Today was an absolutely gorgeous day to spend in Avignon, former home of the Catholic Church. The town is best known for the Palais des Papes (Papal Palace) that housed the seven popes from 1309-1376. The palace is the largest gothic structure in the world and is well worth a visit (especially with a student discount!) And be prepared – I went to Avignon because I love the history of it, so that’s going to comprise most of this post!
Upon arriving in Avignon, my first stop was the Tourism Office to pick up a map of the city (tip: you can also buy tickets there and skip lines later), and while there I met a group of American tourists, all retired and traveling France on the off season. In fact, most of the people I saw today were either locals or retirees on vacation. I walked with that group across the city to the Palais des Papes. The structure is awe-inspiring and even though I’d read about it and seen pictures, I wasn’t really prepared for how immense it really is. What began as a “modest” Episcopal Palace in 1309 was expanded in 1348 to near its current size. The only modern (think 1800s) addition is the ramp up to the entrance added after the Revolution when the building became national property. Though the church kept the property through the Great Schism until the Revolution, it had not been the seat of the papacy for some time and was rapidly deteriorating. Even after the Revolution when Avignon became part of France, the palace still endured a lot under Napoleon (used it as a prison) and the Third Republic (removed woodwork and covered frescoes).
The part of the palace in the best condition is, of course, the cathedral that is still used for services, but the restoration work done on the interior is astonishing. Due to their fragile state, it’s not permitted to take pictures in the rooms that still have their frescoes, but googling Matteo Giovanetti who is responsible for many of these proto-Renaissance pieces gives you a good sampling. The statuary is also phenomenal, but I also adored the Gothic architecture and being able to wander through this immense building, as well as walk along the ramparts for a panoramic view of the city.
Just past the palace is Rocher des Doms, public gardens settled on the highest point in town. Complete with playgrounds and scenic overlooks, this park also features a pond of ducks and a cute little café where I got my lunch. Originally used as a vantage point and later for grazing sheep, Rocher des Doms evolved into its present form in the 18th century when it became popular for the aristocracy to stroll outside. After the Revolution, the park was completely landscaped and made public. In the pond’s center, there is a statue of Venus with Swallows by Félix Charpentier which was moved here from the Chapel Sant-Pierre after clerics objected to her immodesty. It completes the scene though, as I spent a good portion of my afternoon watching the ducks swim around the pond and the pigeons rest on Venus’s outstretched hand.
The second main thing I wanted to see was the Pont d’Avignon, most famous as now as the central image in the children’s song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon.” The Pont Saint-Bénézet as it is officially called is what remains of a project started in 1234. The original wooden bridge had been destroyed, but the fierce Rhone river was something people had to cross. So, a plan was made to construct a stone bridge with 22 arches across the river. Unfortunately, this was very difficult to do and the sections tended to collapse each time the river flooded. In the 1600s, the project was abandoned, and the gatehouse and first few arches are all that remain, with the exception of the Tour Phillipe-le-Bel on the other side. Since 1995, the remains of the bridge were classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the Palais des Papes and Cathédrale Notre-Dame des Doms.
All in all, I had an amazing time, and Avignon is phenomenal – easily my favorite place I’ve visited thus far. The coming week is up in the air, but it looks like it will involve some hiking, both around Aix and a bit further afield.
Until next time ~