France Day 15 and 16: The Pope's Palace and Le Pont D'Avignon
Day 15 Ah yes. This was the day that started out with beautiful windy lavender fields and ended with all of us driving home in our underwear. We went to Avignon to see the Papal Palace and the Pont D’Avignon, a famous bridge about which the children’s song Sur La Pont D’Avignon was written. Geoff planned this for today, because it’s something we can do in not-so-sunny weather. And when I say not-so-sunny, what I should have said was torrential downpour.
We had just left the house, the kids just happened to be dressed in their yellow raincoats and the lavender just happened to be blooming up purple, and I just love the complementary colors. We passed this amazing wild lavender field, interspersed with all manner of wildflowers, and with Mount Ventoux in the background and storm clouds billowing overhead and the sun opposite the mountain…I begged Geoff to turn around and stop even though we were on our way somewhere. I know he gets impatient, but I promised we’d be back in the car in ten minutes or less, and we were. And it was worth it, and I think even Geoff wasn’t too upset with me.
We stopped off at Chez McDonald’s, as it is called here, and it was quite eye-opening. Many things are the same, but some things are quite different. The Happy Meal (which is listed as “Happy Meal” on the menu, not anything French) toy display is not blasted with overly commercialized branding, and you can choose either toy or book. You have 5 things to choose for a Happy Meal – 1) entrée (hamburger, cheeseburger, Croque McDo which is similar to like an egg McMuffin but with amazing cheese, or “Chicken McNuggets,” again, listed in English), 2) side (regular fries like in the U.S., or potato wedges with a texture more like the outside of a curly fry from Arby’s), 3) boisson (water, or orange juice – French kids don’t drink much milk; they get their calcium mostly from cheese and the like 89 varieties of cream), and 4) dessert (ananas (fresh pineapple stick), apple slices (funny they are counted as dessert here, but as a desperate attempt to get fruit in front of kids in the U.S.), milkshake, and some kind of “fruits rouge” drink (a red fruit juice – again, here, it’s a dessert, but in the U.S. one of many sugary drink options). The 5th thing you choose is either toy or book. I love this choice!
The playground was different, too. There was both an indoor and an outdoor playground. They are serious about getting kids to play! We saw zero adults playing with the kids. And it was clear they weren’t expected to. The Play Place was so small, even Bittykins could climb it alone, and there was no way we were going to be able to fit through there.
On we went to the Palace of the Pope, in Avignon. This castle has been there for over a thousand years and was originally there because it was a safe retreat when things got too rough. I tried to learn as much as I could soak in and read while still looking after two little ones and looking for good photos. So I won’t cheat and Google any of this, so don’t hang me if it’s not all 100% perfectly accurate, but this is the gist of it. It started out as a simple 4-hall castle design that wasn’t even attached at one corner. As Christendom grew, and time passed, and new Popes presided, the castle was expanded, and expanded, and expanded again, usually for protection from attacks hundreds of years ago. Towers were added and removed, and a 2nd floor bridge that crossed a courtyard was added to improve connection and air circulation. (They totally should have left that there, because that was a lot of stairs to climb, just saying. I’m all for whichever Pope added that.) At one point, the overwhelming majority of funds was used just for protection during a war. And you could tell from the size of this place, that was a lot of money. There was a giant (think the size of your entire house, times two) room just for important things like war strategy and ceremonies and receiving visitors. This room had a special small window just to shine light on the chair where the Pope sat, just to make things really clear. I would have *loved* to transport myself back in time with my camera for that. A natural spotlight and amazing costumes? Yes, please! Oh, and do I have to wear a super-long fancy dress to do that? OK. I can deal.
The kitchen was this room with a chimney that stretched up what must’ve been about 9 stories high and ventilated out the sides at the top. Whoa. The banquet hall was about the size of three Walgreens pharmacies lined up next to each other. There was a little hall connecting the kitchen and the banquet hall, and I can just imagine how busy it was, how many times people bumped into each other, and how exciting it must’ve been to cook in there. I saw a big iron rail in the kitchen, and I imagine big cuts of meat hanging from it. I saw a big space, and I imagined the walls lined with tables, with a big center table where people all worked together to bake bread.
At some point, a Pope decided they should return the papacy to Rome, and there were actually two competing Papacies, and there was bloodshed. But Avignon did not win out, and the castle was abandoned. Used by political entities off and on for hundreds of years, eventually modern wars began, and during World War I (maybe also during the second?) soliders were housed in the sanctuary.
When we reached the sanctuary, the kids were pretty squirrely, and it was past their naptime. I pretty much had to carry Bittykins to keep her from darting off, but I couldn’t miss the larger-than-life photos of soliders living in the sanctuary when I entered that place. I immediately felt the heaviness and the intense meaning, where people have come to terms with life and death itself, and its meaning either way. The stones seemed soaked with people’s circumstances and decisions, as though storing thousands of silent voices, memories of prayer. When we emerged, it sprinkled rain, and gradually rained more heavily over the next half hour, during which we ate ice cream and made our way down to the famous Pont D’Avignon. I thought we were the only idiots going this direction, and asked Geoff several times if he was sure he wanted to go up there, but 6 or 7 other people had also decided to Get Their Money’s Worth as well, since it was included in the price of admission to the castle.
We listen to the audioguides give us a history in English, along with many versions of Sur La Pont D’Avignon. They also had a special children’s audioguide, which held Butterscotch’s attention for its content, and Bittykins’ attention for its buttons to press and fun sounds and lights. A photograph caught my eye I can’t quit thinking about. It’s of a group of children of various ages, holding hands and dancing in a circle, just on the other side of the tower. I pictured a photo of the four of us dancing as well, but oh, gosh, not in this torrential downpour. Bet then we were out there, and it felt like all the years of fantasy and fairytales and school papers and history met reality, as I tried to wrap my head around how I was walking on a bridge where the boulder cornerstone was laid by a man who lifted it because he told a crowd God told him to build the bridge. The crowd laughed and dared him, and he did it. And the bridge was built. And here, a thousand years later, I’m standing just feet above it in my LL Bean fleece-lined rain jacket. Isn’t that unbelievable? It’s like all the beautiful picture Bible books I looked at as a child in the waiting room of the Olan Mills and doctor’s offices suddenly seems closer. Despite the absence of the people involved, the evidence of their lives and achievements are here, still here, in rock and mortar, and we can stand on it for the price of about $16 per person. They seem real.
And in the midst of hanging out in the tower for a bit to keep dry, then totally soaking ourselves on the short walk back, we’d gotten drenched to the bone, and I had to strip the children down and cover them in blankets for the ride back. I, too, had to peel off my maternity panel pants and wet soggy socks for the ride back.
I thought, on the way home, how much of children’s television and books and movies that influenced me as a small child were based on Europe – Disney cartoons involving St. Bernards and Heidi come to mind. But also Vikings, Parisian culture (Pepe Le Pew, anyone?), all the costumes in Sleeping Beauty (the funny black hats with drapes – taken straight from Provencial French culture), the social system and architecture in Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast (all French), the Sword and the Stone, and to some extent just the landscapes in all the fantasy movies. I remember being 3, 4, and 5 and wishing I knew how everything fit together through time, wishing I could map it out and make sense of how long ago these various things happened. I’m actually doing a timeline project with Butterscotch at home for this very reason, but that’s another story. The point is, Europe is so ripe with history and inspiration. I love being here in a wellspring of culture. Yet the complete youth of America dawns on me daily, and I love our wild American mix of cultures, the big expanses of space, and the feeling that there's always room for new ideas.
After going hard two days in a row, we needed a rest day. OK, a half rest day. We rested in the morning and hung around the house, then in the afternoon visited the ochre mines! It sounded like a great idea, and it was fun! The entire tour was in French, and I understood only about 45% of it. I started out about 70%, but my mind kept having to slow down and interpret and piece the puzzle together, and by the time I made sense of it, our guide was already on the next sentence. This is hard! The first 20 minutes of the tour were great! Then my concentration also decreased as Bittykins grew more whiny and exhausted and cold and hungry and I had to pee. Bittykins fell asleep in Geoff’s arms. We finally emerged and all was well after a bit of ice cream. Geoff grilled out tonight, while I showered the kids by myself (not an easy task – everyone and everyone’s clothes were covered in ochre pigment). Then he felt adventurous and made profiteroles! Formidable! (Short entry today; I’m tired.)