Avignon: Palais des Papes, the Episcopal Ensemble and the Pont Saint-Bénezet

Second stage of our 750km round trip on the regional rail network of Provence

Leaving the Vauban fortress walls of Briançon surrounded by snow-capped mountain at every turn, we took the TER (regional train) back down the valley of the river Durance through a dramatic gorge, passing the episcopal city of Embrun and the huge lake of Serre-Ponçon, bordered by the town of Chorges where we enjoyed a bike camp in the summer of 2012.

Our route branched from the route up from Marseille at Veynes-Dévoluy, one of those strange little towns that suddenly became important when the railway arrived because of its location at a railway junction, for Veynes-Dévoluy it is the junction between Marseille, Grenoble, Valence and Briançon.

The rail route crosses from the valley of the Durance and its tributary the river Buëch, to the valley of the Drôme, itself a tributary of the Rhône. The single line takes a tunnel under the col de Cabre of 3764 m. length at 884 m. altitude which was opened to traffic in 1894. Unfortunately this tunnel and numerous galleries block out the view at the highest part of the journey...

The train pulled in to Die (again on time) and alighted to the grassy part of the platform.... We were greeted by a good friend end enjoyed a lunch together of his excellent home cuisine of a Diois lamb with Saint-Joseph (one of the classic red wines of the Rhône region) after an apéro of Crémant de Die, one of the local sparkling wines.

Leaving behind the last of the snow-capped mountains and snow-covered cliff crests, the train gathered speed as we descended to Valence, on the banks of the river Rhône. Still a country rail line: the ticket collector did her round checking tickets then used the train PA to offer a kitten for adoption, she also let everyone know the kitten had been placed! Next morning, rather than the breakfast in the bowels business hotel, we enjoyed fresh croissants and artisan breads in a boulangerie within sight of the Mistral Bridge over the Rhône.

As with our previous rail journeys, the old route of the railway follows the river much more closely than the modern highways, which gives a privileged view for the rail traveller. The rail line passes thrillingly close to the Rhône around Donzère, although not giving a particular view of the dam; the pylons passing hydroelectric power are prominent.

Avignon, the city of the Popes, is more aptly called the city of the tourists these days, thanks to the listing by UNESCO of the Palais des Papes, the Episcopal Ensemble and the Pont Saint-Bénezet, the “Pont d’Avignon” of the song. I’ve not been back there for a decade or so but it seems that not much has changed in the town from the tourist’s point of view. But from the rail tourist point of view (ie us on this trip) it was impossible to find anywhere to leave our backpacks, which was a significant inhibition to our enjoyment of their town.

Marseille - Sisteron - Briançon: TER Provence 1

Avignon - Arles - Marseille: TER Provence 3