Avignon, Provence, is nicknamed the heart of Provence, and a city Provençals are unapologetically proud of. It didn’t take me long to figure out why.
Most European cities and villages have remnants of walls that once served as a shield of protection, since removed to allow for modern expansion. Avignon is fiercely protective of it’s history and heritage, and so the city has expanded around it, leaving the walls surrounding the old city still standing proud. Those medieval walls, even in the absence of moats, a drawbride towers and iron studded wooden gates, offer a gripping evidence of the importance of fortification during 14th century France, during the invations of the 100 year war.
Inside the walls, the quaint, cobblestoned streets are bustling, and lined with boutiques and cafés. Beautiful squares like the Place de l’Horloge, filled with cafés where patrons leisurely sip rosé while watching the world go by. In the winter months, there are chestnuts roasting on an open fire, available from street vendors throughout the old city.
In the early 14th century, Avignon served as the center of the Roman Catholic world, and housed the pope. Even though it only lasted a few decades, 70 odd years, Avignon boasts an impressive legacy of Ecclesiastical architecture, most notably the world heritage listed fortress-cum-palace, the Palais de Papes. From a distance, I felt like I was approaching a giant gothic, fairy-tale castle.
Then there’s the Pont Saint Bénézet (the Saint Bénézet Bridge). Legend goes that in 1177 the little shepherd boy, Bénézet, while tending to his flock, was instructed by angels to build a bridge across the Rhône River. Ridiculed at first, he proved his divine inspiration when he ‘miraculously’ lifted a huge block of stone. The villagers took it as a sign from God, and construction began. The Post Saint Bénézet was complete at 900 meters long and had 22 arches, and became one of the most important routes of transportation across the Rhône River until the 17th century, when it was abandoned because of the cost of maintaining (the arches tended to collapse when the Rhône flooded). Eventually abandoned, but now the four surviving arches are a World Heritage Site, as well as a popular tourist site, and the inspiration for the song ‘sur le pont d’avignon, l’ou y danse, l’ou y danse…. ‘on Avignon bridge all are dancing.’ People come from all over to dance and sing on the bridge, the graceful, magical structure that ends in the middle of the Rhône River.
The Bénézet Bridge, along with the Medieval Wall, and the charm of the old city, left me no doubt why Avignon is called the heart of Provence. The city taught me that even as life changes, that it’s empowering to embrace my ruins and my history as a thing of beauty.