When I arrived in Avignon it was raining. In fact it had been raining heavily all night and I suspected it would continue for another. So, in the gloom of the afternoon, having followed a veritable maze of busy roads, I crossed the Daladier Bridge and drove into Bagatelle Campsite on Barthelasse Island. It wasn’t until I went for a walk during a break in the rain that I realised my mistake.
“Sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse…….” Most people agree that the words to the original 16th century song should be “Sous le pont….”, meaning under the bridge and not on it. However, today nobody would want to be dancing under it or on it as the river is in full flood. Only half of the bridge remains, a reminder of the forces of nature and the strength of the might Rhone River. As I stand in front of the campsite entrance gazing across at the famous St Benezet Bridge and the huge fortified walls of the Pope’s Palace (cunningly built on the highest ground of the city), I watch the river water creep up and over the pavement. By 8pm the wooden benches have disappeared and the adjacent car park is flooded. Many cars arrive with people coming to witness all the excitement, as if it is a new local attraction created for their entertainment. But this is serious stuff. In 2003 Barthelasse was completely flooded so that only the tree tops were still visible.
“Don’t worry,” says the young receptionist, who doesn’t seem old enough to remember the last big flood. “If there is a problem, the night guardian will evacuate the campsite.” I don’t find this very comforting and the sign which instructs me to “Get to high ground. DON’T WAIT!” is equally disturbing. Luckily, thanks to the wonders of modern technology I can monitor the water level from the comfort of my motorhome. The water company website provides 15 minute updates of the river levels at points throughout the country, while another page lists flood alerts for different regions. Avignon remains on “Yellow Alert” and by 11pm the rate of rising water has at least reduced, if not stopped.
Next morning, I peek outside the windows and discover, with relief, that I am not surrounded by water. The website tells me the water level peaked at 4.9m around 4am in the morning and the level has now stabilised. The fact that the rain has stopped is also a bonus and I decide to walk into the city, hopeful that Trixie will be safe without me.
The walled city of Avignon is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was designated as European City of Culture in 2000. Unfortunately, this has resulted in ridiculously high entrance fees for the local monuments and museums, of which there are many. The Tourist Office does try to help out by offering a special 15 day pass, giving reduced rates (10%), but it is still too much for me and a visit to the enormous Pope’s Palace would probably take a whole day in itself. Also, it is Monday and many of the museums are closed, specifically the rare free ones. To be honest, I’m finding it rather hard to concentrate on anything other than the height the Rhone anyway.
By midday I am on the road in search of higher ground. The Vaucluse Plateau seems like a good bet so, after a circuitous drive around Avignon as several roads are closed due to the risk of flooding, I head for the village of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. The entrance to the village is dominated by a huge Roman aqueduct which spans the Sorgue River. This river is also in flood and it steams past like a herd of wild Camargue horses, leaping over barrages and galloping down weirs. Am I surprised to find the car park is next to the river? Not really, it’s probably a lovely place to picnic in the summer.
The village is quite a tourist trap, even in winter. Restaurants and souvenir shops line the square and the route to the source of the Sorgue. The footpath follows the river, which is a writhing snake of white water that even the bravest kayaker wouldn’t want to face. When I reach the pool beneath the 230m cliff face it is strangely calm. I expected it to be exploding like a shaken bottle of coca cola, but there is not even a ripple on the surface. The true source lies deep underground. Many scientists and even the famous Jaques Cousteau have explored its underwater caverns, but it was miniature submersible probes which finally confirmed its depth at 308m. The main thing that strikes me is how clear and blue the water is, unlike the muddy-brown, branch-littered Rhone flowing through Avignon.
When I see the news in the evening, I realise how lucky I am. Two people died, hundreds were evacuated from their homes and thousands were left without electricity in the Var region, which is not far away and on my route to Italy. It’s just a reminder that nature is a powerful and sometimes dangerous beast that must be respected at all times. Needless to say, I didn’t spend the night in the riverside car park.