A Week in Provence – The Penny Pincher’s Guide to Orange & Avignon

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Sous le Pont d’Avignon

What have the Romans ever done for us?

Well, they haven’t passed on their gene for the unembarrassed use of public toilets. Not to me at least.

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Roman Toilets – a horrifyingly communal experience

Like public baths, toilets in the empire were a horrifyingly communal experience. Rows of Romans would sit side by side to chat and laugh their way through bowel movements. Afterwards, they would happily share the bucket and sponge-on-a-stick for their post-poop ablutions.

Such are my sensibilities that, at work, it was not unknown for me to make two or three circuits of the office building to find a deserted convenience. I cannot describe the mortification if I heard someone enter the facility while I was in residence, so to speak. Especially after a curry. I could be stranded in my cubicle for hours.

French campsite toilets do nothing to aid my affliction. Their use requires a lot of front, due to the lack certain items that would be considered a necessity in the U.K. Seats, for instance, would be nice, although that is not the worst omission. On most sites, participants in the French walk of shame are marked out by the requirement to carry your own roll of loo paper.

I go to great lengths to conceal my roll of Andrex. I try to keep one aside that is running low enough to fit surreptitiously into a pocket. If our tissue stocks can only furnish a plump, new roll, burgeoning with softness and strength, I pop it into a large carrier bag. The casual observer is thus easily duped into thinking I am going for a shower, until the very last moment, when I make my feint towards the can.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Before I even set foot in the Roman ruins of Orange, my day had hit a high; clear evidence of Caesar’s heritage in action. Without any qualms that the minds of onlookers might jeer, ‘We know where you’re going!’, a chap strode proudly past the open windows of our caravan with not only his bog roll in clear view, but a toilet seat over his shoulder. I felt like giving him a round of applause.

As an impecunious ninenteen-year-old, Mark toured France with two friends in a beaten-up, old Ford Transit van. From his memories of the region, Mark set out our objectives for the day. Théâtre Antique d’Orange – the Roman theatre in Orange, then Avignon, famous for its Pont.

“Orange is way better than Avignon,” he said.

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The Roman Theatre in Orange – one of the best preserved in the world!

If you want to see one of only three Roman theatres in the world with their stage walls intact, you will have to go to Turkey, Syria or Orange. In the days before amplifiers and microphones, the scaenae frons projected the sound from the stage to the terraces. The incredible acoustics of the theatre in Orange helped to re-launch its long career of delivering spectacles into the modern age. The Chorégies, an annual opera gala started in the early 1900s. Then, in 1975, a rock festival billed as ‘the French Woodstock’ was held there, headlined by acts such as Bad Company, Procul Harum and Wishbone Ash.

Dogs are allowed into the theatre, but since we’re penny pinchers and Mark felt no need to refresh his forty-year-old memories, we saved his €9 admission and I went in alone. As part of the coronavirus precautions, the reception staff took my temperature with a laser gun on the way in. Either that or they probed my brain…

Mark doesn’t speak a word of French. As he waited patiently outside, a Frenchman came to see the pups and struck up a conversation with him in English.

“He congratulated me on my excellent French!” Mark boasted. “He told me, ‘Most English say, ‘Oringe’, but you pronounce it correctly; ‘Oronge’.”

I mention this here, because very soon, this small incident would become a source of great annoyance to me!

After we repurposed Mark’s €9 entry fee into coffee and a fruit flan in Oronge, we moved on to Avignon. Remember Mark told me that Orange was much better than Avignon? His memory is notoriously flawed. I think what he meant is that Avignon is much better than Avignon. My initial view of the city held every bit as much awe as my first glimpse of the New York skyline.

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Avignon – my initial view held as much awe as my first glimpse of the New York skyline.

We found a free car park just over the river and walked to the town across the Pont Édouard Daladier road bridge. Avignon must be in close contention with Oxford for the title, ‘City of Dreaming Spires’. Castellated, sandy-blonde walls embrace a delightful jumble of towers, steeples and campaniles, all jostling for attention above the formidable parapet of the ramparts. As we crossed the Rhône, we got a spectacular view of THE bridge, the Pont d’Avignon, made famous by the song, whose lyrics instantly sparked an argument,

“It’s ‘Sur le pont, d’Avignon, L’on y dance,’” I ventured.

