Today we are in the beautiful French city of Avignon in Burgundy. This is one of the few remaining cities that has all its city walls still in place; the walls stretch for over three miles. At our berth along the Rhone, the SS Catherine sits in view of the old city walls. Only a small percentage of the citizens live within the walls. Although it is possible to drive within the walled old city, parking is scarce so most of the residents park outside and large parking lots sit between our ship and the city walls.
We will visit the UNESCO designated district after breakfast today. After records highs of 102 in Grignan yesterday, it is expected to be 105 degrees Fahrenheit (41 Celsius) in Avignon today. We hope to get our outside touring done in the morning and then relax. I might do a little shopping in the afternoon. Boris came off the ship with me, realized how hot it already was at 9 am and that the whole tour was walking, and turned around and went back on the ship. Our primary destination in the city is the Palace of the Popes which has a lot of steps and Boris had hoped for a bus to get us there to conserve his energy. The heat is really draining for him.
The cruise director had offered Boris the opportunity to join the bus tour to the Roman aqueduct, but he has been there before. I would have loved to have seen it. The Pont du Gard is a 2000-year-old tri-level aqueduct which spans the entirety of the Gardon River for a total of 31 miles. It was built in 19 BC and is a UNESCO designated site.
Following our Avignon guide, I crossed the subway (under street), passed the parking lots, and entered through one of the eight city gates. Avignon is a fortified city rich in medieval history; its buildings, 39 towers, 8 gates, walls, and bastions were built between 1350 and 1368 and restored in the 19th century.
We stopped first at one of the main squares and noted the Theater. The plaza had been completely filled with art installations, a carousel, and restaurants with outside seating that oozed into the central spaces. It might have been charming had it not been so crowded. Watch that you don’t trip over one of the many electrical cables taped to the ground.
Once we made it to the huge square sitting in front of the Palace of the Popes, our guide went off to purchase the tickets giving us a chance to photograph the impressive façade. The Palace is actually two buildings which were joined together, the older palace of Benedict XII, the east and northeast wings, and the “new” palace of Clement VI, the west wing. Clement VI is considered the most extravagant of the Avignon popes and the difference is obvious when touring the structures, perhaps most directly obvious when you tour the private chambers of these two popes, viewed one after the other on the tour. Later popes made only minor additions or changes to the Palace.
Palsis des Papes, Palace of the Popes in English, “is one of the largest and most important medieval Gothic buildings in Europe. Once a fortress and palace, the papal residence was the seat of Western Christianity during the 14th century. Six papal conclaves were held in the Palais, leading to the elections of Benedict XII in 1334, Clement VI in 1342, Innocent VI in 1352, Urban V in 1362, Gregory XI in 1370 and Benedict XIII in 1394.” Wikipedia
The Papal Curio was moved to Avalon in 1309 when violence broke out over the election to Clement V in 1305. The Palace is huge and does require that the visitor is able to navigate a number of stairs. It is incredibly hot and Boris would have been exhausted before we even made it inside. There is major construction going on in the courtyard and the navigation wasn’t direct.
The Palace is empty. It was stripped of all its decoration during the French Revolution. It was later used as a military barracks. Some of the frescoed chapels can still be seen, as well as the decoration in the bedrooms of the popes. Photographs are allowed, but you are not permitted to photograph or videotape the frescos.
After our Palace tour, we ventured a little farther into the walled city. There are some wonderful shops and the city is quite charming, but the day had grown incredibly hot. I was happy when I realized our next destination, Les Halles, was air conditioned. Les Halles is a wonderful enclosed market with meat and seafood vendors, vegetable and fruit stands, cheese shops, and so much more. Our guide recommended the oyster bar at the far end, but it was closed today (the proprietors were probably on their own annual holiday).
Given the bar was closed, after I looked around Les Halles I decided to go over to one of the cafes just outside the market and enjoy a cool drink for the balance of our free time. I was surprised when they asked to see my COVID vaccination card, even when I was sitting outside. Not a problem for me, I was excited and felt fortunate to receive my vaccinations (2 shots of Pizer) in March. Just a few days ago, France began requiring vaccinations for those entering indoor spaces. (They had checked our cards at the palace.) Apparently, the regulation applied to café patrons whether seated inside or outside. I had my vaccination card; we had wisely carried them every day when we were off the ship. In France, they referred to it as a “pass”.
