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Mar. 30th, 2016 10:54 am
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Going to Avignon via Lille seemed like a brilliant idea (only one change from St Pancras! So much easier than having to cross Paris! So much less likely to be disrupted!) right up until we got through check-in at St Pancras to find that some total and utter bastards had decided to blow themselves up in Brussels that morning and the Belgian government stopped all rail traffic in the country for the day*, and we therefore started our holiday by spending two hours standing in a very long queue (and we were quite close to the start of it!) at the end of which we managed to get ourselves rebooked via Paris at no additional charge** and, having been booked on the 8:55 which should have got us to Avignon by late afternoon, ended up leaving at lunchtime and getting there at 9:30pm instead. I was very impressed with the calmness and efficiency of the Eurostar staff, dealing with a huge number of people whose journeys had been disrupted. Coming back, we didn't have any dramatic disruptions, but because we'd booked through tickets Eurostar had put us on their official connection for our TGV, the train that was due to leave Lille half an hour after our TGV arrived there, or, in actual fact, at almost exactly the same time our TGV arrived there after losing half an hour over the 900-odd km we'd covered, and saw exactly the same professionalism both from the station staff at Lille, who calmly and matter-of-factly booked us and an enormous number of families with small children who had boarded the same TGV at Marne-la-Vallée (a station whose name meant nothing to me on the departure board at Avignon, or indeed until we stopped there and I saw how many of the people waiting were wearing Mickey Mouse ears and realised that it must be the station for EuroDisney) onto the next train, and from the staff on board the train who were faced with many more passengers boarding at Lille than they had been expecting.

Avignon is incredibly lovely; a maze of little twisting street and occasional squares, white houses with shutters at the windows, all under (at least some of the time) an incredibly vivid blue sky. I didn't actually get to wear the new summer trousers and shoes I'd bought to take with me; the first couple of days it was amazingly sunny but there was a very cold wind, which seemed infinitely more romantic when we realised that it wasn't just any old strong cold wind, but an actual mistral, but still made jeans and wool socks a much more attractive option, and then on Saturday when the wind had dropped and it was amazingly warm we decided to walk across the river to Villeneuve-lez-Avignon and take a picnic and wearing new shoes without socks was strongly contraindicated. Sunday was colder and wet, and then when I put the new trousers on on Monday I realised that the only top I had left, apart from the longer-sleeved one I was saving for the trip home, had mysteriously lost several inches in length (how does that happen? And why does it only happen to the tops I really like?) and the trousers had a considerably lower rise than my jeans and it just wasn't going to work. And then yesterday was beautifully warm and sunny again, but as we were getting the 12:48 to Lille and I knew that England wouldn't be nearly as warm that wasn't a goer either. So much for all the effort I went to to depilate my legs before going***.

In terms of things to do, Avignon is fairly small and you could easily do all the tourist stuff in a weekend. We went to the Palais des Papes on Sunday, when it was raining, which may have been a tactical error as after a quiet first few days the city got really busy at the weekend, and the palace was very busy, and also operating a totally insane queueing system where rather than letting people through the bag check, which you had to go through to get to the ticket office, at the same rate as tickets were being sold they let a whole load of people through at once so that the ticket office was completely packed and then left everyone standing crammed in with no indication to anyone other than the few at the front that there were, technically, three queues for three tills (from where I was standing it just looked like a scrum) until the security people came over and started haranguing people nearer the doors to move over towards the further tills so they could let even more people in. We went for a walk on the old bridge, which wasn't particularly exciting in itself although there was a really interesting exhibition about a major interdisciplinary project to create a 3D digital reconstruction of the original bridge, which I thought was worth the entrance cost on its own. (The six different versions of the song in six different musical styles which were included on the audioguide, on the other hand, probably merited a reduction.) And we also went to a couple of the museums and spent a lot of time just wandering around, soaking up the atmosphere. Probably the most interesting sight we saw wasn't in Avignon at all; we took a train to Orange (which is only 20 minutes away) and were very impressed with the Roman theatre there, which is one of the best-preserved in the world, still retaining its original stage wall****, and is also large enough to have had a whole town living inside it in the Middle Ages.

We stayed in an apartment in the old town, which was lovely; it was particularly nice to have space to sit and read, which is the thing we always miss in hotels (yes, you can sit on the bed, but particularly in the evenings that tends to lead to falling asleep by 8:30pm), and if the advertised "self-catering facilities" were a bit more minimal than we'd have expected (two rings, kettle, microwave, fridge - no oven and very little space) it did at least mean we could make cups of tea and eat croissants and pain au chocolate which we bought from the bakery for breakfast and bread and cheese for lunch, and we also had a couple of evening meals there courtesy of a stall in Avignon's amazing indoor market which sold ready-cooked meals that could just be heated up in the microwave. The market also provided us with splendid picnics of quiche and salad, delicious French strawberries (almost certainly polytunnel-grown, but still, strawberries in March!) and some rather lovely cakes, and was generally an amazing place to wander around. We also had some wonderful meals out; most of the restaurants we found seemed to be very small places, often run by couples with one cooking and the other doing front of house, but because we tended to want to sit down around 7 or 7:30, shockingly early by French standards (most places don't open before 7, and some even later) we didn't generally have a problem finding somewhere to eat (we might have done on Saturday and Sunday, but those were the days we ate in the apartment) and the food was amazing. We had three-course meals, with wine for T, for not much more than the cost of the meal we had at Prezzo in King's Cross the night before we left, and the quality was incredible. I think my favourite was the pork filet mignon with a hazelnut crust I had on the last night, but the confit lamb wrapped in aubergine was pretty good too.

There are some pictures here if anyone wants to see them.

*I know Lille isn't in Belgium, but Lille isn't a terminus for Eurostar and the trains that stop there are normally the Brussels trains, and there were logistical problems meaning that they couldn't just run all the Brussels trains as far as Lille and then turn them round.

**We were very glad that we'd booked through tickets with Eurostar, rather than booking the Eurostar and TGV legs separately.

***Following which, I am vaguely considering buying one of those things that pulls the hair out by the roots, but I'm rather wary of how much that would be likely to hurt and also deeply skeeved by the marketing spiel every time I try to look at them online, eg "The best preparation for epilating is a nice, warm shower. It will leave your skin clean and relaxed. Be sure to use a gentle, pH-neutral shower gel, and keep the water warm, not hot, to avoid drying out your delicate skin." Which is (a) patronising as hell and (b) I don't think I have particularly delicate skin.

****The introductory video said there were only two other theatres with intact stage walls, one in Turkey and one in Syria. So I suspect that there may only be one other now.


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