Updated: May 20
On the road towards the small town of Uzès, we meandered through a few Provence villages and towns, trying to avoid the highway.
We didn’t succeed on the way to Solliès-Pont, where my cousin lives, and ended up on the A8 highway. My cousin gave us the trick: find a village somewhere on the way, and enter that location into GPS. Most probably, it will provide a route through smaller roads, i.e. the scenic route. It is a useful method!
Leaving Solliès-Pont – a small village in the outskirts of Toulon – we pointed towards Belgentier and found a beautiful road through villages and vineyards. When we reached the town, we entered Aix-en-Provence into the GPS and traveled mostly via smaller roads.
Aix is a beautiful old Provence city. We were mostly in what appeared to be the touristy area (not a single grocery store in sight; only boutiques and restaurants, but also vintage market and a farmers’ market) and meandered through the streets and squares.
When we left Aix, we randomly chose a town that appeared to be on the slow route to Avignon: Moulin Vernègues, and once again drove though sleepy towns, vineyards, and fruit tree orchards, as well as strawberry stands. We never saw the Moulin – we ended up at a golf course and went back and on to Avignon, the last 30 minutes of the journey on the A7 highway.
We entered Avignon through 20th century neighborhoods, and then we saw the old city wall. It is magnificent. After dropping off out bags at our Airbnb, we set off for the Pont d’Avignon, the subject of a well-known children’s song. We traversed the old city, which is quite different from Aix, Nice and other southern old towns. Some streets were deserted, other areas with restaurants were livelier. Many beautiful old buildings were in dire need of rehabilitation. Avignon is a city of cultural events since many years. We passed by the opera house; on the way back, there was a long line of people waiting to enter! We found the old bridge, which seems to have lost a section along the way. We couldn’t get on to it, because the office providing entry was closed.
We returned the next day, and lo and behold! For 4 Euros each (senior citizen price), we accessed the bridge.
The history of Avignon is much more complex than I had ever imagined. To make a long story short, as Avignon’s story dates back to prehistoric times, and passes through the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, and many more. In 1309 it became a pontifical residence, as it seems Rome was deemed unsafe. In later years, it became the capital of Christianity. In 1348, Pope Clement VI bought the town from the Queen of Naples. There was extensive construction. There was (and still is) a large library. The decline of Avignon as the capital of Christianity started in 1378, when another pope was elected in Rome; by 1417 the papacy was firmly established in Rome again.
As for the famous bridge… its history is no less complex. It was first built as a wooden bridge and known as the Pont Saint-Bénézet, by 1185. This version was destroyed during a siege 40 years later. Starting in 1234, it was rebuilt in stone with 22 arches. However, the Rhône river flooded regularly and it constantly had to be rebuilt, which was proving to be quite expensive! So it was not used any longer by the mid-17th century. Four arches, a gatehouse and a chapel remain.
The bridge, also known as… le Pont d’Avignon, is the inspiration for the song of the same name (modern version hails from the mid-19th century). However, from what I read in the small museum area on the bridge, nobody ever danced ON the bridge, despite the song! People started coming to walk along the banks of the Rhône – in nice weather, it is a beautiful place to stroll – and probably danced UNDER the bridge, in such case the song should be “Sous le Pont d’Avignon” rather than “Sur le Pont d’Avignon”!
Nowadays, Avignon is a cultural capital, and the Festival d'Avignon takes place this year July 7-26.
Note: I read everything I found at the Bridge museum and in the old town, but looked up both Avignon’s complicated history and the story of the bridge on Wikipedia. I donate every year… it may not be perfect but it beats an enormous encyclopedia collection if you have internet access! Please consider donating to the Wikimedia Foundation too! (And no, I am not affiliated in any way.)