Avignon by accident

October 6th, 2006

Some of the greatest discoveries are made accidentally. Penicillin. The Americas. Fire. For me personally, it was Avignon, France.

No European journey is complete without at some point getting on the wrong train and ending up miles from the intended destination. The scenario is familiar: the departures board in Montpellier listed one platform, but due to some curiously French mixup, the train arrived on another one, and some other train came where the first one should have been. Of course, there was an announcement in rapid French, so all but one of the passengers knew about the swap. And so instead of going to Nice as intended, I ended up in Avignon, 200 miles in the other direction.

Palais des Papes
So there I was, in Avignon. 10:30 PM, so my only option was to spend the night and take the first Nice train in the morning. I checked into the hotel right by the station and thought, "Welp, might as well look around." I took a shower and was off.

Picture it: the first thing you notice as you leave the station is a big medieval city wall, with an ancient-looking gate. A quick glance at the hotel-provided map shows that the wall encircles the entire centre-ville. "Well, that's nice," you think, passing through the gate. Entering the old town center, you notice pretty historic architecture and cobblestone streets, and are thankful you took the easy hotel rather than trying to drag the wheeled case across the clackity-clack-bump-bump-tip-over.
The streets: softly lit, the populace: walking with Friday night's free and easy spirit. You think, "I kind of like this place."

Continuing on the main street some spires come into view over the roof tops. "Oh, look, must be a cathedral." Then you get closer, you enter a square, and you have to stop. You have to stop. You have to stop because you can't breathe. For there in front of you is the Palais des Papes and the Musee de Petite Palais, and one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. You have to stop because you can't breath because the haunting baritone tones of a man singing in French echo throughout the square. Originating where he stands, alone in the deserted center, and reverbrating off monumental walls, breathtaking walls.

After a moment you can fully enter the square, and with each step you are astounded anew at the place's beauty. From every angle you discover something new to marvel at. Beyond the sheer scale of the place is the quiet, peaceful simplicity. You notice the way the different sections, apparently built at different times, don't quite line up, don't quite match, but somehow form a whole that is in perfect harmony.

You find yourself wandering down a small side street – beautiful in its own simple way – then turning around with the intent of surprising yourself anew. It doesn't work, because your memory is too good, too fresh. But then, wait, unexpectedly it strikes you again. Maybe it's a reflection in a window pane, maybe a previously unviewed angle. This place, it continually surprises.


So that's how I discovered Avignon. I gotta get on the wrong train more often.