A great way to beat the early-spring blahs in Paris is to pick up and leave. It's been typically dreary lately, with a few cold sunny days thrown in for kicks. Despite it being a relatively mild winter, this was seriously one of the longest stretches of time that I've donned my winter coat. Some sunshine was needed.
We headed for Avignon on the TGV for a long weekend. It's less than 3 hours from Paris, yet it's pretty much on the other side of the country. The good-weather side of France, on the Mediterranean. Right in the middle of Rhone Valley wine country. I couldn't wait. If you book ahead far enough in advance or you are flexible enough with your dates, you can get here pretty cheaply as well.
Except I made a small mistake. I didn't realize there were two train stations in Avignon. The one I thought and put on my map was "Avignon- CentreVille" which was central as could be and about a ten minute walk to our hotel, but we ended up at the "Avignon- TGV" station, which spat us out at the edge of an industrial part. Some TGV trains stop at the Central station, but not ours, ha ha! There is a shuttle that runs between the two, but we ended up walking the 4km into town along a busy highway through a stinky industrial park. Not recommended!
Ahh, Provence! The Lavender fields that was not.
Eventually we found our way to the city walls.
Avignon has a great medieval town center, surrounded by the ancient ramparts.
It's one of those places that is great fun to get lost and explore the winding narrow streets. Parts of it are a little shabby and sad-looking, but it was just old and charming with cafes spilling out onto the squares, and a great deal of it was shut off to auto traffic.
Avignon is most notable in history for being the home of the French Popes. Fractions with Rome, blah blah blah. An enormous Gothic palace was built and expanded on by the next nine popes before they kissed and made up with Rome after the next century passed.
The Palais des Papes is a Unesco site, and worth spending an afternoon wandering around.
The castle is enormous and sprawling, perched high above the rest of the city on le Rocher les Doms overlooking the muddy and fast Rhone river.
It is also home to one of the creepiest, darkest churches I've ever been in. I walked in, turned on my heel and walked right out. It was lit only by candle light, filled with choking amounts of incense, and they had an odd, prone dead jesus at the alter.
The 14th century palace was short on furnishings, but had a few really beautiful Italian frescoes, and it was just quite impressive size-wise. Each pope had tried to outdo their predecessor by building a grander wing.
All of this built on what was once a Celtic fort and some Roman temple ruins.
While the weather in Provence is generally downright pleasant, it's not an easy place to travel if you aren't shedding cash like a Labrador retriever sheds fur. It's kind of the Florida of Europe: there are tons of older British and German couples who retire here, and none of them seem like they are exactly into roughing it. While it's easy to get around and see the sights, everything is much pricier here then you might expect. Even good food was hard to find: we had some disappointingly mediocre meals for quite a bit more coin than they were worth, but also some fairly fantastic ones for Parisian prices. Still, the whole area had a great deal of appeal...nearby beaches and parks, mountains, great vineyards, tons of Roman ruins, beautiful little villages scattered among the lavender fields. A victim of its own success, really.