Unlike many places we docked on this trip, Avignon had an extensive quay, which allowed many ships to dock at one time. Since it is a very popular stop in the summer, this is a good thing.Most of the dock space was occupied by ships from many different cruise lines. From the Catherine’s spot on the quay, we had an excellent view of the medieval walled city and could check out the other ships docked nearby.
The historic area itself is surrounded by boulevards and green space, but. not far away, a wholly different modern Avignon city exists, not much different than any other French provincial city. This we would learn later as the Ramblers planned to stay on in Avignon for 4 nights at the end of our cruise. Although we did not have to share our dock, two ships from different cruise lines did raft together in front of us. Rafting is no big deal, but sometimes the ships don’t match up well, and the passengers in the rafted ship may have to walk up and down stairs to disembark. On a positive note, it gives you a chance to check out ships owned by other lines. The most humorous experience we had with rafting was two years ago, on the Maria Theresa. The MT is one of Uniworld’s super ships, which means it is as big as you can get through the locks. As a result, she did not always match well with the smaller ships. At one stop, we had to climb the steps to the sun deck and then down again to disembark. When we returned, the kitchen staff was loading foodstuff and we got caught up in a procession of kitchen staff and some crew, each toting boxes filled with produce. Although it looked like a scene from Disney, I am sure it was not much fun for the hardworking staff.
In Avignon, it was pleasant to walk down an almost level gangplank and stroll along the quay. This had been laid out as a wide and pleasant promenade with benches along the way. It was possible to walk for several miles along the river in both directions. The massive Palace of the Popes was clearly visible in the distance and lighted at night. We would dock here for one night and move to Arles/Tarascon during the day,. Tarascon was the farthest we traveled on the Rhone. However we would dock there only briefly. The Catherine would turn around after we toured the city and return to Avignon for the last night of the cruise.
Today Uniworld offered three options. The first, and the most logical choice for the Ramblers was a tour of Avignon including the Palace of the Popes. However, the gentle walkers could ride a little tourist train around the historic area inside the walls instead. This choice was a no-brainer for the Ramblers. We decided on the train. The Palace of the Popes tour involves lots of walking and steps as it is huge and unfortunately largely empty.
The Ramblers weren’t attracted by the other choices either. The first was a Kayak ride on the Gardon River scheduled for the afternoon. If we Ramblers got into a Kayak, we would have to be hoisted out, not a pretty sight. However a number of the younger passengers signed up for kayaking on the river. Those who went really enjoyed it, although they returned looking very hot and sweaty. Fortunately they would have plenty of time to relax before tonight’s gala farewell dinner. Kayaking on a French river was one of the go-active tours available during every cruise. Some are strenuous hikes, others involve bike rides and all are very popular with the less sedentary passengers.
The third choice was a tour to the Pont du Gard Aqueduct. It was scheduled for the same time as the tour of Avignon, providing an interesting option for those passengers who had already visited Avignon.
As you can see from the aerial view, the palace is immense, the largest medieval Gothic buildings in Europe. Constructed as both fortress and palace it was briefly the seat of Western Christianity during the 14th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The palace is actually two buildings joined together. If considered as one, they form the largest Gothic building of the Middle Ages. Although construction began in 1252 AD as a Bishop’s palace, the first Pope, a Frenchman, Clement V moved to Avignon in 1309 AD because of chaotic religious and military issues in Rome. The following 70 years, when the principal see of the Catholic Church was in Avignon, is often referred to as the Babylonian Captivity. This was one of the low points in Catholic history as for a time there were two Popes, and then a third until Urban V and Gregory XI returned to Rome, convinced that the seat of the papacy could only be the by the tomb of St. Peter. Despite its brief role as the center of Western Christianity, the Avignon papal library of over 2,000 volumes drew clerical scholars, including the founder of Humanism, Petrarch. Composers, singers and musicians came to compose and perform in the Great Chapel of the Palace. Because it was so huge, 118,403 sq ft, the Palace forced the centralization of services, creating the first central administrative system for the Church. It also required a large staff of both religious and lay persons unusual for the time.
Unfortunately, although the return of the Pope to
Rome was good for the Catholic Church, it resulted in the deterioration of the Palace. Such a large space simply wasn’t needed in Avignon. Consequently it was in bad shape by the time the French Revolution broke out in 1789.The Palace was stripped of its remaining furnishings and artwork during and after the French Revolution and these items were never restored
We gentle walkers assembled for the relatively short walk to the square where we would board the little train. Unfortunately we didn’t realize that was more than one train in service . It probably wouldn’t have mattered as we boarded the one that was there. However, one of the trains is quite new, and seems to have had a more careful driver while the one which we boarded was ramshackle and as we soon found out, with a driver to match.
I wanted to sit in the last car again so as to have better photo opps. This was a mistake. Riding in the last car, the Ramblers thought our driver was playing crack the whip as we bounced along the cobblestones and whipped around the corners of the narrow streets. To make matters worse, the narrative that accompanied the tour was impossible to understand. I am sure the gentle walkers with back problems were only too happy to disembark at the end of this tour although the children probably enjoyed it.
Our ride ended in the square, a relatively short walk back to the closest city gate and then not far to the Catherine. We took our time as we knew that if we missed lunch in the dining room, we could always order a sandwich in the Leopard Lounge. While we were in the square, I took perhaps my best photo of the trip. It was a hot day, and the noon sun was very warm. I noticed an elderly nun, resting in the shade, not far from the Palace. I don’t usually take photos of people without their permission, but in this case I couldn’t resist.
A cruise in France would not be complete without a lesson in crepe making by our chefs. I am really not sure just day we had this but it was fun to watch.
Although the chef prepared the crepe batter, he was looking for some one from the audience to make a crepe. First they asked innocently if anyone made crepes at home, When I mentioned that I had, many times, they tried to coax me into coming forward and being their guinea pig. The Rambler politely refused, suggesting that someone else have the honor. Eventually, Margery the daughter of my South African friend, volunteered. She was quite the sport and actually managed to flip her crepe after toasting her attempt with a glass of cognac.
That night we had our “Gala Farewell Dinner.” I put the title in italics because every night, we had an excellent 5 course meal with several choices. Fortunately the portions are small, otherwise many passengers wouldn’t be able to buckle their seat belts on the plane going home. One of the appetizer choices for the Gala was foie gras which neither of the Ramblers enjoy. But I guess it was good, as our waitress told us folks at another table had asked for, and received 2nds and 3rds.
All the courses had accompanying wines which were excellent, while the senior Rambler had his customary orange juice or coke. One thing we enjoy about river cruising is the open seating. We tried hard to sit with different people at every meal but eventually, especially for the Farewell Gala, you gravitate towards the friends you made on the voyage.
Ironically, the Gala is not usually on the last night of the cruise but the preceding night. I am sure this is because the crew has to get ready for the next group of passengers who will be arriving as we disembark. Clearing up for such an elaborate meal obviously would take longer. Plus, some passengers had very early flights home. At end of one cruise, European Jewels in 2015, we had to leave for the airport at 3:30 AM, so obviously not a good idea to eat a rich meal only a few hours earlier.
On our last day of this cruise, the Catherine would set sail tomorrow for Tarascon at 9 AM. The Captain isn’t kidding. if the schedule says 9, the ship leaves at 9. This was not a problem for anyone on this trip nor should it be, as the next day’s schedule appears in your cabin the night before.