An Artist's Tour of Provence - Part IV

photo of Le Pont d'Avignon. © J. HulseyLe Pont d'Avignon


  We have made several trips to Avignon and even made it our base of operations on one trip so we could thoroughly scout the town for another painting workshop. Even though it is only about an hour's drive from Aix, it is a full day's excursion, especially so if one wants to see a bit of the nearby wine country of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We always get an early start. 

    The ancient town of Avignon is now the capital of the Vaucluse departement. Between 1309 and 1377, seven consecutive popes resided in Avignon. It remained in papal control until 1791 when it became a part of France during the French revolution. The historic center of Avignon is one of the few remaining historic towns in France to retain its original ramparts. Inside you will find, the Palais des Papes, the Cathedral and the famous Pont d'Avignon. Avignon was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. It is among the 10 most-visited monuments in France.  
 photo of Wisteria at Palais des Papes, Avignon.©J.Hulsey  The Palais des Papes with its almost 10 foot thick walls is the biggest Gothic palace in the world. Its over three acres (130,000 sq. feet) of living space equates to the size of 4 Gothic cathedrals. Visitors can see more than 20 rooms in the palace, including the Papal apartments with their priceless frescoes painted by the Italian artist Matteo Giovannetti. The Palace was built in less than twenty years. Begun in 1335, it was primarily built by two popes, Pope Benedict XII and his successor Pope Clement VI and remained the papal seat for 70-odd years. The immense scale testifies to the papacy's wealth.The thick walls, portcullises and watchtowers were built to repel legions of repeated assaults.
   There are cultural events all year long at the Palace, with art exhibitions, educational opportunities, theme visits, concerts and other events. During the month of July, there are theater performances as part of the Festival d’Avignon, founded by Jean Vilar in 1947, which take place in the Honour Courtyard at the Palace.

 photo of John Hulsey's watercolor gear in Avignon. ©J.Hulsey   The Pont Saint Bénézet (also known as the Pont d'Avignon) partially spans the Rhône at Avignon. Only four arches (out of the initial 22) now remain. A previous bridge was built between 1171 and 1185, with a length of some 900 m (2950 ft), but was destroyed during the siege of Avignon by Louis VIII of France in 1226. It was rebuilt but suffered frequent collapses during floods and had to be continually repaired. Several arches were already missing (and spanned by wooden sections) before the remainder was abandoned in 1669, leaving the partial bridge we see today. The famous song, "Sur le Pont d'Avignon" dates to the 15th century:

   Sur le Pont d'Avignon
L'on y danse, l'on y danse

   Sur le Pont d'Avignon

   L'on y danse tous en rond

 Check out John's Step-by-Step demonstration painting of Le Pont d'Avignon Here.

   photo of public gardens, Avignon. ©J.Hulsey    watercolor Swan Dance ©by John Hulsey
           The Public Garden, Rocher des Doms                            Swan Dance   WC   J.Hulsey

    Take the watchman's walk along the ramparts from the Pont to reach the English-style public garden atop the Rocher des Doms and you'll find a beautiful view over the Rhône plains and Mont Ventoux. This is a natural high spot, some thirty meters above the river. Archaeological studies have revealed human presence since the Neolithic period. Over the centuries the site remained primitive, with very little development. In the 18th century the rock became a popular walking area, appreciated for the beautiful views. In the 1800s, major work was done to make it into a public park—trees and grasses from the former Jardin des Plantes were planted, water pools were created, and several statues were erected. The lovely "Venus aux Hirondelles" makes a striking appearance in the large pool. 

      View of Mont Ventoux from Avignon. photoJ. Hulsey    French mountain rescue team.©J.Hulsey
              Mont Ventoux from Rocher des Doms                                       Rescue Practice

     In 1960 new water reservoirs were built, with the tops turned into terraces which provide magnificent views over the historical city, the Rhône, and the landscapes all the way to Mont Ventoux. One can also reach the garden by taking the escalier Sainte Anne, behind the Palace of the Popes. If walking doesn't appeal, you can take the little tourist train up to the garden. We like to walk up through town, enjoying all the sights and sounds of the street as we make our way up to the top. Of course, if you are carrying a good deal of painting gear, this may not be the best choice to reach the top. The escalier is much more direct in that case.

     photo of John Hulsey's watercolor class in Avignon.© A. Hulsey    photo of John Hulsey's painting workshop in Avignon.©Robert Copeland
            Our Painting Workshop in Avignon                              Student Creating an Oil Study

    Above, a few of our students are working with John painting the beautiful view out over the Rhône Valley, the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and the distant blue shape of Mont Ventoux. We had a bright overcast Spring day which gave us great even light to paint by.

     photo of La Treille, Ile de Piot, Avignon. ©J.Hulsey    Photo of La Treille. ©J. Hulsey
                                         Two Views of Auberge La Treille on L'ille de Piot, Avignon

