilt, and then mostly destroyed again by a flood in the early 1600s. Despite attempts to rebuild, which were interrupted by outbreaks of plague, the bridge was again half washed away. The Avignonnais gave up.
There is a huge island in the river, Île de la Barthelasse, 9.8 sq km, which makes for a nice, easy escape from town via a free ferry.
Unlike many medieval cities, Avignon somehow managed to maintain its protective walls despite centuries of change.
Other than its semi-bridge, Avignon is famous for being the seat of the alt-pope (as our friend Paul so wittily puts it) during the 1309 schism in the Catholic church, starting when Pope Clement refused to move to Rome.
Complete with creepy cherubs
And modern hats
To get to the palace via the back entrance, you have to go through a cutaway in the rock, or as we call it, the popehole.
And if you go up the popeslope on the other side, you come to this excellent garden
But what is thrilling about Avignon is the number of artists living there. It’s the home of an extensive and famous summer theater festival, sadly canceled last year and probably this one as well. There’s a good number of visual artists too. Mark and I attended a studio walk and not only got to see some terrific work, but we also got to peer into people’s homes and work spaces which was every bit as interesting as their art. It would have been rude to photograph their work so I’ll just show you a sculpture from outside the fine arts museum.
All of this makes Avignon a very pleasant town. It’s highly walkable, has excellent restaurants, nice leafy squares, and a great culture scene. But what threw it over the top for me was its chaotic and insane Christmas parade. Salvador Dali once shot a film in Avignon called Giraffes on Fire. So naturally, they celebrate Christmas with giant red giraffe puppets, complete with Santa’s elves carrying devices to draw lines of fuel in the streets, which they lit on fire. Of course. Oh, and Santa’s elves were pretending to vandalize banks and shops along the route. Because what says Christmas more than that? That’s definitely my kind of holiday. Forget the dry turkey, give me lit giraffes.
Despite Avignon’s numerous attractions, I don’t see us living there, but I would definitely go back for a long visit, and try to make a friend of a fellow lover of good chaos.