I knew that I would go to Provence, with the dreamy landscape that has inspired so many artists I admire, any time I went to France. Therefore, I spent a while looking for a suitable destination in Provence that we could see in about one day, including travel. 9 days in France, in which most days you can go out only in the evenings, because of a conference, is not that much after all!! Marseille, is the most common destination, but it is quite far from Paris and too big. Arles ( apparently no longer in Provence?) had several points of historical interest, built by Romans, but not enough trains and was also slightly further than I was comfortable with.
So, after some thought and research I chose Avignon, the seat of the Pope for a couple of decades starting in the first decade of 14th century. I knew there were some things we wouldn’t be able to see, though they are also very popular (and beautiful) like the lavender fields, especially ones that are tended to by monks in an abbey, as they are hard to get to without a car from Avignon ( I didn’t want to rent a car for one day). But there was the Palais de Papes and the old Saint Benezet Bridge.
So, we bought the train tickets online at home. My husband didn’t want to buy them once we got to France, it was possible that they won’t be available the day we wanted to go. I don’t know why I really didn’t want to buy them here. One thing to keep in mind while buying tickets on the SNCF website ( that sells the TGV train tickets, that are the high speed trains in France and other European countries) catering to the US charge about twice the cost for a ticket. That is after even after the conversion. So we were advised by a very helpful blog to use other avenues. When changing the country of origin didn’t work, we used a french travel agency website – http://www.capitainetrain.com/. It is in French, but I had spent some time on a phrase book and a few CDs. It is not suitable for someone not familiar with even a single phrase in french, but is highly manageable if even a few pronouns and verbs are known. You have to create an account and then purchase. It still costs more than it would in France, I think, but nearly half that of the English SNCF websites.
The trick is to understand the ticket says once you have purchased it- but all you lucky ones who read this post, it just says that you have to print that ticket and get on the train. It is refundable up till 24 ours before departure, and after that they will charge about a 100 euros for cancellation, per ticket. Unless, of course, there is a valid reason. We will shortly come to that.
We were going to Avignon, on a thursday, right before we left Rueil Malmaison the next day to stay in Relais Bosquet in Paris for the weekend.
We reached Gare de Nord about 50 minutes before the train time and went to the information counter to find the platform, as our train was not showing on the monitors. The girl said, you have to change your tickets. There is a strike and this train is cancelled.
Now, if anyone ever doubts my misgivings again, I will have them know, they are almost never misguided. Huh!
Anyhow, we were told we can take any train that day, there were others running to Marseille which would stop at Avignon, but there was little likelihood of getting a seat. It is a 3 hr train ride. I was super pissed and decided that we were not standing for 3 hrs and we should get the tickets cancelled. We stood in line for half and hour, then in front of one employee for another half an hour before they found someone who could tell us why they can’t cancel our ticket and refund it. We had bought first class tickets ( in our joy of finding a cheaper website). They told us that since we bought the tickets from a travel agency they can’t refund it and if we changed our tickets it would cost 150 euros more each person.
Unfortunately, we had not bought an international package for our phone, therefore outside our hotel rooms we couldn’t check our emails, and had I checked mine the day before or early morning, I would have found an email by capitaine trains, giving me an option to cancel my tickets. With apologies and refund. However, since I was not aware of that at the time, I got really angry and went into one of my black moods ( my poor husband!). Decided to take the train at 11. They had told us that our return train should still run ( we imagined we would get our seat in that one).
I didn’t take nay pictures of where we got to sit in the train, but for those who have been on an amtrak or a TGV, I sat behind the last seat in a cabin in between the luggage rack and the back of the seat. Thank God for my size, my feet were trampled on only minimally and I even fell asleep. I couldn’t read my book ( Anathem) and I remained in the black mood. My husband sat with his back to the luggage rack. A girl slept in one. Another girl sat in front of me, in the same place. All announcements are in French in these trains, always.
We reached and I realized I really didn’t know how to get to the city, I imagined it was walking distance, but it may not be so. We certainly couldn’t see the walls of the historic city ( it is a walled in city) from anywhere in the station. I looked around and saw a bus stop and the right bus to take to the city. It didn’t take too long, but it is definitely not walking distance.
From the bus stop, you can walk to most of the places. A kind old gentleman asked if we needed help as we were looking at the city map on the bus stop. And told us Palais des Papes was not more tan 10 min by walk.
The walk was really nice, as we saw several American brand stores along the way ( that wasn’t the high point, it was just surprising). The buildings and most hotels were really old with beautiful architecture and sculptures, and what is missing in most new buildings: character. We didn’t go in the museum. We did go to the visitor center, which was also quite an old building and lovely. I bought some lavender pot pourri from there. About the only non edible thing I bought in France.
Unlike Paris and Rueil Malmaison, Avignon was sunny and hot. I had dressed in layers anticipating that. My husband had to buy a 10 euro hat. From H&M!!
