In five days we’ve travelled from Italy to France, through Provence to the Midi-Pyrénées. Along the way we’ve been delighted by three iconic bridges and some wonderful cities and towns.
We arrived in Avignon after seven hours on the road. We’d pre-booked accommodation with Carole and her husband – they have a small self-contained flat on their property which Carole has furnished with distinctive flair and comfort. The address is on the outskirts of Avignon, but without the internet I couldn’t access the house number. Thankfully it’s a small street; a local came to the aid of the travellers in distress, and Carole and her husband were eagerly awaiting our arrival. We had a wonderful stay, and I only wish my French had allowed for more conversation.
1. Le pont d’Avignon
The centre of Avignon is charming, and a high point of that charm is its twelfth century bridge. Pont St. Bénézet, commonly know as the Pont d’Avignon, hasn’t spanned the river since the seventeenth century, but forms part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the nearby Palais des Papes and the Cathedral. We didn’t go sur le pont and sing the song, choosing instead to invest in a fantastic three course Sunday lunch at a highly rated local restaurant. This was definitely the best meal we’ve so far enjoyed in Europe, and beats singing on bridges any day (L’on y danse tous en rond …).
It rained for a full day while we were in Avignon, so we made a first time visit to IKEA. Its size was a little overwhelming, but we got some great design ideas and even had lunch there. We also found a mall designed like a small village, including a public square with a carousel and a fountain. But the highlight was definitely the heart of the old city.
2. Pont du Gard
More than two thousand years ago the Romans went to great lengths to supply the town of Nimes with fresh drinking water, running an aqueduct for fifty kilometres with a fall of seventeen metres. That engineering feat included several viaducts, of which the Pont du Gard is the largest and best preserved. Despite falling into disuse as an aqueduct after a mere seven hundred years and then being hacked about at the whim of successive local rulers, it was still standing when Napoleon commissioned its strengthening and restoration in the nineteenth century. Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and beautifully maintained.
While we were visiting the Pont du Gard we made a side excursion to the hilltop village of Castillon du Gard, one of at least three local towns trading on the du Gard brand (Vers pont du Gard, St Bonnet du Gard, etc). It was an overcast day, and the resulting photographs fail to capture the honey-coloured stone from which the village is built – even the public telephone booth is made from it.
3. Viaduc de Millau
I’ve seen photographs and videos of the Millau viaduct, but when we drove down the hill and saw it for the first time I gasped. It is majestic. The next morning we visited various lookouts and went to the viaduct information centre to get to know it better. The highlight was driving across it – a trip well worth the €7.50 asking price. With one mast 343 metres above the valley floor below, it’s the tallest bridge in the world. I’d argue that it’s also the most graceful – perhaps one day it’ll also be a UNESCO World Heritage site?
We stayed two nights in the city of Millau (pronounce it as your cat might; miaow). It surprised us by being both quaintly pretty and bitterly cold; the weather in central France is now definitely autumnal. I was also surprised to discover that I’d missed my European breakfast of pain au chocolat eaten while standing at a cafe counter. It’s a tasty break from self-catered muesli and yoghurt.
While staying in Millau we visited the nearby village of La Cavalerie, which has reversed the depredations of the last three centuries by rebuilding its town walls. They were built for the first time in the tenth century, and completed for the second time in 2005. For the latter feat – grappling with bureacracy rather than stone, I expect – the incumbent mayor had the town square named after him.