Crossing the south of France – Avignon, Nîmes, Montpellier, and the Via Domitia

After a fun final night in Marseille with my host and fellow traveler but on three hours of sleep, I depart this beloved Mediterranean city toward Spain with no fixed plans until Figueres on Saturday.  My preferred next stop is Avignon, and a ride offer comes by my fellow couchsurfer and her fiancé. They have an errand nearby and a time crunch,  but we all calm down with our needs and let the flow take us as we take the scenic route through Provençal wine country.

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Typical Côte du Rhone vineyard in Provence 

Outside the off-white stone walls of old Avignon, they drop me off and so i enter, loaded with bags. The air is soft and warm, the side streets ancient and winding. Signs direct tourists through the walled center to the Pont Saint Benezet, the famous bridge on the Rhône with a childrenś song my mother sang to me.

Near the bridge,  I sit with my picnic lunch of baguette, soft camembert, and duck paté. I have not eaten paté but this is a perfect time and place to try it. The bridge reflects in the slow green-blue river, as French on holiday row and run by, enjoying the outdoors in great weather.  20170412_135631

The bridge goes only about halfway across the river now. Floods on the Rhône from the Alps caused the bridge to collapse multiple times and the people eventually stopped rebuilding it. It once connected Avignon to the towns and vineyards on the west bank, and the roads beyond. It has been a marketplace and part of a significant trade route for more than a thousand years. There is also a chapel on the bridge that may have already been there when St Benezet organized people to build the bridge in the Feudal era. Traditional dances were performed on the bridge, immortallized in the song.

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Looking west…the fortified town across the river is St Andres 
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Looking north

The city is built on a rocky bluff on a bend in the Rhône,  and buildings are mostly of limestone. From the high gardens, there are clear views in all directions, including of Côte du Rhône wine country and of Mt. Ventoux, the main peak of this part of Provence.

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20170412_155140The popes resided in Avignon in the 1300s and 1400s, and the grand palace built for them sits in the middle of town.

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The Auberge Batagelle, my place for the night (16 euros, a good deal) is in the campground on a forested island in the river, directly across from the old city. A new bridge connects the camp and the city, and there is a pedestrian walkway. From the bridge and from camp, the views of the old city and bridge are amazing as the sun sets and the limestone walls carry a pink glow.

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One of many animated videos of the song https://youtu.be/V5E1SI05LaQ

A guy, Dave, dances on the Pont Benezet, with the song…a new interpretation: https://youtu.be/W6OXTPo8bnc

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On the next morning, I take a local bus called Edgard across the Rhône and into Gard province. The bus follows the Roman road Via Domitia and stops in the preserved Roman city of Nîmes (Nemausus). 20170413_143150

Much of this town was built as a monument to Caesar Augustus during imperial expansion to the Iberian peninsula. He is honored at the public temple (now known as La Maison Carrée), at the forum and Amphitheater,  and also at the Augustinium, called the Temple of Diana.  Water flows from the temple through the canal in the tree-lined street this warm day. Before i meet my ride, i say a prayer to Diana for strength and wild energy as i travel west with strangers on the Via Domitia.

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My first ride on the Blablacar service is with Assia, a 25 year old nurse at the hospital on the west side, and she is going to Montpellier as part of her daily commute. She only speaks French, which presents a challenge, but we are slightly able to communicate. She is very kind and offers to take me along the coastal route through part of the Camargue delta. This is an area i did not expect to see as it requires a car, and as we zoomed past big lagoons with wild horses and their manes gleaming in the afternoon sun, my hands did not move quickly enough to get a photo of this awesome scene.

Eventually, we hit traffic on the entry to Montpellier, sprawling city of Occitania and home to a major university. Big box American retail stores abound,  and i feel like we are suddenly in southern California. We drive past Assia’s apartment building on the way to the drop off point and i feel very grateful as we part.

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Red bull car, oh how French!

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Look what’s playing at the Place de la comedie
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Light rail in the place de la comedie 

My failed Air Bnb experience here is a lesson learned,  but a part of the story to skip over. However, the light rail system of Montpellier is pretty good, and the trains are pretty. The Place de la comedie is the city center and an interesting place to people-watch. And the Hostel International here saves me with good beds and breakfast on a night when i come very close to sleeping on the street. Ignore the bad reviews,  it’s a fine hostel. The staff even help me book a bus ticket onward, to Perpignan by the border to Spain.  Luck has been on my side, thanks Diana.

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At the Place de la Comedie on the way out, it’s a tragicomedie here as a Roma woman shamelessly calls out to the students for “Moneeeee.” And so it goes as i board the isilines, the best bus, “plebian comfort” with legroom and red curtains. The strength of Diana is within me, in my legs, my phone, and my pen.  The Via Domitia is calm, through low hills around Narbonne, vineyards in early growth, with garrigue and rocky washes to the north, and the Mediterranean sea to the south.

Arianna, 12 to 14 April, 2017

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