Not far north of Marseille stands a city still completely surrounded by its medieval walls of defence. Old Avignon can easily be crossed multiple times by foot in the space of an hour. Close to the centre of town stands a towering palace of immense proportion.
It was here in 1309 that the popes took up residency after leaving Rome due to political turmoil. For the better part of the next century the popes conducted all of their business from Avignon, not only building and extending the papal palace, but forming alliances and increasing their reach at the same time.
It is bitingly cold as I walk through the empty stone rooms of the palace, my audio-guide held tight to my ear. The tour takes me through the ancient courtyard;
through the vast rooms where manuscripts were produced, gold counted, and sermons given;
and it ends on the roof my scarfs whips wildly in the hurricane force winds, and I can barely manage the button on my camera to snap a few pictures.
After this first afternoon I desperately need to warm up, so I spend the rest of the afternoon drinking hot green tea and eating hearty local cuisine.
Here in Avignon people just about trip over themselves to speak english with me, or bring me a copy of an english menu. At first this used to bother me, couldn’t people see that I wanted to speak french? But in Avignon I realized that it is more that this is a form of hospitality. My accent is strong so people know instantly I’m a native english speaker, and they want to make me feel comfortable. They want too, to show me that they are prepared to welcome me.
It’s also that they want to speak english in the same way I want to speak french – this I can understand. I begin to welcome this – don’t get me wrong, I still only speak french in response, but at least I no longer feel like they are mocking me.
On Sunday morning there is the famous Pont Avignon to explore.
Well known all over France, and Canada too, for it’s appearance in the well known children’s song “Sur le pont d’Avignon,” Avignon’s bridge was also important for its role in physically connecting the French monarchy to the papal city. The proximity created by the bridge introduced trade and the beginnings of political relations between these two states.
In the hundreds of years since the papacy left Avignon and returned to Rome, the majority of Pont Avignon has been swept away by raging floods in the Rhône River. Only three of twenty-four original arches remain, creating the striking visual of a bridge that leads nowhere.
It is odd too, to stand on a bridge that leads nowhere at a point in my life where I feel like I am metaphorically on a bridge that is going everywhere. Anything is possible. This is truly only the beginning.