PROVENCE: Slowing things down in the South of France
To celebrate the completion of my Fulbright year, my parents made a second trip across the pond to visit me (the first trip being during my fall break in October). This trip was particularly special, since my sister came with -- she had not yet been to Europe, so I was excited for her to get a small feel of what life over here is like.
I met up with my parents in Köln, where we all were able to spend time together with our former exchange student and her family. Then, we set out to France, the main destination for the trip.
Prior to this trip, I had already been to France twice. Once three years ago when I studied abroad and visited Paris, and then again this past December when I visited friends in Lyon. Both trips left positive impressions (especially my trip to Lyon) so I was excited to see even more of this beautiful country.
Our first destination was Avignon, a city far to the south (about an hour and a half away from the Mediterranean). Students of history may be familiar with Avignon due to the city's significance with regards to the papacy in the 14th century (see: the Avignon Papacy). Students of mindless nursery rhymes may be familiar with Avignon due to the stupidly catchy song, "Sur le Pont d'Avignon" ("On the Bridge of Avignon"). So, I had definitely heard of Avignon prior to visiting, but I wasn't particularly sure what the city would be like and what we should expect.
Arriving in Avignon was somewhat confusing because the TGV station (where long-distance trains arrive) is outside of the city, so you then have to navigate from that station to the central station. Our guide book (and Airbnb host) told us to head out and catch a shuttle of some sort, but when we asked for directions at the station, we were advised to instead catch a regional train. Seemed simple enough, but then we trouble figuring out exactly where we needed to go, plus the ticket machine couldn't be changed into English, so we then also had to fumble around with that a bit.
This was when I first began observing the lack of English-language accommodations in France. Both previous times I had been here, I had the benefit of being around people who did speak French, so I could just shut off my brain and do as I was told -- no stress buying tickets or ordering food. This time around, no such luck. The fact that the ticket machines couldn't be changed into English was pretty baffling to me. During this trip, I couldn't help but compare to how things are in Germany, and each time Germany came out the winner.
Before I complain much more, I want to make it clear that I understand that the national language of France is French, not English, and that as a foreigner, I can't just walk into a foreign country and expect everyone to speak to me in English and bend over backwards for me. I get it, I really do. That said, in this day and age in any city or place that clearly has a large tourist draw, I expect there to be some level of English-language infrastructure. If you want tourists to come and spend their money in your city, why make it difficult for them? Not having ticket machines in English at a major train station likely to be full of tourists? C'mon, France.
Once we finally sorted out the trains and made it into Avignon, we settled in and started to get a feel for the city. One thing my parents and sister constantly commented on (but that didn't feel as striking to me) was how worn and dingy much of the city looked. It wasn't necessarily that the city was in disrepair, more that things didn't look nicely taken care of, like someone wasn't actively trying to keep things looking neat. It didn't really bother me, and I don't know that it necessarily bothered them, but the city definitely wasn't gleaming.
That said, it had some undeniable charm. There were plenty of winding streets lined with tan buildings, the paint on their colorful shutters quietly peeling away. Our apartment was right around the corner from the lively Rue des Teinturiers, full of hip-looking wine bars and equally hip-looking young people.
Our first full day in Avignon, we focused on seeing what the city itself had to offer. We headed up to the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes), one of Avignon's most famous sights. It's an imposing, 14th-century palace once used as a papal residence during the Avignon Papacy. We opted not to go inside, because many reviews we had read of the palace said it was ultimately quite barren inside, and not that interesting to see. Instead, we walked past the palace to the Rocher des Doms, a pleasant little garden beside the palace. From there, we had some nice views of the surrounding area (including mountains, which I didn't realize was a topographical feature of the Provence region).
The opposite end of the gardens gave us a view of the St. Bénézet Bridge, the bridge the "Sur le Pont d'Avignon" song was written about. Today it looks like a sort of "bridge to nowhere" because it only stretches partway across the river. It did stretch the whole length of the river in former times, but eventually segments of it collapsed and the city decided not to rebuild it.
From the gardens we started our descent down to the river level by way of stairs that put us onto the old city walls. Avignon has a remarkably intact wall surrounding basically all of the inner city. We headed down to the street level by way of some semi-perilous stairs located in an old tower on the wall.
After a few hours of exploring the city, it soon became clear to us that as fair as major sights, we had basically seen everything that Avignon had to offer. It's a lovely city to be in, but not exactly rich in specific sights. After some deliberation, we decided to hop a train to nearby Arles, a town about 20 minutes away from Avignon.
