SUR LE PONT D’AVIGNON….
The historic centre of Avignon, which includes the Palais des Papes and the Pont d’Avignon, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. After viewing it from across the banks of River Rhône yesterday we were keen to see Avignon close-up today. We’ve learnt, however, that there’s absolutely no point getting up too early on a Sunday. Nothing’s open and you can’t even get a decent café-au-lait or pain-au-chocolat. So we slept in and enjoyed a slow start to the day. Once we DID get going, our first stop of the day was Le Palais des Papes – the Palace of the Popes.
This immense structure is one of the largest and most important Medieval Gothic buildings left standing in Europe. A one time fortress and palace, the papal residence was the seat of Western Christianity for 70 years during the 14th century, with 7 popes ruling from Avignon.
In the early 14th century, the Papal State (now known as The Vatican) in central Italy was on the verge of collapse, Rome was shaken by endless conflicts between influential aristocratic clans dividing the power. To distance the papacy from all the feuding, Pope Clement V decided to move the residence of the Catholic Church to the south of France in 1309; thus began the Avignon Papacy.
Avignon, which at the beginning of the 14th century was a town of no great importance, underwent extensive development during the time the 7 Avignon popes. Many merchants, painters, sculptors, and musicians were attracted to the town, and the city’s reputation as a centre for the arts began.
The papacy returned to Rome in the late 1300s, but papal control on Avignon persisted until 1791 when, during the French Revolution, it became part of France. One legacy of this is that some Avignon people still use the term “Empire Land” to describe the Avignon side of the river, and “Kingdom Land” to designate the Villeneuve side as it was in the possession of the King of France.
We started our explorations of the Papal Palace with a walk around the outside, including a climb up into Rocher des Doms, the public park which was once the private gardens of the popes.
From the Rocher des Doms we enjoyed views across to Villeneuve-les-Avignon and Fort Andre, which we saw yesterday.
Having seen the building from every possible exterior angle, we ventured inside. This immense Gothic building, with walls 5-6m thick, was built between 1335 and 1364 on a natural spur of rock, rendering it all but impregnable to attack. After its capture following the French Revolution, it was used as a barracks and prison for many years but it is now a museum.
The inside of the building has been stripped of all wealth and decoration, and seemed quite stark compared to some of the decorated and/or inhabited castles we’ve seen elsewhere in Europe. Still, without adornments to distract our attention, the sheer scale of the place was even more obvious.
From the roof-top ramparts of the Palace of the Popes we could see down into the old town of Avignon, with its narrow streets and terracotta roofs.
We also got views down to the famous Pont D’Avignon. This bridge, opened in 1185, spanned the River Rhône between Villeneuve lès Avignon and Avignon. An architectural masterpiece in its day, the bridge originally had 22 stone arches. A major flood in the middle of the 17th century washed the last 6 spans downstream, however, and the bridge was abandoned. Today only 4 of the original 22 arches remain, a small remnant of a once great edifice.
Satisfied we had seen all we wanted of Le Palasi des Papes and Le Pont d’Avignon, we continued on into Avignon’s old town. Here we wandered down narrow lanes and through leafy squares, admiring the buildings around us and enjoying the freshness of early autumn.
Some of the most impressive buildings in town were the Hôtel de Ville (i.e. the city hall), built in 1846 around the 14th century bell tower; the old Hôtel des Monnaies, the papal mint which was built in 1610 and became a music-school; and the 19th century Avignon Opera House.
As well as admiring the big, impressive buildings in town, we also got caught up with the some of the little things – especially some of the quirky things being sold in some of the shops around the old town.
As the day wore on the wind got stronger and stronger. Le Mistral had arrived! Le Mistral is a strong, cold, North-Westerly wind that blows through parts of Southern France famous for its strength and unceasing nature (wind speeds often exceed 40km/h and can go up to 100km/h). Avignon is infamous for its windy weather, there’s even a Medieval Latin proverb that says “Avenie ventosa, sine vento venenosa, cum vento fastidiosa” – i.e. “Windy Avignon, pest-ridden when there is no wind, wind-pestered when there is”. We were lucky enough to just get a sample of Le Mistral, not a fully-fledged taste, and that was enough!
By the evening the wind had already died down and we headed out for dinner. We chose a Moroccan restaurant in the old town that served the most amazing tagines and cous-cous. While we ate a 3-piece swing band was playing in the background, keeping us well entertained. A perfect end to a wonderful day here in Avignon!