 L’ille de Piot

   While we were searching the web for places to base from in Avignon, we came across an interesting auberge situated on one of the islands which sit in the Rhône River. Just the thought of being on an island in the river with a view of the entire city of Avignon laid out before us appealed immensely to us, so we booked into La Treille, not really sure what to expect. Since we weren’t going to have a car the first day, we needed to be located near enough to a bridge that we could walk into Avignon 1.5 kilometers away, and La Treille was perfectly situated near the tip of the large island known as L’ille de Piot. One thing we were sure of, the restaurant there was famous for its fabulous food, so we would not starve.
   It took us only about 4 hours on the TGV (Tres Grand Vitesse - “Very Fast”) train from Charles deGaulle airport to arrive directly at Avignon station, where we grabbed a cab to La Treille. If you are interested in a real country French auberge experience, you probably won’t find a more authentic and interesting place to stay. The old XVIII century stone farmhouse has clearly been remodeled many times to make it into a hotel, and those modifications are very organic in design. No two rooms were the same, and the hallways and stairs are narrow and winding. We had a nice, bright room in the front which looked over the garden. In the room our workshop partners selected, the bathtub portion of the bathroom was located up a flight of stairs in what had been the attic! However, it was a modern installation in a very large space (for France), right under a skylight. (Think soaking under the stars). We loved the unique personality of the place.

photo of river barge in France   The next day, jet lag mostly conquered, we grabbed our portable painting gear and walked out of the hotel toward the only road which runs along the river toward Avignon. Anchored all along the shore were large live-in barges, called bateaux mouches. People were living there, anchored across from Avignon, using bicycles to get around town. It looked like a delightful way to live, situated in the heart of wine country, if only for a while, and we made a mental note to try a barge trip some day.
Photo of Ann Trusty painting in Avignon.©J.Hulsey  photo of Avignon.©A.Trusty

     We walked along the Chemin de L’ille de Piot, as the road is called, up to the bridge—Pont Edouard Daladier. Just past the bridge, there is a riverside park with a wide paved walk—the Chemin des Berges—which runs along the river way past the famous Pont d’Avignon. We decided to paint the view from the walk of the Pont in the morning sun. As Ann and I painted, a group of tiny school children approached us from the bridge, all holding hands and singing the famous Pont d’Avignon song. The moment was so perfect we felt that it had all been arranged for our pleasure!  


    After we finished our work, it was back to the bridge to cross into Avignon. The city is still surrounded by its old ramparts or castellated walls, and this gives the impression of a fairytale kind of town with the papal castle sitting proudly at the top, flags waving jauntily in the breeze. We spent the day exploring the city, sampling the crafts and food, and making notes on where we would take our students to paint. We ultimately decided that given the number of students and all their gear, we would set up to teach in the park at the top of the hill on the Rocher des Doms. We would have a great view and lots of space without getting in anyone’s way. Satisfied that we had nailed it, we wandered back down the hill through intriguing passages and alleys to make our way back across the bridge and down the chemin to La Treille.

   Our host at La Treille was kind and generous, and loved to play Willie Nelson music on the lobby stereo. Foot weary and tired from a full day of walking around Avignon, we decided to treat ourselves a bit and dine in the restaurant. Our host appeared, doing double duty as the Maitre d’Hotel, and patiently explained in French the multiple course prix fixe menu as we sat in the beautifully appointed restaurant. What a meal!  As an aperitif, he gave us complimentary champagne to whet our appetites for what was to come. By the end of the meal, we swore we could not eat another bite, but he insisted, murmuring in French that,”there is always room for just a little more”. With that he placed two servings before us of the most delicious, velvety chocolate mousse we had ever put in our mouths. “No charge”, he said. Happiness.

Directions from Aix:

Get on A8 from D64, 9 min.(4.9 km).
Take A7 to A7d in Avignon. Take exit 24 - Avignon-Sud from A7, 32 min (63.4 km).
Take N7 to Rue Felicien David. 17 min, (12.6 km).



   The following day our partners arrived, and once they were settled in, we made plans to visit the Châteauneuf-du-Pape area and the famous Mont Redon Winery. The wine region of Châteauneuf-du-Pape lies just to the east of the Rhône and 22 km north of Avignon, about 32 minutes if one drives directly there. During the 70 year Avignon papacy starting in 1308, viticulture in the area was promoted. Today, only the ruins remain of the castle originally built there for Pope John XXI in the 14th century. He was the second pope to live in Avignon. The castle was dismantled for stone after the Revolution, and was later bombed during World War II by Germany. Climb the hill where the ruins are and you will have a 360-degree panorama of the Rhône Valley.

                                                              The Vineyards of Mont Redon

   Less than two miles away lies the stone château of Mont Redon. The first vines at Mont-Redon date back to Roman times. As part of the Pope's land holdings, It was officially recognized as a vineyard in 1344. We decided it might be a good place to bring the workshop. We arranged to have our motorcoach bring them up from Avignon for a special treat. Adjacent to the Château, there is a large, flat, graveled patio area equipped with carved stone tables and benches and a view of the vineyards that is perfect for a painting class.

 photo at Mont Redon, Chateauneuf-du-Pape.©J.Hulsey    Mont Redon, Chateauneuf.©J.Hulsey
                                           The Workshop Class at Château Mont Redon

 Painting students at Mont Redon.©J.Hulsey                                                       Using a Viewfinder to Compose

