Our second full day in Lyon was actually going to be spent in the South of France in Avignon. It’s a relatively quick high-speed train down to Avignon and the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of France. We had never been this far South in France and were looking forward to exploring the medieval city, and of course eating more delicious food.
The kids managed to sleep in until 7.30am, which was a pleasant change. We didn’t have an early start since the train to Avignon was significantly cheaper at 10am than the earlier services. Our apartment, despite being perfect for exploring Lyon, was in a slightly annoying location for getting to Lyon Part Dieux, where our train to Avignon departed from. Since we didn’t have any bags to worry about we decided to walk the 15-20 minutes to Hôtel de Ville then catch 2 metros to get us to Part Dieux. Our leisurely walk gave us a chance to check out the fountains and the Hôtel de Ville building, which we hadn’t yet seen up close.
We managed to get to the station 45 minutes before the train was due to depart and spent time standing around waiting for the track number to be put up. It finally appeared on the board 10 minutes before the train was scheduled.
The 230km to Avignon takes just over an hour, as we hit over 300km/h not long into the trip. We love the high-speed French trains, definitely no mucking around! Both kids were very tired but didn’t really rest, so we spent our time looking at the pretty French countryside. Not far from Avignon the landscape changed to include lots of rolling green hills dotted with castles!
We arrived into Avignon just after 11am. The TGV station is new, and very pretty, but several kilometres from the city centre. We had planned to catch the bus into the city but just missed one so had a half hour wait. This was rather frustrating as we were eager not to waste too much of our only day in Avignon.
We then figured out that there was a train that could take us into city but just missed it, while trying to buy tickets. We later learnt that tickets were available on the train. By the time we had given up on the train the next bus was there, so we hopped on and waited til it left. We then had quite a long ride into town but got a lovely tour of the industrial district.
Avignon is approximately 65 square kilometres in size and residence to just over 90,000 people. It’s best known for its ancient town centre and well-preserved ramparts. Only 12,000 people live within the walled area of the city.
Once the bus had deposited us not far from the city wall, we set off exploring the Old Town on our way to Les Halles market. Avignon was remarkably similar to Paris and Lyon with its old buildings and cobblestone streets but had a much older and much more village-like feel.
We had always planned to have and explore of the famous Avignon Les Halles food market and lunch there. The market is only open until 1.30pm on weekdays so the delay in getting into the city centre meant it had to be our first stop.
We were all rather tired and hungry after a long morning of mostly sitting around, on, or waiting for, transport. Soren had been trying to nap in the ergo on the way to the market but we were desperately trying to keep him awake so he could eat lunch! The market had some outdoor vendors but was mostly a large indoor market, similar to the Paul Bocuse market we had visited the previous day in Lyon. The Avignon market is a little less upmarket, but had an amazing range of vendors with yummy looking produce. It was difficult to decide what to eat for lunch!
After a short wander we picked up some quiche (onion, Lorraine and Mediterranean) to share and a dessert treat of a chocolate eclair and a cherry and pistachio tart. We then sat outside in the beautiful sunshine to eat our lunch. The quiches were, as usual in France, amazing, and the kids went crazy over them so we barely got any. Then they spied dessert, and that was a pretty big hit too!
As much as it was lovely sitting in the sunshine, relaxing and eating, we only had the afternoon to explore so it was time to head off. Mikl decided to explore on his own, so Anto, Alan, the kids and myself set off in our own group. The walled area of the city is quite small so our plan was to explore it on foot and enjoy the beautiful day that was both relatively mild and the most sunshine and blue sky that we had seen in a very long time.
As we wandered the streets of the city it was clear that most of the buildings and streets were very old. Despite modern shops, cafes and residences being in most of the buildings, they had obviously been there a very long time. The site of Avignon has been occupied since the Neolithic period as shown by excavations of sites with the city. The majority of the city as it stands was built in the 14th century. In 1995 the historic city centre became a UNESCO world heritage site. There were countless pretty buildings, and narrow cobblestone alleys. Many couldn’t get cars up them and a few were single file pedestrian access only.
We found our way to La Place de l’Horloge, or clock tower square, Avignon’s main square in the heart of the Old Town. The square is home to the beautiful city hall (Hotel de Ville d’Avignon) and the historic opera house. Ironically, the famous clock, after which the square is named, is barely visible from Place de l’Horloge, it peaks over the top of the city hall building. The square is home to a large number of restaurants and cafes, and on a sunny afternoon there were no shortage of people around taking advantage of the lovely weather.
