July 21, 2004
To See The Bridge
DAY 271: "Where should I go?" I asked dorm mates Ben and Daniel. Having done all that I could concerning Russian and Chinese visas in Paris, it was time to move on -- but where to next? The beauty of the unlimited travel Eurail Pass is that you can go mostly anywhere in Europe on a whim (some trains require reservations). I boiled down my options to two out of many: the northwestern beaches of Normandy to see the World War II memorial sites; or the southeastern town of Avignon, home of the legendary bridge which became subject of the French children's song, "Sur le Pont d'Avignon," which I learned in junior high French class. Figuring I hadn't really taken full advantage of my 17-country Eurail Pass (I only did two so far), I might as well go to Avignon en route to third country, Italy.
From Paris' Gare Lyon, I was off on a high-speed TGV train southbound through the French countryside to Avignon without any real expectations of it other than the fact that there was a bridge there. I had heard from the two Colorado girls in Barcelona that there was some sort of festival going on in Avignon for all of July (even though they never made it to Avignon) and so I thought that maybe there would be things to do other than see the pont (bridge).
However, when I arrived in town I discovered this festival was actually three major theater festivals all going on at the same time, the main one being the Festival d'Avignon, "the most prestigious theater gathering in Europe" (according to my Let's Go book). The July events in Avignon were so big that it pretty much took over the otherwise quiet town, which meant that finding a cheap (15-50 euro) place to stay was near impossible. The local YMCA recommended in my guidebook was full, as were the recommended hotels. A board in the main tourist office listed hotels that were full, but a hostel/campground was on the bottom of the list and I gave them a buzz. They did have space, but didn't take reservations; you just had to show up and hope no one beat you to it. They directed me to take a bus to their location on the Ile de la Barthelasse, an island in the middle of the Rhône River, a popular recreational island for the French since the 19th century.
I dashed off to the bus stop in hopes of getting there in a speedy manner to secure a bed, but the waiting for the bus to come and depart took forever. To make this worse, I didn't know exactly where to push the stop signal button and ended up on the other side of the Rhône in a low traffic area -- I had overshot the hostel by about a kilometer and I had my heavy big bag weighing me down. Fuck, this is heavy, I kept thinking, cursing myself for letting it slow me down. This stupid heavy bag is going to prevent me from getting a place to stay tonight. Damn this bag! I walked across the Rhône on the Pont Daladier to the east side of the Ile de la Barthelasse, then crossed the island passed some rowdy drunk teenagers, one of which gave me wrong directions to the reception office. Luckily I managed to snag one of the few remaining beds in the dorm and immediately started removing unnecessary items from my bag.
"To see the bridge."
"Everyone says that. What's so special about the bridge?" He admitted that he thought the famous Pont d'Avignon -- what was left of it anyway -- was a bit kitsch.
"It's in that French children's song. I've known it since the seventh grade. I'm making sort of a pilgrimage."
Our conversation continued, keeping me from rearranging my things and him from taking a nap. Phillip filled me in on current world events and what to expect in town. He had been in Avignon since the beginning of the festival about a week before, when rumor had it that the festival would be cancelled -- which is why he snagged a pas for some of the better seats in the venues at a good price. He had seen everything from big Broadway-like productions to smaller off-Broadway ones to really off-Broadway ones -- each category had its good, bad and downright ugly. He told me that a festival show might not be fun (or worth it) if you didn't know French too well. That was okay, I just wanted to see the bridge.
Seeing the bridge wasn't so hard to do; the Auberge Bagatelle where I was staying on the Ile de la Barthelasse was in the most convenient and scenic place: right on the Rhône, diagonally across from it. This was just one of the bonuses of the French award-winning Bagatelle hostel/campground, a big recreational complex with a cafeteria, a grocery store and a decent outdoor restaurant/cafe right on the bank of the river overlooking the bridge -- the perfect place to write over a glass of wine and a platter of moules frites.
Phillip came to join me after not being able to sleep much in his bed; one of our eight dorm mates was making too much noise having sex in his bunk with a girl and without any scruples over privacy. Phillip had to get up anyway to make his evening play, a five-hour production of Ibsen's Peer Gynt, and sat with me for a while as the sun began to set on the other side of the island. "Every town has its energy," he said. "You just feel it, no matter where you are." He was no stranger to the Eurail scene, having train traveled through Europe before to experience the different energies of different cities. As hippy as it sounded, I agreed with him -- although I argued that some places (i.e. San Jose de Chiquitos, Bolivia) had no energy at all.
Phillip in his theater blazer went off to see Ibsen's play, while I walked across the Pont Daladier and into town to experience its energy. With the festival in town, there was energy everywhere I turned, from the theater-goers rushing to venues, to the families walking around with ice cream cones, to the guys like me who were just in town to see the bridge. While the theater performances cost money and were entirely in French, free performances were everywhere in the plazas, from puppets lip-syncing Louis Armstrong tunes (picture above), musicians, interpretive dance/jugglers and the inevitable French mime. They all kept me entertained for free on my first night in Avignon while the theater elite got their bangs for their euro bucks.
"Oh, it was awful. I left after intermission."
I suppose it's always a crapshoot when it comes to theater, but that's okay, I was only in town to see the bridge.
If you enjoy this daily travel blog, please post a comment! Give me suggestions, send me on missions, let me know how things are going back home in the USA. Knowing that I have an audience will only force me to make this blog more entertaining as the days go by. Donīt forget to bookmark it and let a friend know!