Arles is a city perhaps most famous for its ties to painter Vincent van Gogh. He called the city home for several years and painted many of his most famous works there (like Starry Night over the Rhone). You can find some points in the city that directly correlate to the views captured in his paintings.
Arles is also famous for its Roman history; most significantly, the city has a large, well-maintained Roman Amphitheater that is still intact today.
Walking through the town, it definitely had a quieter vibe than Avignon, but it still kept the decidedly southern aesthetic of light brown- and cream-colored buildings with brightly painted shutters and doors (and again, many buildings looking a bit worn). I found it to be quite lovely.
The Roman Amphitheater, dating from 90 A.D., was very cool to see for me, because (having never been to Italy), it's basically the largest piece of Roman architecture I've seen yet (I think?). It's hard not to be impressed that something so old still stands so impressively and imposingly.
The following day, in the hopes of getting to see parts of the surrounding area that we otherwise might have trouble accessing, we decided to do something we'd never done before: rent a car in Europe. Part of our reluctance to do this was because neither of my parents is particularly experienced driving stick (at least not in recent years), and also because of general anxieties about driving in a foreign country. But since we had our former exchange student with us in Avignon, she was willing to drive us around (thanks, Kirio!).
Unfortunately, that ended up being far more of a clusterfuck than any of us could have anticipated (I usually try not to swear much in this blog, but there's really no other word for it). To make a long story short, we booked a car online with a navigation system (because we weren't comfortable driving without one), and when we got there, they did not have any separate systems or cars with built-in systems available. So then we had to fight with them for a while to get that situation remedied. They eventually gave us a newly returned car with a navigation system... except then the SD card was missing and the system wouldn't work without it. That led to more hand-wringing and frustration. Eventually, we were given a car that fit our needs, but took about two hours. By the end of it we were all pretty frazzled, and that put somewhat of a damper on the whole day.
Still, we had a car and we tried to make use of it. Our first stop was the town of L'isle-sur-la-Sorgue. When we originally were discussing where to go, I initially was a bit disdainful of making a trip there, because I didn't feel like any of the pictures I saw online looked that impressive. I'm very happy to say that I could not have been more wrong. We all fell in love with that little town. It was absolutely lovely -- not stunning, but just everything you thought that a random small Provence town should be like. A series of canals ran through the city, giving everything a slight Venetian feel (or at least that's what guidebooks say; I've never been to Venice). All of the buildings were so colorful and cheery, and that mixed with the gorgeous day meant it was hard to walk through the town without a smile on your face. We ate lunch in a park, then spent a few hours exploring. It was the perfect antidote to such a stressful morning.
Riding that high, we decided on Gordes as our next stop. Gordes is a small village of about 2,000 people perched picturesquely on a hillside. I had heard of Gordes before and was excited to see it for myself. The beauty of the village did not disappoint, but pretty much everything else did. Basically, we found when we arrived (in the mid-afternoon) that the town was a touristic mess. Cars and tour buses everywhere made navigating the roads difficult, and we were extremely lucky to have snatched a parking spot that allowed us to easily get a good view of the city and the valley below. But, the area was saturated with tourists, which also made it hard to get a nice picture. With such a mess just outside of the town and knowing that parking would be even more difficult in the tiny village, we decided not to try to enter it -- it just seemed like too much stress.
After that, we struggled to come up with our next destination. We thought about heading to nearby Rousillon, similar to Gordes, but since some members of our group were not fond of heights, another village on a hill didn't seem like the best course of action. We decided to head to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, another random point-of-interest-town in Provence. But after parking and walking around a short bit, there really wasn't much there that we found special or interesting. At that point, the group was starting to lag and the exhaustion of the stressful morning began to catch up with people, so we opted to just head home. So our first foray into car rental in Europe was not a huge success, but still, I'm very glad we were able to visit L'isle-sur-la-Sorgue.
The following day was our last in Avignon, and we decided to keep things simple -- no big plans, no day trips. Just enjoying the city at our own pace. It wasn't the most eventful of days, but at that point all of us were feeling a bit worn out from this supposed vacation. We needed to remind ourselves that traveling didn't always have to be about seeing as many places and churches and points of interest as possible -- sometimes it's enough to be somewhere different and enjoy that experience in and of itself.
If we could do it over again, I think all of us would agree that we should have just gone all the way to the Mediterranean and stayed in Nice. Avignon was a perfectly nice city, but we think relaxing on the Mediterranean would have been a better bet for us. Still, we had a great time exploring Provence and Avignon is still a city worth seeing, and it does provide a great homebase for daytrips in the area.
Moreover, I think a little regret can be a good thing when it comes to traveling -- it gives you the perfect excuse to come back to a place, so that this time you can do it "right."