La Place de l’Horloge is also home to a famous carousel. It immediately caught the kids eyes. Since the carousel wasn’t at all busy, being mid-week, and Soren was still awake after we refused to let him nap pre-lunch, we figured they should have a ride. Astrid and Soren were the only kids during their ride and they both chose to go on horses. The horses not only went up and down, but also pivoted. Much fun was had by both children. Tasty French food for lunch, and a carousel ride, we were popular parents!
Less than a couple of minutes walk from the square is the Popes’ Palace (Palais des Papes). It is one of the most important places in Christian history and was home to Roman Catholic popes for a period of some 67 years during in the 14th century. It is also absolutely enormous!
The city walls that were built by the popes in the years immediately following the acquisition of Avignon as papal territory were not particularly strong fortifications, the Popes relied instead on the immensely strong fortifications of their palace. This immense Gothic building, with walls 17–18 feet thick, was built 1335–1364 on a natural spur of rock, rendering it all but impregnable to attack. After its capture following the French Revolution, it was used as a barracks and prison for many years but it is now a museum.
We decided not to go into the museum within Palais des Papes, as now into our 7th week of travel, we were a little over museums, or at least the kids were! Instead we admired the enormous building from the outside and enjoyed the sunshine.
To give you a better idea of how big the building is, in the picture below Anto, Soren and Astrid are standing in front of the wall below the staircase to the entrance, and this is only part of the building. The entire building is hard to photograph, unless you are a long way back!
The Palace Square is the other main city square in Avignon. Situated in front of the Palais des Papes, and with views down over the walled part of the city. The square is also central meeting place and popular lunch spot! The Petit Palais (small palace) is also located at the high-end of the square.
Adjacent to the square and Petit Palais is the beautiful “Cathédrale Notre-Dame des Doms d’Avignon”. Its claim-to-fame is a gilded statue of Mary that is perched at the top of the Roman Catholic cathedral.
From Notre Dame des Doms you can take stairs up to Rocher des Doms. The Rocher des Doms is a park with a terrace that offers spectacular views across the Rhône to Villeneuve-lez-Avignon. The garden, laid out in 1830, was a colossal undertaking; it is built on rock that rises directly out of the Rhône and it hides a reservoir that once supplied the city with water. There are large, ponds, ducks, a playground and lots of garden beds, which were flowering even in Winter!
The garden actually reminded us of Canberra. The climate in Avignon is not dissimilar from that of Canberra and we found a lot of plants and trees that would have looked at home in a Canberra park. This was the first park we’d been in during our whole trip that was actually green and flowery! It made for a pleasant change. The kids were mostly annoyed at the lack of snow, but the ducks did make up for that.
The views from Rocher des Doms are rather impressive. From one side of the terrace you can see over the city, and from the other side you look over the Rhône towards Fort Saint André. The stone walls were rather low, so it was lucky Soren was safely tucked into the ergo!
Rocher des Doms sits just above Avignon’s most famous landmark – Pont Saint Bénézet. As we left the park we headed down in the direction of the bridge, back through the edge of the Old Town and through the city wall towards the Rhône .
In the Middle Ages, the Saint Bénézet bridge was part of one of the most important pilgrimage routes between Italy and Spain. It would become essential to the pontifical court, which settled in Avignon in the 14th century. Soon after, the cardinals moved to Villeneuve to escape the pollution of Avignon, at the time described by the poet Petrarch as the “most foul and stinking city on Earth”. The bridge was at that time the most direct link between the many residences that the cardinals had built, and the Popes’ Palace situated inside Avignon’s city walls.
Saint Bénézet bridge was started in 1177. It was 920 metres long, it had 22 arches and measured 4 metres wide. The imposing bridge, that was called the marvel of the time, was built in only 8 years, taking until 1185. Before the bridge, people crossed the Rhône in small boats, which was quite perilous given the river had not yet been dammed and was rather fast flowing. Avignon was the only place between Lyon and the Mediterranean to cross the Rhône. The city attracted travellers, merchants and manufacturers and quickly developed thanks to the revenues generated by the bridge tolls.
From the 17th century on, the city could no longer bear the costs of the bridge’s maintenance and repairs. In 1603, following strong flooding of the Rhône, one arch collapsed, then three others in 1605. Repair work didn’t start until 1628, interrupted by an epidemic of plague, and the bridge was not usable again until 1633. Two months later, two new arches were swept away by the Rhône. Flooding continued to wash the bridge away over the follwoing centuries and today only 4 of the original 22 arches remain.