    Mont Redon Tasting Room.© Robert Copeland    Mont Redon cellars. ©Robert Copeland 
                         In the Tasting Room                                          The Mont Redon Cellars  

   As you can see, some of the students elected to paint with John on the patio, while others went on a tour of the Mont Redon winery and settled in comfortably in the tasting room. Their wines are quite wonderful—centuries of learning the terroir and honing their craft have made the winemakers world-class experts. We were interested to find that all the vines have small cobblestones piled up around them - you couldn't even see the soil. The staff there explained that this technique, though very laborious, ensures that the plants can tolerate the very cool nights that the climate often produces in the valley. Their wines are blends of different grapes grown in the area—sometimes as many as nine different grape varieties are combined to make a single wine. It reminded us very much of mixing many colors to get just the right shade.

Approach to Carcassonne


   Carcassonne is a fortified town located within the Languedoc-Roussillon region. The earliest known occupation of the site dates back to the 6th century B.C, when a hill fort or oppidum was built on this strategic area overlooking the valley of the Aude and the ancient routes linking the Atlantic with the Mediterranean and the Iberian peninsula with the rest of Europe.
During the turbulent years of the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, it was protected by the construction of a defensive wall some 1,200 m long. The fortifications, consisting of two lines of walls and a castle, which is itself surrounded by fortifications, extend over a total length of 3 km (1.86 miles). Their line largely follows that of the Roman defences, and these are clearly visible over two-thirds of the total length. The city consists of a concentric design including two outer walls and 53 towers.

   Carcassonne came under Visigothic rule in the 5th century and resisted repeated attempts by the Franks to capture it. The Arabs were more successful in 724, but were driven out in 759, after a siege led by Pepin the Short. The Visigothic period saw the creation of a bishopric at Carcassonne, some time in the 6th century. It is probably then that a cathedral was built here, on the site of the present Romanesque cathedral, on which work began in June 1096. Such was the impregnability of Carcassonne that it was never attacked during the Hundred Years' War, even during the Black Prince's raid in 1355. The Huguenots made two surprise attempts to seize the town by force in 1575 and 1585, but both were quickly repressed. It became an arsenal and supply depot during the Ancien Regime and then during the Revolution. It was removed from the list of military fortresses in 1804, then reinstated as a second-grade fortress in 1820.

    It fell into such disrepair that the French government issued a decree in 1849 to have it demolished. The decree was annulled due to the efforts of J. P. Cros Mayrevielle and the uproar it caused. The architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc who set the standard for this type of restoration, was originally commissioned to begin the restoration in 1853, and continued to work on it until his death in 1879. The work was not completed until 1910. Today, Carcassonne is world-famous for its medieval fortress and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.



     Carcassonne is another full day excursion, but worth the almost 3 hour drive from Aix. We stopped there on our way from Aix to Domme, located in the region known as the Perigord, six hours away. It turned out to be much more impressive and interesting even than we had heard. Carcassonne is the quintessential medieval castle. So much so, it almost feels like a movie set, but this is no Disney make-believe. It is the real thing. No doubt that many movie castles have been styled based upon it. And to think they almost tore it down.

   As you arrive, the parking lots are below the castle, which makes it look all the more immense. We can only try to imagine the fear that invading armies must have felt as they tried to lay siege to this monstrously large and dangerously well-defended stronghold.

 Carcassonne.©J.Hulsey   Horse-drawn wagon, Carcassonne.©J.Hulsey
               Crossing the Grassy Moat                                     Wagon Tour on the Ramparts

    The first place an invader must get through is the deviously constructed set of entrance gates. As we passed a street musician playing an accordion inside the first gate, we couldn't help but notice not only the wonderful light and architecture, but also the dozens of arrow slots and defensive positions above us. Clearly, if you were an attacker caught in here, you had almost no chance! 

 Entrance to Carcassonne.©J.Hulsey    Carcassonne.©J.Hulsey
                   Entrance and Drawbridge                                          Carcassonne Streets

   Although we did not have much  time that day to paint, we could immediately see the many possible compositions and good subjects that the castle and medieval city inside offered. Light plays wonderfully off of the high castle walls and contrasts with the deeply shadowed streets and alleys. Moving through the tall entrance of the inner walls, one is immediately pressed by the narrow passages of the city streets filled with tourists and jammed with shops.

                                                       The Inner Walls and Fortifications

  Carcassonne.©J.Hulsey   Carcassonne.©J.Hulsey

 St. Nazaire Cathedral, Carcassonne.©J.Hulsey    Gutter Spout, Carcassonne.©J.Hulsey
                    St. Nazaire Cathedral                                   Medieval Gutter Spout on St. Nazaire

    This is not a real village, but a village touristiques, maintained to serve the many visitors who come here. Even so, it oozes authenticity from its cobbled streets to its medieval architecture and cathedral. We were fascinated by it and thoroughly enjoyed our visit there. We only wished we had more time! Plan a full day to enjoy all the sights of Carcassonne - especially the light at dawn and dusk. One could easily spend a week here painting.

Copyright Hulsey Trusty Designs, L.L.C. (except where noted). All rights reserved.
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