It was only 10 AM, but Avignon’s cobblestone streets were already hot after a few hours baking in the August sunshine. The city’s medieval alleyways provide surprisingly little shade and the park in the city centre isn’t much better.
Visiting the famous Palace des Papes, France’s former home to the Pope, and the Pont St Benezet, the famous half-crumbled bridge from French nursery rhymes, was on our agenda but today we just wanted to escape the heat. Somewhere other than our B&B room, of course.
I remembered an article that mentioned the Parc des Rocher Doms and found it on the city map. We’d already given up on using maps in Avignon as anything more than a basic compass because the rabbit warren of poky alleyways made the maps a headache to read. Hoping for the best, we wandered into the northern limits of the Old Town.
It’s one of the few cities that has preserved it’s medieval walls, which encircle the Old Town. By day, it’s a lively, charming small town where time seems to have slowed down. By night, the streets are empty of all but the beggars and the poky alleyways are a little creepy.
It’s best known as home to the former Papal Palace and the Pont St Benezet, but as I was to find out, it was not these headline acts that made the city worth visiting.
With our fingers crossed, we climbed up an unmarked stone staircase. The garden is atop the Rocher des Doms, so we figured that “up” was the right direction.
At the top of the stairs, we found a stone courtyard with pretty views over terracotta roofs of the Old Town. Long ramps zig-zagged further up the mountain, so up we went. It wasn’t a long hike, but the heat made it a little tedious.
We had to sweat for it, but we were richly rewarded with panoramic views over the Old Town and the Rhone. Better yet, we were rewarded with the cool shade in Jardin des Rocher Doms at the summit.
We were bombarded by green. Green & copious amounts of shade.
Lush, leafy trees framed the pale green pool in the middle of the park, decorated with an elegant statue of Venus. Ducks swam across the pond and families gathered for lunch at the picnic tables surrounding the pond. The temperature dropped under the trees and we couldn’t help but linger.
Compared to the meticulously groomed gardens of Versailles, it was very un-French. For a time, it was trendy in France to copy England’s more natural, wilder gardens, which have a more relaxing effect than the rigid order of classical French gardens . It was like finding an oasis in the middle of a scorching desert.
On the edge of the park we found a fish-pond-cave, the walls of which were actually steps to another lookout. We climbed the steps, which looked like they’d sprung out of the ground and reminded me of Antonio Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
These steps were short and led us to views over Pont St Benezet, the Rhone and the Provencal countryside. We spent the next couple of hours wandering around Rocher des Doms, enjoying the many views, walking down to Pont St Benezet and peeking inside the Palace des Papes.
The most iconic sights of Avignon are all within arm’s reach of Rocher des Doms, but my favourite part was not the famous bridge or the historically important church – it was the garden itself, a happy little escape from the baking stone streets of the city.
The most memorable parts of a trip are rarely the iconic sights. Most of the time, it’s the humble and surprising things that you find along the way that make a destination exciting. Follow your nose, your gut or just put one foot in front of the other. The memories will be worth the stairs.