Provence Part Two – Avignon and Pont du Gard


Avignon is a quick 20 minute train ride from Arles and it is well worth spending a day there.  My first glimpse of Avignon was years ago, driving by on a bus. The bus stopped briefly across the Rhone from the walled, medieval city. I took a picture of the city walls and the imposing Palace of the Popes and caught a quick glimpse of the famous bridge, Pont St. Bėnėzet.

As Arles is Roman, Avignon is medieval. The center of the Roman Catholic Church was relocated to Avignon for 75 years (1309 – 1378) during the middle Ages.  Seven successive popes lived in Avignon, and the line between the Papacy and the French crown became blurred. The Palace of the Popes was originally a bishop’s palace which took about 18 years to transform into the fortress like structure you see today.

The lovely hillside gardens, Roches des Doms, are located just uphill from the cathedral (Nôtre Dame De Doms). From the park there are wonderful views of the palace, the old town of Avignon, and the Pont St. Bėnėzet. You can walk from Roches des Doms along the ramparts and down a spiral staircase to the base of the famous bridge. As you walk along the city walls and look to the left, there is a small vineyard.  There seem to be vines everywhere in France!

The bridge, made famous by the children’s song, “Sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse…” stretches about halfway across the Rhone.  Legend says that the original stones for the bridge were placed by St. Bėnėzet himself. The missing half of the bridge was washed away in the 17thcentury and not replaced.  The remaining arches and the Chapel of St. Nicholas, where Rhône boatmen worshipped, are designated as a historical monument.  I paid the entry fee to walk out on the bridge and, yes, I danced and sang out loud.

Avignon has stylish shops, lovely cafés, and a carousel on the place d’Horloge.  Stop in a café and enjoy a leisurely drink and lunch; take some moments to take everything in.

Pont du Gard

The Pont du Gard is the world’s tallest Roman bridge.  I happened to visit on a very rainy Saturday afternoon after strolling through the weekly market in Arles in the morning.  The train from Arles to Nimes is a quick 15 minute ride.  Buses leave right from the train station to the aqueduct; however it took some searching to locate the correct bus and interpret the bus schedule.

As I’d arrived later in the afternoon, I had about 45 minutes to wait for the bus, so I walked into Nimes for a cup of coffee.  In retrospect I should have left earlier for the Pont du Gard and spent an hour or two in Nimes to visit the Roman Arena and the Maison Carėe before heading to the aqueduct.  The Maison Carėe is said to be the world’s best preserved Roman temple.  Ah, well, now I have a good reason to go back to Nimes!

It was a wet bus ride to the bridge with lovely, but damp, scenery along the way.  The walk to the entry site from the bus stop takes about ten minutes.  On a sunny day, it would be very pleasant!  Once you navigate through the entry, you walk along the river toward what you hope is the Pont du Gard.  You see nothing but trees and rocks, then make a slight bend to the right and there it is. Voilà!

Those darn Romans were very clever folks.  This graceful, three story bridge was built across the Gardon river over 2,000 years ago to supply the city of Nimes with running water.  The aqueduct was in use as a water supply for over 5 centuries.  It is almost inconceivable to imagine that the Pont du Gard was largely built without mortar or clamps, but it was.

Fortunately the aqueduct stayed in good shape even after the Roman Empire declined and is now one of the major tourist attractions in France.  There are lovely paths and walkways in the area around the site which offer assorted vantage points for viewing the monument.  There is also a visitor’s center and museum with a film and multi-media exhibit to introduce you to the marvels of the Pont du Gard.  Cafés, a shop and a children’s space are available.

Avignon and the Pont du Gard are only two options for day trips from Arles.  From classical Rome to the middle ages, Provence has something of wonder for everyone who stops there.  Enjoy!






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