Oh, where to begin? France. Lush, food-filled France, bursting at the seams with boulangeries, antiquities and more stunning views than my mind’s Polaroid camera could ever capture. The 10 days I spent navigating my way through Provence helped me to recover the part of me I left behind in Spain four years ago – the part that feels exhilarated to set my eyes upon foreign landscapes, buildings and people by myself, on my schedule; the part that finds utter bliss to be within the walls of my own mind for days; and the part that registers little to no fear about the people I encounter no matter how many rather bold, overconfident Frenchmen approached me (I’ll get to that later).
Arriving in Avignon from Paris, I briefly experienced that familiar sense of doubt where I ask myself, “Keri, did you pick a good place or a dud?” The drive from the TGV station was less than inspiring, but on approach to the city and its ancient wall, I knew I’d made the right call. Avignon had an undeniable charm from the moment I entered the city gate. I recall how a smile worked its way across my face until I was grinning like a crazy lady in the back of the taxi. The driver saw my expression and seemed to know my thoughts, explaining that Avignon is a hidden gem in comparison to the much flashier and best-known Paris.
Avignon is famous for the Palace of the Popes built in the 1300s when the then-Pope relocated the papal palace from the Vatican to Provence. Just five Popes held reign in Avignon, but the impression they left is lasting. The foreboding edifice rises high above the city providing a postcard perfect backdrop for all who eat at the cafes in the square outside the palace. And for one visitor, in particular, it provided one heck of a morning workout. That’s right, every morning there, I laced up my Nikes with their neon yellow trim and slid into my DRI-FIT workout ensemble, and set off to explore. Without fail, it was the best part of my day; it’s the only way I can get to know a city in a compressed timeframe.
Every morning at 7am, as the city stretched and yawned its way awake, I wove my way through the narrow, cobblestone streets, listening to the bustle of the townspeople behind their faded, peeling shutters.
In fact, rarely did I see anyone in the street at that hour. But I heard them running their hair dryers, clanging their dishes and plates, and talking in the melodic, smooth French that I someday hope to replicate. I loved it.
I loved most, however, the stairs and hills leading up to the palace, its entry, and the nearby gardens.
I loved how purposeful and powerful I felt stretching my legs, pushing hard into each step and taking deep, chest-burning breaths. And I loved best the realization that I, a women in my form-fitting athletic gear, was using the palace as my personal exercise playground. If that doesn’t have underpinnings of a Nike commercial, I don’t know what does. Through the hundreds of years and the thousands of people it has encountered, I bet the builders never imagined such a fate, or the Popes, such a flagrant violation of propriety. And therein’s the draw for me, the opportunity to reach back in time and drag it forward so that the old is my new.
No, this trip was not only about exercise. Relaxation was top of mind and I promised myself I’d really drink (or eat) in the culture and allow myself to do whatever I felt like doing whether that meant sitting in a cafe and reading my nook, trying out various chocolates at the patisserie, or stopping back at my adorable apartment (below) for an afternoon snooze.
I had no “to-do list”or expectations. If anything, I found the most difficult part of my day the wait between meals. Thankfully, self-discipline told me that one should space out one’s meals despite one’s great craving to do otherwise. Oh, the meals…
When you stay in an epicurean epicenter such as France, the meal choices are endless and you will likely find yourself wandering menu to menu, unable to decide which delectable dish to settle upon. No joke, my first night saw me take TWO hours to make up my mind. Pretty ridiculous. My second night in Avignon, was slightly better as I stumbled upon a tartines-only cafe. I had already discovered by that point that almost anything placed on crusty French bread was heaven. I was working my way through the most delicious tomato tartine and a glass of wine when the unforeseen, unavoidable happened: Out of nowhere, a Frenchman approached me, telling me I was beautiful and graceful. And then, he plunked himself right down in the chair opposite me. Merde…