Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Day 7 - Avignon

We woke to another delicious day, warming the morning air which surrounded our breakfast and the prospect of another thirty plus day, soaked in sunshine and with clear blue skies as the backdrop to make even the most amateur photos shine.

The dining area for the hotel is half inside, half out and as it was last night, dining outside was a popular option. Once fruits and cereals and yoghurts had been ingested, you waited while the chef personally prepared an omelette to your specifications.

I either digress or digest.

We were back to the walled city of Avignon in the morning, built beside the Rhone when a skinny kid from the mountains arrived with delusions of grandeur and hurled a stone across the river to prove he was not only strong of arm, but cunning enough to attempt the feat at the narrowest point of the Rhone. They made him a saint because unlike Flip Wilson, God made him do it.

The construction of the draw bridge started in 1177 and took about eight years to complete and was a convenient way for collecting taxes from those wanting passage across the river. It is the subject of the most famous French children’s nursery rhymes.

“Under the bridge at Avignon, all the ladies are dancing, dancing” but the reality is that it refers to the prostitutes and gamblers of the area, who found a place to party under the bridge at Avignon.

Palais-des-Papes (The Palace of the Popes) was constructed over time during the 14th century when the papacy moved from Rome to Avignon. It is an enormous castle which provided a safe home for a succession of Popes and a lasting reminder of the wealth and power the popes had at that time. We walked through great dining halls, cathedrals, enormous rooms where papal audiences were given, studies, bedrooms and other hutches in the ascending rabbit warren. Eventually, up on the parapets, we were dazzled by the view and then surprised to find a small café. The French are very civilised!

With its city walls, castle at its centre and narrow cobbled streets, Avignon is like a medieval movie set, except that its 1000 years of history are all real.

Sue and I ate in a lovely little café by the wall, where we once again managed to bridge the language gap. Where are these arrogant French we have been warned of?

Bought together as a group again, we moved across the valley to the site of the summer residence of Pope John XXII, high on a hill overlooking a small village. His chateau is in ruins now, with little more than one main wall standing but the view was staggering: to the west were the French Alps, tops covered in snow despite the summer temperatures and to the east was the beautiful Rhone River valley.

At the bottom of the hill, our group received a lesson in wine tasting at Caves - St Charles Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Appreciating wine is a very technical art and I soon learned that understanding the virtues of a good red is more involved than trying to put a good head on your claret. Three different applications of nose and as many of taste finally give you sufficient evidence to determine how good a wine is … apparently. Sculling s no longer a recognised method.

The evening was spent at the home of Benoit Maurin-Ducolibri, a Spanish and French speaking artist and restaurateur who only invites specific groups to his house. Sue and others donned their costumes and swam in the early evening heat, before we all sat about in his courtyard for a meal he personally cooked. We were amazed at his artwork, soon to be exhibited in Australia and we entertained each other with lively conversation until forced to return to our hotel.

In the late evening, rain fell for the first time in the tour – fat drops slapping on the round tiles and rushing to form rivers which fell in so many water falls from the variety of roofs to the white pebbled courtyard below.

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