I love sitting at French cafes, especially outside. You get to experience a bit of French culture and you can’t beat the people watching. I enjoyed a sparkling water in one of my favorite pink bottles that I collect and a cold Coke. With the breeze and an umbrella overhead, sitting, watching, and enjoying a cold beverage felt like a little bit of heaven.
After the tour group gathered again, we headed back to the ship. While many of the guests peeled off to do a little shopping, I wanted to check on Boris so I went back to the ship. Once outside the walls, we asked the guide about the city’s famous bridge. The Pont Benezet was built between 1177 and 1185 to span the Rhone River. After a flood in 1668 destroyed portions of the bridge, only 4 of the 22 arches remain. It is considered the most famous bridge in France and children even learn a nursery rhyme about the bridge, “Sur le Pont d’ Aviglon”. The bridge is only one over from where we are docked.
Boris had a relaxing morning and joined me for lunch. It has gotten so hot, over 100 degrees Farenheit, that I am not sure I want to walk around town shopping. Boris and I decided to join the Chateauneuf du Pape wine tasting this afternoon. We will go by bus to that wine producing region and stop at one of the new winery tasting room for a presentation and tasting. Ironically, Chateauneuf du Pape is where we rejoined the boat after our tour yesterday as it sailed down the Rhone toward Avignon.
Another alternative tour is a kayak tour down the Gardon River. They will pass under the aqueduct. I would have loved to go if it wasn’t so hot. We talked some of the guests that did go after they got back and they said there were so many people swimming in the river to cool off that they were constantly dodging bodies.
The bus drive out provided beautiful scenery, but the tour guide was a little off. She liked singing “Sur le Pont d’ Aviglon” and led the bus in song several times; I opted out. We passed so many wonderful castles and vineyards, but there were no photo stops.
It was the Avignon popes who promoted the wines of this region and John XXII who built the castle that is the symbol of the area. Chateauneuf du Pape literally translates as “the Pope’s new castle”. The wines of this region are very popular in France, mostly bold reds but there are some whites. The whites can be hard to find since only 7% of fields are planted with the white grapes. Several people on the tour really love the wine. These are blended wines, officially using several of 13 grape varieties (although there are 20 varieties in the region). The most used grape variety in Chateauneuf du Pape is Grenache.
After the educational presentation on the region and the grapes, we were ready for the tasting. The winery representative did a nice job on the basics of tasting. The wines were offered with infused chocolate-one lavender, one thyme-as an example of how the right food combination can enhance the flavor of the wine. Neither Boris or I liked any of the offerings enough to buy the wine, but plenty of the guests did.
The guide made one more stop so we could take pictures of a hotel made to look like a castle. With all the wonderful authentic castles, it was a poor choice. She also led us in more singing on the way back. She was the only bad tour guide we had on our River Cruise. I was glad that Boris had an opportunity to get off the boat and they offered an excursion option that didn’t require us to spend much time outside.
Once back on the ship, we dressed for the Captain’s Dinner and then went to the Leopard Lounge for our COVID testing. To return to the United States, citizens and visitors must present a negative COVID test taken within the last 72 hours regardless of your vaccination status. Uniworld provided on-board testing at a cost of $40; they let us know that local pharmacies charged $25. The convenience was worth the slight additional cost which was paid to a pharmacist who came to our ship after his regular work day ended. Written results were sent to our stateroom and later we received formal paperwork with a QR code we could present at the airport.
We talked to some people who were staying on after the cruise and had to wait an additional day and do their testing at a local pharmacy. The results were supposed to be emailed, but they were still waiting for the results of their rapid test more than 8 hours later. I think we made the right call testing on board. The poor pharmacist that came over was exhausted. With the regulation change in France, he was overwhelmed with 20 someodds who wanted to go out on the weekend and were not yet vaccinated so they went through testing.
Dinner and Dancing tonight and then one more day of touring in France tomorrow.