“No it isn’t. It’s ‘Ollie dances’!” our fluent French expert assured me in a tone that brooked no debate. I did not enquire as to how Ollie landed the lead role in a fifteenth-century French song. Perhaps it was his connections with the other folk-song heroes, such as Frère Jacka and his chum Sunny Laymatina; or Jonty Alouetta, which I always thought was an endearing, blow-by-blow account made by a sadist plucking a lark, but what do I know?

As we followed a marked walking tour through the maze of tiny streets within the walls, we got very, very lost. The scale of our map was minute and showed very few street names. (For a printable tourist map of Avignon, click here.) With the city walls obscuring the mighty Rhône, we had no visual reference. As we zig-zagged through alleys between tall, imposing facades, we lost our bearings completely. The themed route that we followed was a bit weird; we didn’t really understand the reasoning behind the views of strikingly un-memorable modern carbuncles, juxtaposed with sights of historic importance.

Although we ‘found’ ourselves in Place St Didier, we still managed to depart 180-degrees in the wrong direction. I don’t remember ever feeling so disorientated. Although the narrow streets were shadowy, the temperature was a sizzling 37°C. Even in the shade, the heat was debilitating. We carry drinking water, but searched in vain for a fountain in which we could cool off the pups. It was a hot few hours before our enquiries directed us to an afterthought of a fountain; a few spouts which shot sporadic jets of water out of the pavement.

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Kai cools down in the only ‘fountain’ we could find!

Coincidentally, it was close to the Palais des Papes – The Popes’ Palace, which was just the landmark we wanted. In the fourteenth century, Avignon, not Rome, was home to seven popes and two antipopes. I love the idea of antipopes – and the resulting Pope Wars. (As a highly advanced student of antiquity, ‘Pope Wars’ is my own phrase; the event is better known to history as ‘The Great Western Schism’.)

Pope Wars was a tale of two cities and three popes. The cast involved Clement VII then Benedict XIII, who continued to rule as antipopes in Avignon, while the church moved back to Rome under Urban VI, who became unpopular once he got the big job and let power go to his head. A third antipope, John XXIII popped up in Pisa. I know it’s irreverent and no offence is intended, but Pope Wars conjures up an image of wizards Gandalf and Saruman battling it out with their staffs in Isengard in the film Lord of the Rings.

Pisa’s antipope eventually got everyone around the table. He resigned; persuaded Urban’s replacement, Pope Gregory XII, to resign; then excommunicated antipope Benedict, who refused to resign. In those days, Avignon claimed the title ‘Babylon of the West’ for being a hotbed of naughtiness. We can only speculate as to Ben’s reluctance to step down. Like The Blues Brothers, it might have been the certainty that he was on a Mission from God. However, Petrarch was not the only one to censure the Avignon antipopes for their bad boy behaviour. In his letters, he criticised them for being ‘loaded with gold’ and disapproved of their ‘licentious banquets’, ‘drinking bouts and what comes next on their scandalous couches.’

Anyway, Martin V, a new, proper pope was elected in Rome and they all lived happily ever after. Well almost; religious laws were still being passed in the 20th Century to maintain Martin as the true papal line. There were also some alterations to the Annuario Pontifico – the papal Who’s Who. In the 1942 Annuario, antipope John XXIII was down as pope from 1410, but in 1958, he was relegated back to antipope when another Pope John claimed his XXIII.

Originally part of Anjou, Avignon remained under papal control until 1791, after Pope Clement VI bought it in 1348 for 80,000 gold florins. Despite many attempts and much bloodshed, Avignon only became part of France after being seized forcibly during the Revolution.

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The Palais des Papes – the French setting for Pope Wars

After soaking The Fab Four, we passed by a street café in a shady square. A lady leaned from her chair to coo and make a fuss of our four, dripping dogs. After an effusive, fifteen-minutes of lively conversation, we invited ourselves to join Tony and Ira at their table for coffee. We spent at least an hour chit-chatting and sharing stories. They had just moved to from the U.K to Avignon in circumstances that reminded me of us – they came, they saw and they liked it. So, they bought a flat and moved!

Tony and Ira walked us to the Rhône and we parted company as they took the free boat shuttle to the Island of Barthelasse, a trip which would grant a great view of The Pont. Ira said there are lots of nice walking paths on the island, but we wanted to visit The Pont itself and were worried about our poor pups in the heat. On our way back to the car park, we took a picture Sous le Pont – Under the Bridge.

