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WEDNESDAY 22ND: AVIGNON
Another beautiful sunny town, only 20 minutes from Arles but very different - nearly as posh as Aix but not quite, and consequently more welcoming, we found.
"Sur le pont d'Avignon..."
Pictured below is the pont St-Bénézet, the original bridge from the famous chanson. It doesn't stretch all the way over the Rhône but it's not actually unfinished - it was at one time complete but has been knocked about considerably over the centuries by floods and assorted wars.
A nerdy fact you learn very quickly in Avignon is that the lyric "sur le pont" ("on the bridge") is a misnomer, since the song was originally celebrating a café under the bridge where people gathered and danced. These days, all that's sous the pont d'Avignon (apart from the river) is a little alcove with a nativity in it (the last picture above). This comes complete with some disturbing-looking characters in hoods that I didn't recall being in the set we had at home when I was a kid. As an old Welsh couple said as they squinted at the nativity figures alongside us, "What are the Ku Klux Klan doing in there?"
Avignon also has a magnificent palace, where the papacy set up temporarily in the 14th century.
At the bottom of the palace/church was a crucifix with no Jesus on it. We presumed Jesus had been taken away for refurbishment or recalibration or something until we looked up at the magnificent golden statue on the roof of the palace and found that Jesus had quite literally risen. Uplifted at this inspired piece of religious architecture, we walked on. Later however we saw an old photo of the same crucifix with Jesus on it, so either the inspiration and upliftage were recent happenings or merely the product of our imaginations. Then again, the Lord moves in mysterious ways.
Having said all that, we didn't go into the Palais des Papes anyway but instead spent an hour in the Musée du Petit Palais, which houses a comprehensive collection of 13th- to 16th-century Italian religious paintings (not illustrated below).
Suffering somewhat from culture fatigue, we then collapsed into Le Simple Simon Tea Lunch (above), an English tea room founded in the early 70s in the rue Petite Fusterie. It had a slightly camp atmosphere, with flowery tablecloths, hunky waiters in black teeshirts and a huge collection of antique Britobilia, including a grandfather clock, a Victorian sketch of A Day in Brighton, a picture of Queen Liz and a framed photo of the Beatles (moptop era) against an incongruous background of pink roses. There was a great range of teas to choose from, and we selected the mélange anglais, which proved to be reassuringly strong, served in what appeared to be a brass teapot complete with - almost unheard-of in France - cold milk! The selection of delicious cakes in the centre of the tea room was mouthwatering, although they were too French to technically have any place in an English tea room. We could have ordered a more authentic cream tea with scones and jam but these didn't seem terribly appealing in the face of a magnificent chocolate cake with red berries. The portions though were ridiculous - each slice of gateau cost €5 to €6, which seemed steep until we were presented with six-inch wedges that we had no hope of finishing! We came to the conclusion that Simple Simon should halve his cake prices and his portions, not just for financial reasons but because it's truly distressing to see all that cake go to waste.
By the time our holiday was nearly over and we'd feasted the while on some superb French meals, Koy was having rice withdrawal symptoms, so on Wednesday night we had a delicious Vietnamese meal in Song Long in rue Carnot and on Thursday a superb Japanese "do it yourself" grill at Tanoshii in rue Galante.
On Friday morning we did our last wash of the holiday at the exquisite launderette on the Place des Corps Saints, complete with gleaming orange washers, no HORS SERVICE signs and even a machine that dispensed soap powder in a little cardboard box rather than straight into the cut-off bottom of a plastic water bottle which had been the case in all the other launderettes we'd visited. Even more amazingly, the washing machine worked FIRST TIME and without the intervention from any small women. All this seemed appropriate for a lovely place like Avignon - judge a town by the quality of its launderette, that's our conclusion (we noticed that Aix-en-Provence didn't have a launderette, so was presumably too posh to wash). We went off to have another cup of melange anglais at a little shop down the street whose door wolf-whistled at its customers as they walked in. However, our laundry delight was to be short-lived, as when we got back the dryer failed to work. We tried closing the door properly but not only did this have no effect, the number of minutes' drying time that we'd paid for started to count down even though the machine wasn't doing any drying, and the door would now neither open nor close any further. A panicky phone call to the emergency number produced the usual response of "Have you closed the door properly?", although the man we spoke to (clearly this was a Modern Launderette) did offer to come down and sort it out. We gave the door one last try, putting a real shoulder to it this time, and hey presto! It worked. All of which goes to prove the following Eternal Truths:
(a) 99% of launderette crises can be cured by shutting the door properly; and
(b) you can never use too much force to do so, unless
(c) there's a little lady present (or lurking), in which case it's best to get her to do it.
We hereby call on Lonely Planet to include these factoids under the LAUNDRY feature in the FACTS FOR THE VISITOR section of the next edition of its guide.
For our two nights in Avignon we stayed in the Hotel Mignon, an excellent one-star hotel with extremely friendly owners. The double room, with a tiny ensuite shower room, was €43. Apart from Le Simple Simon, the owners here were the only French people we met on the whole holiday who knew that English (or at least non-French) people like cold milk with their tea in the mornings.
NEXT STOP: LYON