Yesterday we were told that we would be cruising overnight and throughout this morning before we reached Avignon. I was vaguely aware a couple of times during the night of our ship passing through locks as the water level presumably dropped lower on the Rhône’s passage to the Mediterranean. When I awoke at about 7am and pulled aside the curtains we were passing through beautiful rural villages. Along the hillsides we occasionally passed the ruins of city walls and fortifications.

After breakfast I went to the upper deck. There were quite a few people relaxing up there. The river was quite broad here, and our ship slowed as it approached what appeared to be quite a large lock. I took a series of photos, which you can see below. We eased our way gently into the lock and then came to a complete stop, some distance from the gate ahead of us. Our ship had a gap of only centimetres between it and the lock wall on either side. As the water level inside the lock began to lower, it seemed that the walls of the lock were what was actually moving, as it appeared that they were gradually growing higher and higher around us. After maybe 10-15 minutes, when the water level on our side of the gate in front of us was identical to the level on the other side, the light on the control house changed from red to green, the front gate slid open slowly, and our ship’s engines began to rumble as we steadily moved through into the new section of the river.

To our port side, the highest points of the Pope’s Palace in Avignon were now visible above the trees. But we still had some way to go before we could dock in the town.

The captain made an announcement that everyone on the upper deck was to take a seat. Any structures higher than the seating had been collapsed. The captain lowered his own wheelhouse. Just ahead of us were two bridges. Neither of them appeared to have much clearance for the ship to pass beneath. But we made it under the first bridge comfortably enough. The second bridge (see the photos below) was a tighter fit. A tall person standing upright might have had cause to feel a bit nervous passing beneath that bridge. I guess at times when the water levels are high, ship captains would just have to bide their time waiting for water levels to drop before they could proceed beyond the bridge in places like this one.

After our very cautious passage under that bridge, our ship travelled forward a short distance down the river, then slowly turned 180 degrees to the port side and headed back beneath the same bridge, as we had come to a point of land and now we had turned our ship in order to enter some form of a tributary that would allow us to moor our ship at the dock in Avignon. There were already some Viking ships in port. Our captain very carefully guided our ship into its mooring position. It’s obviously a manoeuvre where centimetres matter. He got it right.

After lunch, our Freechoice options departed. Two groups left first, bound for the famous Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard. One group was going to do some walking and the other was going to kayak beneath the structure. Marg and I opted to do the guided walking tour of Avignon and the Popes’ Palace. The first landmark we came to was the 1791 monument. It was in this year, during the French Revolution, that Avignon officially became part of France. It had originally been founded by Phoenician traders and connected closely with Marseilles. In the 1100s, it was ruled from a distance by Germany. In the 1300s it became the seat of seven Roman Catholic Popes.

During the 1100s, in a story related by our guide, a shepherd named Benezet claimed that he had received a message from Jesus to go to Avignon and build a bridge. The town fathers scoffed at him, but one pointed to a large stone and said ‘if you can lift that, you can use it to build your bridge’. So he lifted the stone and they were so gobsmacked they figured he really had received a divine command and they helped him build the bridge. Apparently for a time, it actually spanned the river, but over time conflict and the forces of nature conspired to destroy parts of the bridge. Now only four arches remain, so it is a bridge that goes nowhere. Our guide claimed it was always a bridge that was useless, built for no purpose and never built well enough to carry commercial traffic. But of course, today it is a famous landmark, so what remains of it stays in place and people come to Avignon to see it. There is even a famous song children learn about dancing on the bridge.

In the year 1309 Pope Clement V brought the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church to Avignon. The reasons why it came to Avignon are many and complex, but one reason was that the King of France no longer wanted to pay the high taxes imposed by the Vatican Popes and another was that Avignon was more centrally located for the followers of Christianity than Rome. Seven successive Popes led the church from Avignon. When the papal enclave in Avignon elected Pope Benedict XII in 1334, he ordered the construction of the Palais des Papes, the magnificent Popes’ Palace (our guide claims it is more of a fortress than a palace). Soon afterwards, half of the town’s population was wiped out by the Black Death. And not long after this, walls were built to protect the city. In 1376 Pope Gregory XI left Avignon and the control of the church returned to Rome.

We toured the palace today. It’s quite a breathtaking structure, particularly when you first lay eyes upon it. There are plenty of stairs to ascend and descend as you move around the palace, so a degree of fitness is recommended. There are some very large spaces within the palace that were used for a range of purposes, including masses, papal enclaves, papal courts and banquets. Some frescoes remain, although many of the original artworks and all of the original stained glass windows were destroyed or removed during the French Revolution and other times of trouble.

Following our palace tour we walked back through the streets of Avignon. Like all French towns we’ve visited on this tour, it certainly has a degree of charm. The buildings have character. There are flower boxes that brighten up the streets. And there are cobblestones. Many of them. It was raining as we walked and it got a bit slippery in places. Unfortunately one member of our group slipped while coming down some stairs. I suspect she will be nursing some bruises for a few days. We stopped at a church and were impressed by the works of art within its walls. Then we stopped at a nougat store where a lovely lady invited us in to sample her wares. A few doors further down a man came out of his store so we could sample the produce made from his truffles. Near the theatre, there were some fabulous wall murals of famous artists.

Here’s a photo of Mary and Grant from Adelaide. They opted for kayaking 8 km down the Gard River this afternoon, passing directly beneath the famous Pont du Gard. Sometimes there is more than one Freechoice activity that really appeals, and it’s a shame you have to miss some of the things you’d love to do in order to do something else. I would have really enjoyed visiting this place. That aqueduct has stood since the Roman era – a remarkable feat of engineering. I’m grateful to Mary and Grant for sharing this photo and giving me an opportunity to show you one of the other great activities available on this cruise.

In the evening, we all had a special treat. Everyone on the cruise was invited to visit the banquet room at the Popes’ Palace for a special dinner accompanied by music from a string quartet. As it was raining and it’s a bit of a hike, tourist trains were organised to take us up to the palace. Everyone dressed for the occasion. It was after 7.30pm when we arrived and the palace was bathed in that wonderful late afternoon sunshine that often contrasts beautifully with darkening skies.

On our table were Liz and Chris from Kingston, Ontario, Mary and Grant from Adelaide, and Becky and George from San Jose, California. The dinner was either fish or beef served with regional wines, including one of the Hermitage wines from the vineyards on the hillsides behind Tain, where we were yesterday. The music was outstanding and the sound in that cavernous room was sublime. As an encore, we were treated to Waltzing Matilda and then Auld Lang Syne on strings. We boarded the train for the ride back to the ship.

We’re staying in Avignon overnight and all day and night tomorrow as well. In the morning, Marg and I are going wine tasting. Wine in the morning? Why not! It’s France!

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