As penny-pinchers, we weren’t prepared to part with €5 each to go sur. However, I would like to inform you that, while it is not the accepted Avignon selfie, sous le pont is much more authentic. All this Sur le Pont nonsense is simply a demonstration of how fake news spread in the olden days, before Instagram came on line to prove that the camera never lies.

The bridge is narrow, only 2.5m (8 ft) wide, which leaves little room for dancing, especially tous en rond – all in circles. If you did attempt a mini hokey cokey, sous le pont is most likely where you’d end up, along with the horses, wagons and pedestrians, whose plummets over the parapets were allegedly common.

While you could forgive a bridge its unsuitability for dancing, in viaduct terms, the Pont d’Avignon is a bit of a loser all round. For a start, it is a bridge not far enough – it doesn’t even reach the island of Barthelasse in the middle of the river. The four arches are all that remain of twenty-two that made up its 900m (nearly 3,000ft) span. Originally, it marched across the island to connect Avignon with Villeneuve-lès-Avignon and was strategically important as the only fixed river crossing between Lyon and the Med. Its real name is the Pont Saint-Bénézet, named after a shepherd boy from the Ardèche, who, exactly like The Blues Brothers, was on a Mission from God to bridge the Rhône at Avignon. Since no-one believed him, he picked up a huge boulder and threw it into the river to found the bridge, then oversaw its construction.

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The Pont d’Avignon – among its many failings in viaduct terms, it is a bridge not far enough!

Despite its significance and divine connections, the original bridge was washed away, along with many subsequent wooden replacements. The latest stone iteration was abandoned in the mid-17th Century because it collapsed so frequently in the Rhône’s floods that it was too expensive to maintain.

You won’t read this elsewhere, but Joe Strummer of punk band The Clash wrote a song about Le Pont d’Avignon,

“I fought the Rhône and the Rhône won.”

Nevertheless, the collapsed Pont is now world famous and Bénézet the patron saint of bridge builders. This pioneering model of reward for abject failure has been widely adopted by industry, and that is why fat-cat bosses who bankrupt their companies and raid the pension pot get multi-million-pound bonuses and a kinighthood.

It will be some time before I forget our return journey across the Rhône to the car park. It felt like trekking through the blazing heat of a glass furnace. Like a platoon of soldiers advancing under cover, we dodged from tree to tree along the Boulevard Rhône to try to stay in the shade. To cross Le Pont Édouard Daladier, we had no choice but to brave the merciless barrage; a few hundred yards in the full, afternoon sun.

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We dodged from tree to tree along Boulevard Rhône to try to stay in the shade

I could feel the scorching heat reflecting back from the pavement on to my shins and couldn’t imagine how uncomfortable that would be on puppy paws and tums. They must have thought they were being spit roasted. In the short time that it took to reach our van, Big Blue, the Provençale sun had seared my cranium into the first stages of a headache. And I never get headaches!

As a treat on the way back to the caravan, we pulled over beneath some trees for one of The Fab Four’s favourites; a lovely, cooling swim in the river.

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After a day’s sightseeing, The Fab Four get a well-deserved swim in the Rhône

Although our pitch was in full shade, a 37°C day seemed the perfect time to try out our new Cool My Camper air conditioning unit, bought for our trip to Spain. After forty minutes of operation on full fan and full cooling, it had raised the temperature inside the caravan from 34 to 34.5°C. We gave up, opened the windows and switched on our 12V Streetwize twin-cyclone fan, which cost less than twenty pounds on Amazon and had nursed us through 40°C in Romania.

Although the aircon is a fairly straightforward piece of kit, we wondered if we had missed something important, since the instructions provided were in Dutch, German or French. My Dutch is non-existent; my German rusty and inadequate; so, we had arrived at Practical French, Random Challenge #26: Translate the Instruction Manual for a Caravan Air Conditioning System.

Thankfully, via the medium of Facebook Messenger, our delightful Dutch friend, Casper, sacrificed half an hour of his life to translate the instructions into English for us. We couldn’t see any obvious omissions on our part; we bought the unit based on good reviews and the caravan falls within the specification of a small enough space for the unit to cool. The supplier could offer no further tips to get the unit working, but sent us the manual in English and assured us that they would take a look at it if we returned it to them once we were back in the U.K.

The following morning, when the outside temperature was cooler, we tried the aircon unit again. In no time, it had warmed the caravan by two degrees. The weather forecast in Madrid was showing 39°C; more torrid even than the sultry feverishness of Avignon and the antipopes.

