Thursday, July 02, 2009

Avignon (Pt. XVII)

Note to readers: This is the seventeenth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part XVI here.

Uncharacteristic forethought caused me to book a room in Avignon from a telephone in Geneva. Nearly three months on the rails now, I had become weary of the frantic scramble to find accommodations after a long train ride. Plan ahead then, Dade.

Said accommodations consisted of a bunk bed in a rundown racquetball club just outside the old city of Avignon. The communal shower was a tad mildewy. Breakfast not included. Four US dollars per night.

Avignon. The old city exists within an ancient wall built by the Catholics. Originally a Celtic fort, eventually seized by the Romans as they pushed north and west across Gaul. Over the centuries Avignon was subjugated by Goths, Ostrogoths, Saracens, and Franks. In time she came under le Roi de France.

Palais de Papes
In 1305, Pope Clement V became the first non-Italian pope in the history of the Church. Like a good Frenchman, Clement moved the Papacy to Avignon. (Things were not so nice in Rome at that time, with plutocrats wielding private armies, engaging in turf wars. That was Clement's excuse.) The move did not sit well with Italian cardinals. A schism ensued. Catholic politics are a dense and tangled jungle. By comparison, the Amazon Basin is a well-tended garden.

The move instigated construction of the Palais du Papes: home for seven popes, from 1305 to 1378. Every one of them a Frenchman to the bone. Pope Innocent VI, my personal favorite, had a reputation for enjoying life's pleasures: food, drink, music. Very un-pope-like. During the Black Death, Innocent protected the local Jewish population from superstitious Catholics looking for scapegoats. Very pope-like. Nice guy, that Innocent.

Today, le Palais is a museum, with much religiously inspired art.

Peter, Mary, Baby Jesus
Wandering around outside the walls of the Old City, I came upon a gathering of elderly gentlemen playing bocce ball. I stopped to watch. When they noticed me they stepped up their game. I egged them on, loudly, enthusiastically, cheering for each pitch, carom, roll. Smiles and good-natured jokes were my reward. But in French; so I just smiled and nodded.

That afternoon, I met two American women at the racquetball club. Their names lost to the ages, I'm afraid. We walked into the Old City and found a sidewalk cafe. The evening was warm and gentle. We ate pasta and beef and cheese and drank wine. We talked politics, all staunch liberals. We were none-too-enthused about Gore, but would vote for him anyway.

One of them gave air to a puzzling phenomenon I had started to notice in my travels. Months of traveling, observing high art, ancient, incredible architecture, leads to a certain enervation. Believe it or not. "Oh, another cathedral. Oh, another masterpiece watercolor." That was how she put it. I disliked that I found it to be true.

They were sleeping in the two bunk beds next to mine. I was up early the next morning. I gently tapped one of the two on the shoulder after I had showered and packed my gear. "I'm off," I said. "Good luck." She smiled and nodded and closed her eyes.

I caught the train south to Arles.

To be continued...

No comments: