Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Travel notes: Avignon

We were too late to catch the 1:15 train to Avignon from Montpellier, so we went to eat lunch at Le Faune, the pretentious restaurant attached to MOCO, the modern museum just up the street from the gare. Unfortunate choice – inedible fare – but nice exhibition of a very German German artist, Neo Rauch (we discussed whether his birth name was really Neo, but I can’t find different on Google) and then got the train into Avignon and arrived around 5:30. We left Montpellier on a summer day and got to Avignon on an autumn day – the season had changed in the couple hours of our train trip, borne northward on the Mistral. The wind flows like a river over Avignon. Its most famous inhabitant, Petrarch, disliked the town with the dislike of Jonah vis-à-vis Ninevah. He disliked it for the corruption during the brief era when Avignon was the seat of the Popes, but I suspect that the Mistral gave him headaches.

It didn’t give me headaches: in fact, the river of wind above the town, at night, was somehow wildly exciting. But a constant wind in your face is unignorable.

We made a reservation at Le Bercail. However, it was no good. When we walked through the town in the direction of the restaurant, we saw that we would have to cross the Rhone to get to it. There was a navette, a little boat, that crossed the river every fifteen minutes, or so the sign said. But that was no good. The air was cold and the boat was distant, and we calculated that we’d have half an hour to order and eat and finish our meal to catch the last passage on the boat. So we turned reluctantly away and found a small but tasty couscous place. It will be marked in my memory by this: I had my first glass of Algerian wine there, Sidi Brahim. I felt very Hemingway-esque sipping it: somewhere in his memoir of Paris, A moveable feast, Hemingway mentions cheap North African wine. I haven’t read A moveable Feast in a shark’s age, so I might be wrong about this reference, but still: the town, the wind, the square, the little Pied Noir man who served us with a few outdated server’s flourishes, it was all so the American abroad experience.

The next day we went to the Dom. We went to the Palais de Pape. We talked about Petrarch. But the main thing, the striking thing, the civilized thing, was nothing like we had previously planned to do. Walking down from the Dom, we noticed that there was a museum with no line outside the door – unlike the Palais. It was called the Petit Palais. So we ducked into it and there saw a collection of early Renaissance paintings in a space where we could really look at them. They were unframed. We were within real human space of them. And they were all remarkable. They were from Italian masters who travelled the circuit from Florence to Siena to Avignon. There were few pagan references in these paintings, but there was perspective and there were faces that, as Jacob Burkhardt might have said, were individual. Real expressions looked out at us, unsubsumed by their ritual  position, their beatification, their place in Biblical narrative. It was startling and exhilarating and it rapidly became  one of my top museum experiences.

The drain on a painting when it is being gazed at by a moving mass of people makes it as hard to experience them as it is to get to know a politician who shakes your hand at a reception. Acquaintance is not the same as knowing. But here, I knew these paintings.

We agreed, after they chased us out of the place for lunch, that we’d just done something incredibly touching

Then we had another go at Le Bercail, but again there was the problem of time with the navette. So we ate at a bistro with plenty of Provencal items on the menu. I bobbled it, having a middlebrow steak-frite. Then we did a few more tourist routes, got on the train at 5:30, and returned to Montpellier, satisfied with our one day jaunt.  More satisfied than ever Petrarch was with Avignon:


nest of treachery, where all the evil,


spread through all the world, hatches,


slave to wine, delicacies and good living,


where Luxury performs her worst.



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