It’s an overcast morning in spring and a faint mist is rising from the fields. An oriole chants from the top of an oak whose twigs are bursting from bright-green leaf buds. In the verge next to the road, poppies, buttercups and thistles, glittering with dew, vie for space in the long grass.
The cardinal, distinctive in his bright-red hat, ambles along the country road. He inhales the air perfumed with pear-blossom and damp earth and feels a surge of contentment. It’s a rare enough feeling these days –he’s eighty-five and plagued with arthritis–but this morning spring has won him over.
At his back is Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, where he keeps his palace, and the grim fortress of Saint- André. Perched on its rocky outcrop, the fort’s high walls loom over the countryside, over the Rhône and over Avignon itself, as Philip the Fair had surely intended–there was a king who liked to make his presence known.
To the cardinal’s left is a vineyard, vines snipped and trussed in preparation for the year’s expected yield. He sees the flash of a bee-eater’s wing and the subtle flit of several finches. A rabbit nibbling grass by the road pauses to look at him for a long moment, then bounds away through the rows of vines.
On his right is the river Rhône. Saint Bénézet’s Bridge looks grand and serene today, its great stone arches forming ovals reflected in the calm grey water. It always surprises him how long it is, stretching so far, over the island of Barthelasse.
It’s a soothing scene. Swifts zoom over the waterway and thread themselves through the spans of arches, breakfasting on gnats. Coots and ducks, some still sleeping, tend to the river’s edge. A barge floats down the river from the north, laden with stone slabs and timber and leaving a gleaming trail in its wake; the Palace of Popes was completed ten years ago, but there’s still plenty of work to be done.
He soon reaches the two-storied Tower of Philip the Fair, one end of the bridge. Seeing the red hat and robe, the guardsman hurriedly drops a hunk of dry bread and opens the gate to let the great man through.
As usual, as soon as he steps into the gatehouse, the cardinal thinks ‘Now I am in France, but when I leave the bridge I will be in the County of Venaissin.’ The sharp transition pleases him—the walk toward Avignon is a time for him to collect his thoughts and prepare for the day. Even better, on his way home in the evening he can imagine that Avignon, with all its intrigues and echoes and strife, vanishes in a puff of sulfurous smoke behind him.
The walkway along the bridge is narrow, especially when a cart comes by, and it gets even narrower at the bridge chapel, the Church of Saint Nicholas, which leaves about enough room for three men to walk side by side. Emerging from the chapel walls he hears a priest intone the morning service. The boatmen are getting ready for the working day, praying to their patron saint to ward off slips, drownings and other accidents.
At the gatehouse the cardinal is again welcomed and respectfully ushered through. He stands in front of the city’s walls and wonders, not for the first time, at their immensity. A tall tree growing next to it looks like a mere shrub, a bishop like a tiny doll. The walls stretch in a rectangle all the way around the city, fortified with towers, crenellations and contraptions designed to drop rocks, boiling oil and other deterrents on rash enemies. Yet, in spite of this show of might, it was only three years ago that mercenary bandits wrought havoc within the walls, suppressed by Pope Innocent with difficulty. The cardinal shook his head sadly thinking of all the evils generated by the unholy war between England and France. Thank God for the Treaty of Bretigny!
He reaches the Aiguière Gate, a northern entrance that most of the clergy use since it is near the bridge and they can easily access the palace. The drawbridge at the carriage entrance is down. A couple of carts wait to gain entry, one filled with vegetables, the other with bolts of cloth. One of the drivers is arguing loudly in accented Occitan with the guard—he’s in a hurry, he doesn’t see what the hold-up is. The cardinal nods to the guard at the pedestrian entrance –the spiked gate is lifted and he glides through the portal.