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December 12, 2001
Avignon: sur le pont (Russell)

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Approaching the walls of Avignon's vieille ville

France is divided into 22 régions, each of which is further sub-divided into several departements.  While the régions are roughly based on the country's historical divisions, people are most loyal to and speak most proudly of their departements.  Here in Crest, we belong to the departement of la Drôme (named after the river that runs through it), which is part of the Rhône-Alpes region.  The préfecture (main town) of la Drôme is Valence to the north of us, where we go every few weeks for additional supplies.

South of us is the region of Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azure, well-known from Peter Mayles' travel essays ("A Year in Provence," etc.), Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and the Cannes Film Festival.  One of the most beautiful and picturesque cities in this region -- in fact in all of France -- is Avignon, the préfecture of the departement of Vaucluse.

Avignon is famous for more than the children's nursery song about its bridge.  In the 14th century, amid political turmoil in Europe, the center of the Catholic Church was moved from Rome to Avignon.  The Holy See remained here for the next 67 years under seven French-born Popes.  Today, Avignon is known for its Festival d'Avignon, a popular performing arts festival held every year during the summer.

It was much colder and emptier (and windier) on December 12th when we visited Avignon.  Our plan was to meet our French teacher friend Pascal at the gare (train station) at 11:00 AM.  This was complicated when we exited the autoroute and discovered that there are no signs to direct you to the train station.  After driving around aimlessly for awhile, we finally found our destination -- and Pascal -- at 11:30.

We spent the majority of our day walking around in the old part of town, within the continuous wall of 14-century ramparts (4.5 km worth) that still surrounds the inner city.  Our first stop was lunch at a local pizzeria, where the boys ate very well.  We also took a look at the Christmas market and the gigantic crèche (Nativity scene) in the mairie.  The boys were able to ride on the carousel.  Pascal played tour guide, providing insight and history for everything we saw.

The majority of our afternoon was spent at the Palais des Papes, the huge 14th-century Gothic Palace which served as the pontifical court.  The Catholic Church took just about everything with them when they left in 1376 -- so the undecorated stone halls cannot begin to compare with Rome's Vatican City -- but it was still interesting to see.&nbbsp; We benefited from having handheld audio telephones that provided narration in English.

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Le palais des papes

We also climbed the nearby Rocher des Doms, a hilltop park, to view the famous Pont St.-Bénézet -- the "Pont d'Avignon" from the children's song.  The bridge once spanned the Rhône River, but most of it was washed away in the mid-1600s, and only a small section of it remains.  (We didn't see anyone dancing there either.)

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"Sur le pont d'Avignon, l'on y danse, l'on y danse..."

We bid farewell to Pascal at about 4:30 PM and drove the hour and a half back home to Crest (the 130 kph speed limit of the autoroutes helps -- most people actually drive about 140 kph -- but France's main autoroutes are all toll roads).  We have discovered from our last two days in Grenoble and Avignon that it is beginning to get very cold around here.  It is getting dark much earlier now, but that also makes it easier to see the Christmas lights that are beginning to appear all over.

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On the carousel


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