Sean Munson from Flickr

Photo credit: Sean Munson from Flickr

One of the worst things you can do on a trip is tempt fate. Case in point: on our train ride to Avignon I noticed an entry in our guidebook that talked about Le Mistral winds in southern France. Living in Halifax, I’ve grown accustomed to the fact that rain falls sideways, that umbrellas must be purchased seasonally, and that good hair days are when you don’t have to leave the house.

So, reading about how the south of France—which until that point had been giving us temperatures of around 13 degrees—could even remotely compare to the wind tunnels of downtown Halifax, gave us a good laugh.

Well, that was a mistake.

Mother Nature does not like to be taken lightly. She’s kind of like that mean popular girl in high school who’s all fake-nice to the people she thinks “matter” but will claw your eyes out if you mess with her in any way. As a result of overhearing our snide remarks, Mother Nature unleashed Le Mistral upon us in the same way.

Although we didn’t hear about it until days later, apparently we were arriving during the end of one of the worst storms to hit the region in a decade. As a matter of fact, the name Avignon derives from the Roman word avenio meaning “town of violent winds.” That turned out to be a fact we didn’t find out about until our second day in the quaint little town.

We found ourselves shivering in a bus shelter outside the train station, as cold torrential rain poured down. When we boarded the shuttle bus into town, as further evidence of why one should never mess with Mother Nature, a woman sat in front of me who couldn’t have wanted to be more Amy Winehouse if she was Amy Winehouse: crazily styled hair amassed atop her head and in the process of layering makeup upon her skin. The only reason I could be sure she wasn’t the real deal was because the real Amy Winehouse was probably in rehab or maybe doped up and sprawled out on a bathroom floor somewhere (I still was having problems figuring out what time it would be back home let alone in the UK. Not that there’s really an acceptable time to be doing blow).

It turned out that our hotel, the Hôtel Cloître Saint Louis, was only a few short steps away from the train station. All our cold little worries melted away once we arrived. I must admit that we splurged a little here to stay in a charming 4-star hotel that was formerly a monastery and recently converted to a hotel that housed very modern rooms. Our room had a bathroom on one level and a bedroom overlooking a grassy courtyard.

Because we’re troopers and didn’t want a little bit of foul weather to ruin a perfectly good vacation to Provence, we decided to grab a bite to eat at a local bistro before visiting the Palais des Papes. This is what the UNESCO World Heritage Site has to say about the historic site:

In the 14th century, this city in the South of France was the seat of the papacy. The Palais des Papes, an austere-looking fortress lavishly decorated by Simone Martini and Matteo Giovanetti, dominates the city, the surrounding ramparts and the remains of a 12th-century bridge over the Rhone. Beneath this outstanding example of Gothic architecture, the Petit Palais and the Romanesque Cathedral of Notre-Dame-des-Doms complete an exceptional group of monuments that testify to the leading role played by Avignon in 14th-century Christian Europe.

If you’re any sort of a history buff, you’ll know that seeing this in real life just made our day. One of the great things about the little town of violent winds is that so many of the locals were amazingly friendly and let me struggle along in French. I think it amused them but it gave me the much needed practise that I was hoping for.

Strolling around a random beautiful churchyard

Strolling around a random beautiful churchyard

At the local market in Les Halles, we bought some Brie from a vendor who was so excited about his city and the fact that we were staying at the Cloître Saint Louis that he basically gave us a real life audio guide of tips on the best views of the city, particularly from the rooftop of the nearby church.

The next day we went to the Pont Saint Bénezet (of the Sur le pont d’Avignon song) where, although sunny and beautiful, we learned the true meaning behind the town’s name. Fun fact: back in the day, a couple of priests were blown off the bridge into the frigid water below. To console them, the pope sent them his personal physician and…some money. Because nothing eases pain more than cold hard cash.

Sadly, shopping in Avignon consisted of window browsing (apparently the French version of this phrase translates roughly to window licking). Even with 50% discounts, most prices came out to the same original price in Canadian dollars. So much for Soldes d’hiver 2009.

Next up this week: Gladiators! Bull fights! And national train strikes!

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