On our southeast tour of France we trained directly south along the banks of the Rhône from Lyon to Avignon. Avignon was once home to the Popes until a forced reconciliation with Rome recognized the Roman Pope over the one in Avignon. Home to the Palais des Papes, Avignon is that and so much more.
First, the Palais… it stands, regally, just off the main town square, the Place de l’Horloge overlooking the neighborhoods of Avignon to one side and the Jardin de Doms on the other. At nearly 120,000 square feet it’s construction consumed almost all of the Papal income during that period. The conversion of the palace of the bishops of Avignon into the Papal Palace took place between 1334 and 1364. Avignon became the home of the Popes in 1305 when Pope Clement V left Rome moving the papacy to Avignon. One of the 10 most visited sites in France, the tour provides a little tablet you can hold up in several of the rooms to see what it may have looked like at the time. Some of the original painted walls are visible and in a couple of rooms the original floors and ceilings are still there.
After the papacy was returned to Rome, the “antipopes”, Clement VII and Benedict XIII, resided here, claiming they were Pope, until the church brought the papacy back together through a vote of the bishops. That began a rather sordid historical period for the former palais. It was already neglected and in disarray when the French Revolution started, during which time it was captured by the revolutionaries and used as a site for executions. It was a prison during the Napoleonic period and used as a stable afterwards. Not until 1905 did it become a museum. Now, it’s a UNESCO heritage site and worth the visit.
We also visited the bridge of Avignon which juts out into the Rhône. It was allegedly begun when a young shepherd, Benezet (now Saint Benezet), hurled a large boulder into the river after hearing voices telling him to build a bridge in Avignon. He traveled around, collecting money to build the bridge but it was not completed until after his death. It was dismantled, washed away and rebuilt a few times and when it spanned the river it was the only place to cross the Rhône between Lyon and the Mediterranean.
But while these two UNESCO sites draw people to Avignon, we found it to contain so much more. Our favorite tourist stop was the Musée Calvet. In fact, we liked this free museum much more than the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon and not just because of the price of admission. It has such an interesting collection of paintings including landscapes, portraits, religious paintings from Old and New Testaments, mythology, etc. Well worth a visit, in our book.
The rest of our time in the small, walled city we spent meandering through narrow streets and alleyways, walking the foot and bike path around the wall and eating delicious meals at the some of the best restaurants in the city (our two favorites were a beautiful four course chef’s selection dinner at La Cuisine du Dimanche, a stop for ice cream at Grand Cafe Barretta and a tapas lunch at Le 17 Place).
Avignon is definitely a place we would make a headquarters for visiting Provence.