These days the Saint Bénézet bridge is more famous for only being part of a bridge! We got pretty good views of the bridge by walking along the banks of the Rhône, so declined to pay the 5 Euro entry fee to walk along the bridge itself (and visit the small museum). The city walls are adjacent to the bridge and a large section of ramparts lead up to Rocher des Doms. At first we thought we needed to pay the entry fee to walk up the ramparts but we then found a section that was accessible from the river for free.
We climbed our way up the spiral stone staircases and external stairs and got lovely views of the city wall, the ramparts and back across the bridge.
From the top of the ramparts, you find yourself back up towards Rocher des Doms and have a great view of Fort St Andre which is located across the Rhône river from Avignon in the town of Villeneuve-les-Avignon. The 14th century castle was built for protection when the Vatican was moved from Rome to Avignon.
We ventured back down through the ramparts and along the river to see if we could find some ducks to amuse Astrid. The bridge had been pretty empty when we first arrived but there now seemed to be quite a few people wandering along it. There is both a pedestrian path and major road through some of the remaining bridge arches.
Being such a lovely Winter’s day we all felt like a cool drink and a sit down. We wandered back to La Place de l’Horloge and sat outside in the sunshine at a cafe watching the dogs and people go by.
We’d seen most of our ‘must do’ list and decided we didn’t really have time to head over to Bartheless Island or Fort Andre, so opted to explore the Old Town area some more until it was time for dinner. Soren still hadn’t had a nap for the day but after scoring a pat with a very friendly puppy, off to French puppy school, he eventually fell asleep after 3.30pm and stayed that way until we stopped for dinner.
Our wanderings through the Old Town took us past lots of parks, churches, cafes and restaurants. We found some more lovely gardens, and a few museums tucked into alley ways. Despite the seemingly endless array of cafes we wanted an early dinner before our train back to Lyon so had the challenge of finding somewhere open at what the French consider afternoon tea time!
Just before 5pm we located a nice looking restaurant that was actually serving dinner. We had the whole place to ourselves. The waitress made the kids day by giving them colouring pencils, and lemonade with pink syrup. We figured it was going to be a long evening so why not add some sugar and food colouring to the mix?
The kids menu included salmon fillet with chips, which made the kids happy. They also scored a free sausage as the chef had somehow gotten confused. Anto ordered an enormous pot of mussels in white wine and garlic, which he lost half of to the kids. Of course our kids would decide that they like mussels! Alan had steak with pepper sauce and chips and I ordered a tomato, basil and mozzarella salad which came with a whole buffalo mozzarella. It turned out to be a good place to have stumbled across. We washed our mains down with beer and local wines, which were also very good.
The kid’s meal came with a crepe with chocolate, so the rest of us figured we might as well indulge in some crepes and ordered ourselves the ‘fleur of Bretagne’ or flower of Brittany crepes, which had caramelised apple with salted butter caramel and cream. Yep, they were delicious!
We had conveniently picked a restaurant a few minutes stroll from the train station and we even managed to get ourselves on the train back out to TGV Avignon, which at 6 minutes total, was far more efficient than the bus we had used in the morning.
Our efficiency meant we had a 25 minute wait til our train back to Lyon, but the TGV station is one of the more impressive ones I’ve been in. It is designed like a large boat on the inside with inside waiting areas for each track. We were also treated to a pretty spectacular sunset.
The train back to Lyon was rather efficient, if very busy. Astrid fell asleep almost immediately after she stopped talking for 5 seconds. Soren spent the entire train trip turning our seat lights on and off and refusing to rest.
We arrived back into Lyon at 8pm and just had the annoying trip back to the apartment, which we opted to do via the same way as we had that morning. Astrid was refusing to wake-up, so got carried on Anto’s back in the ergo through the 2 metros and walk. Soren kept me amused by chatting non-stop and spotting every dog out for their nightly walk. Hôtel de Ville was lit up beautifully as was the fountain we had visited that morning. The city was busy with people out having their dinner.
We made it back to our apartment a bit before 9pm after a rather long day and the kids did not take long to give in to sleep. Astrid didn’t even remember leaving the train or the trip back to the apartment, she was so tired!
Statistics for Thursday the 21st of January 2016 – Lyon had a temperature range of minus 1 degree to 5 degrees with a mean of 2 degrees. Avignon, where we spent the majority of the day, was a pleasantly warm minus 2 to 10 degrees, with a mean temperature of 4 degrees. We thought it was positively balmy compared to some days of the previous few weeks. The total walking for the day was a significant 20.5 km. Astrid walked at least 16km of it, which explained why she was exhausted by the time we left Avignon!