In Avignon, no one really dances on the bridge, and as a matter of fact, no one ever did, in all probability.
Sur le pont d’Avignon
on y danse, on y danse
sur le Pont d’Avignon
on y danse tour en rond.
A French ditty that is simple enough for foreign students of la plus belle langue to learn, and therefore has made it in the heads of thousands, nay hundreds of thousands of middle schoolers all over Europe. Of course there are all kinds of things wrong with this song. First off, the original more accurately places the dancers under the bridge: sous le pont. The bridge itself is rather narrow, and traffic would have been seriously impeded by bunches of people who had nothing better to do than to disrupt commerce with their frivolous pastime. Today, it’s a moot point because the Pont Saint-Bénézet has only four arches of its original 22 left. Forty years after it was first completed in 1185 Louis VIII destroyed it, and when it was rebuilt, the Rhône River so often took out a few arches during high water that the people of Avignon grew tired of having to rebuild it. Today it is probably the most famous bridge to nowhere in all of Europe.
All of this is not to say that a visit to Avignon is disappointing, au contraire. But much of the city’s charm is found beyond those sites to which it owes its fame. Under the relentless Provencal sun, Avignon gets very hot, but the winding streets are narrow enough to find a little shade in them – you simply have to cross the street here and there. And as soon as the sun is up, there is nothing to stop you from getting a head start. The city’s biggest attraction by far is the palace of the Avignon popes, but before it opens, you can walk around it, always keeping it on your left, until you reach the Rue des Escaliers Sainte-Anne, the steps of St. Anne, which lead to the top of the Rocher des Doms, the promontory where the very first inhabitants of the area sought to defend themselves from intruders into their land. From here you have gorgeous views over Villeneuve-lès-Avignon and the Tour Philippe-le-Bel across the Rhône. That tower is how far the bridge once reached. The short stump that is left can also be admired from this viewpoint.
From here it is all downhill to the Cathedral Notre Dame des Doms d’Avignon and beyond it the 14th century Popes’ Palace. It’s a bit of misnomer, because despite some beautifully decorated rooms, it may be more appropriate to call it the Popes’ Fortress; there is nothing particularly inviting about its façade and the looming hulk of the building casts massive shadows on the surrounding area.
Having the popes live in Avignon from 1309 to 1375 initially completely overwhelmed the town’s infrastructure: cardinals brought hundreds of people in their entourage and an extraordinary building boom ensued. Pope Benedict XII built what is now known as the Old Palace. He must have been a humorless, dour fellow, because this part of the complex looks solid, boring and unfriendly, both inside and out. Benedict pinched pennies, only to have his successor splurge on the New Palace. Clement VI was responsible for anything colorful, intricate or luxurious that is left in the building today.
The best way to visit is with the self-guiding devices – pick a time early or late in the day, when tour groups have largely left or haven’t quite gotten there yet. From the palace it is not far to the Place d’ Horloge with its carrousel and its many cafés. A bit tucked away in the southwestern corner of the square is a short alley that leads to the Palais du Roure, a building with an inner courtyard that displays a collection of bells and houses a small museum of sorts about Provençal culture. There are a handful of these small museums where visitors can enjoy history, natural history and art in bit size chunks: the Musée Lapidaire in a former Jesuit church has ancient sculptures, among them one depicting the fearsome Tarasque, the local water monster. The Musée Calvet houses an eclectic art collection with some works by Manet, Corot and Sisley.
The Musée Anglodon has a van Gogh, and works by Cézanne, Modigliani, Picasso and others in a beautifully furnished 18th century house; of course, there is also the Musée du Petit Palais, next to the Palace of the Popes, which showcases Italian and Provençal art from the 13th to the 16th century, among other things.
Two other places of note: the Place Crillion, a little away from the center just inside the city walls, with the beautiful 18th century building of the Comédie, now a very chic store, has some quiet and I daresay romantic outdoor terraces. The place is beautifully lit at night. And of course there are the Halles, the covered market with the spectacular vertical garden by Patrick Blanc (the André le Nôtre of our days) on its façade.
In there is the splendid Maison du Fromage, the cheese temple where I got my Banon and the other cheeses for week 5. You see, even if you forget about the whole bit about dancing on the bridge, Avignon has an awful lot to offer.