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Our Cool My Camper Caravan Aircon Unit went rogue!

This trip is our third attempt to visit Spain. Although the second was thwarted by a vacating tenant, the first was frustrated by a legendary July heatwave, with record highs of more than 50°C. We should have learned by now that, even if we had an aircon unit that had not rebelled against its destiny to become a heater, the dog days of a Spanish summer would be too much for four pups and a shade-dwelling creature like myself. Third time unlucky; we made the decision to bail out of our trip to Spain and head for cooler climes.

Mark immediately got on to researching a re-route, with mixed success. At €7.90 per dog per night, Bavaria soon provided a staggering new record for extortionate campsite dog charges. Then, in his best faux-German accent, he read me this excerpt from the website of a campsite on Lake Chiemsee. It expressed what seemed to be an unnervingly widespread aversion to Hunde among the Campingplätzen of the Fatherland on our new route north. It didn’t fill us with hope,

“Dogs are prohibited throughout the season. Nevertheless, there are still a few dogs on the campsite. There are no other exceptions. The existing exceptions expire and replacement is excluded.

“The rejection of dogs requires no justification. For categories A and B, the dog ban applies without exception for the entire duration of the camping. In the event of violations of this, the campsite management reserves the right to issue an immediate referral.”

In Monte Rosa, we had met a lovely Polish family. They told us to go to Hel.

Not because we had offended them; Hel is a windsurfing destination on the north coast of Poland

Before lockdown, Poland had been one of our original destinations. Although the coronavirus delay meant we would no longer have time to investigate The Baltics, it looked like for once, we had suddenly put ourselves in danger of sticking to a plan.

By going to Hel in a Hound Cart,

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Hel, Poland. We’re on the road to it!

8 thoughts on “A Week in Provence – The Penny Pincher’s Guide to Orange & Avignon

  1. Loved reading this! Oh my word, those roman toilets – or should I say a row of holes! I can see men using them with no ounce of any face reddening, but where did women go? No, no, no I can’t imagine women used them too??! Great reading!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Sam!
      I am not sure what Roman ladies did. When I studied the ‘New Modern Latin’ or whatever it was at school, I remember our teacher commenting on the textbook illustrations of the Roman Baths, “They seem to be very aware that there are men and women in the world.” Not sure if it’s correct, but that’s my very graphic evidence that the ladies used the baths!

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  2. 😁What a relief we no longer have quite such a communal experience. Good luck with the cooling issue and if you find a good solution be sure to write about it, our summer heat puts a stop to our travels it just gets a bit much. I can imagine there are parts of Spain that would be absolutely intolerable in Summer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It has taken us a while but we realise that the time to do Spain (and Provence) comfortably is in the spring and autumn.
      I think the Cool My Camper will be useful, if we can get it to work! It has consistently good reviews and a low start-up voltage which shouldn’t trip the campsite electricity supplies, which was my main worry. It can be very low in parts of Europe. As I say in my blog, the Streetwize fan is a godsend, but I am not sure it would help you to cope with the ferocity of an Australian summer!

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  3. I’m pleased I’m not the only one with public loo hangups that in my case probably stem from this experience On a visit to Venice many years ago men and women queued for the loos together. When we got to the old lady looking after the loos she asked how many sheets of loo roll we wanted, i nearly ran away!
    I find it sad that some sites charge such a lot for dogs yet provide nothing for them. For €7.95 per dog I would expect them to provide their food as well!! Dog owners are frequently treated as second class citizens, taking a dog to Spain is especially difficult.
    I hope you get your cooling unit running correctly soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think €7.95 is just a way of saying dogs not welcome. I really resent dog charges on campsites, especially when children are free and no facilities are provided for dogs! The Fab Four sometimes cost more than we do on a campsite – and they don’t use the showers!
      We found some hair-raising dog charges when we were researching campsites in Spain, too.
      We’ve found an innovative solution to the cooling unit. Head north!

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  4. Well, you’ve woken up my memories of Avignon, albeit mixed! When I last visited it was also scorching hot and I was almost reluctant to explore. But I was determined to have a good wander around even if it was painfully slow in more ways than one. It was painful because of the heat but also because I had a stress fracture in my leg! I really did soldier on and even did a tour through the Palais des Papes. I bet the Popes didn’t have to poop as a conclave! 🙂

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