On our walk we stopped at one of the numerous cafes, and bought a sandwich. It has basil, goat cheese and chicken. It was heavenly, served by a beautiful girl too! We also had gelato, I had Mango gelato. At the end of the street, where I believe the City Hall is, is called the Place de l’horlodge, square, were lines of cafes, on cobblestone pavement and a merry go round. It was too late for lunch, we reached at about 2, so mostly empty. I picked a cafe for dinner later. Just straight down that street and through a smaller street ( all cobblestone) we saw the Popes palace. As it doesn’t have any of the original decor, we decided not to get in. We barely had 5 hrs in total in Avignon. Many people sat around in the courtyard, where someone was playing a guitar or a cello. You can see the outside of the Notre Dame cathedral, with its golden figure on the top, to the left of the Pope’s palace.
Next stop, already visible to me was a street carved through a hill, I had seen a photo of it somewhere and had wondered at the time if I would find it. I did. It is hard to miss actually. The surprising find of another cathedral, of Saint Pierre. Very very old made of stone and very old, still beautiful, stained glass. I think it was there I regained all my good spirits. The place is not to be missed, it has so much soul and peace. There are arrows pointing towards it from some places.
There were some buildings in Avignon, which had fake windows, with very artistic and expressive paintings of people that appeared to be looking out the window. I strongly regret not having a good photo of such a building, I have two, not so good ones that give you the idea. I don’t know what I was thinking when I didn’t take more.
Next, we followed the arrows to the Pont de Avignon, Or the bridge built by Saint Benezet. Who was a goat- herder visited by God. Who single-handedly moved a boulder that many men together had been unable to move. To tell the king, that God indeed wanted that bridge to be built and had spoken to him and given him magical powers. The bridge has withstood a lot of calamities and basically doesn’t span the Rhone anymore. It has clearly marked arrows leading to it, from Palais de Papes, however, at some point very close we got lost and it took a lot longer to get to the actual bridge, we got up on a staircase leading to nowhere by mistake. Lost some time in that. It was almost 5:30, with only two hours left. I wanted to see the small shopping streets in the center of the city, close to the street we walked on to get to the palace. So we walked on the bridge, but decided not to take the stairs to the top of the hill that would probably have given us the 360 degree view of Avignon, plus the picture of what you always see of the Saint Benezet bridge. That would take an estimated an hour and a half, to get back to the Place de l’horlodge and then some more to the bus stop.
So we went to the market streets, which is truly an excellent superposition of old buildings retrofitted with new department stores. Its a very unique look, almost hard to come to terms with, but we did that quickly due to lack of time. No cars can enter these streets. Several local stores selling cookies and a hundred varieties of olive oil, I think I should have bought spanned these streets. I only bought some cookies, that were truly out of the world.
On our way back, from one of the side streets, I bought black Provencal rice. And Rouge Provencal rice. The tourist shops sell various painted versions of a buzzing, colorfully painted, wooden cicadas, if they hadn’t buzzed so much, I would have bought them, I also didn’t know there significance, it is apparently the symbol of Provence and of France. So, next time I go, I will definitely buy a few.
Even in Rueil Malmaison, Josephines walk ( leading to Chateau de Malmaison), is lined with engraved cicadas, in gold colored circular plates, embedded on the streets).
We went to my chosen cafe La Civette, and had a mojito and a out of this world three cheese pizza. I had asked the waiter how long it would take, we had about 45 min to the next scheduled bus, to the train station. He said, relax, you have an hour! And for a change, I did. It was very very good advice. Because not only did I really enjoy the food and the mojito, it helped me not get too mad in the next phase.
We made it to the bus in time and reached with plenty of time to spare. Remember we were expecting to catch OUR train this time and hoped to get our seats, since if you have booked seats you have the right to oust whoever is sitting on them ( like we had been on the train coming in). However, it is never that simple, is it. The trains don’t have coach numbers written outside the coach. So only when you get in can you read them. They don’t nearly stop long enough for you to get off and change sides, plus not all the coached are connected.
It turns out, that the map was inverted ( they display coach positions in the station for the next train). We got on the opposite side, I was really mad at my dear husband, for no reason at all. We came back sitting on top of the cafe coach’s tables. This journey was a little shorter though, two and a half hours. The last one had been nearly three and a half.
It did spoil the day somewhat. But that is traveling for you. I wouldn’t buy first class tickets ever again, no.
But I cannot and even then, was not, mad at the french for having strikes. That is the foremost sign that real workers have rights. That they can demand them. That at least there is some democracy, some visibility of people’s movements. Some acknowledgement of the important status of people who do the hard work. Such a strike would not have happened in the US. But hey, when was the last time you took a train here? And could go to a small city, without renting a car? Had a waiter run after you happily to return a bag you left? A very happy looking young waiter. Who does not need your tip to survive.
Yes, that is France. And I would take it.