Thursday, April 19, 2012


On our first day trip in Provence, a beautiful day, we went straight to Avignon, a town bordered by the Rhone, one of France's major rivers. The historical town center, which includes the famous City of Popes, is still surrounded by its medieval ramparts and is one of the main sites in the area.

Avignon is often referred to as the City of Popes because of the popes and anti-popes that lived there from 1309 till the early 1400s. On grounds of security, since at the time living in Rome was not considered safe, Avignon was chosen in 1309 by Pope Clement V as his residence and became the seat of the Papacy. In all, seven popes and two anti-popes lived there. The popes built and lived in the Palais des Papes and enjoyed a princely life there.

The Popes’ Palace was both a fortress and a palace, and was built in two main stages, the Old Palace first and the more luxurious New Palace later. Once inside it's almost impossible to keep your bearings and to know in which one you're in.

Avignon's first Pope, Clement V, lived in the city's Dominican monastery and his successor, John XXII, lived in the existing Bishop's palace. But his successor, Benedict XII, wanted his very own papal residence and had the Bishop's palace demolished to make way for it. Benedict's palace, known now as Benedict's Cloister (shown below), is made up of four buildings around a courtyard.

In 1343 Clement VI, considering the Old Palace too cramped for his needs, commissioned the New Palace. The new buildings would form a square, the Courtyard of Honor, shown in the next picture. Through the Window of Indulgence, which appears in the center of the picture, the Pope gave his triple blessing. And through the large doors below the Window of Indulgence, on the lower level, is the Great Audience Hall, a huge room that housed the Court of Apostolic Causes, which decided on any cause submitted by the pope and whose decisions were not appealable.

Below is the Great Chapel, where the Avignon popes worshiped, and its portal. And below that, the North Sacristy, where the Pope changed his vestments during ceremonies held in the Great Chapel.

The Grand Tinel, or dining room, was where banquets were held on feast days, for example when a cardinal was appointed or a pope crowned. It has the same dimensions as the Great Chapel, which is directly above it. On days of abstinence or ordinary days, the Pope was served in the Petit Tinel.

After climbing and climbing, including the Great Staircase of Honor, we ended up at the top, where the views are stunning. The last two pictures show the Place du Palais and the Petit Palais, which was the former Archbishops' Palace and is now a museum of medieval art, and in the background, on the other side of the Rhone, Saint Andre Fort, completed in the 1360s.

The Palais des Papes remained under papal control for over 350 years after the popes moved back to Rome. It was looted and damaged during the French Revolution and later became military barracks and a prison, during which time much of the interior decoration was destroyed.

Right next to the Palais de Papes is the Notre Dame des Doms cathedral, built mainly in the 12th century. Pope John XXII, the second Avignon pope, is buried there. The gilded statue of the Virgin Mary at the top of the cathedral can be seen from everywhere. The impressive cathedra, the chair or throne of the bishop, is made of white marble and is decorated in one of the armrests by the lion of Saint Mark and in the other by the bull of Saint Luke. There’s also a gilded organ on a platform overlooking the cathedra.

Nearby is the Saint Benezet bridge, known also as the Avignon Bridge, a famous medieval bridge in Avignon. According to tradition, the bridge's construction was inspired by Benezet, a local shepherd boy who received a divine command to build a bridge across the river. They made fun of him at first, so he had to prove his divine inspiration by miraculously lifting a huge block of stone, which he declared would be the first stone of the bridge that he was going to build. The local people were impressed and decided to help Benezet build the bridge. Benezet died young and did not live to see the completed bridge; he was buried on the bridge itself, in a small chapel standing on one of the bridge's piers, shown lower.

The bridge originally spanned the Rhone but it collapsed frequently during floods and had to be rebuilt several times. A flood in 1668 swept away much of the structure. It was subsequently abandoned and no longer repaired, and only four of the initial 22 arches remain. Personally, I think the bridge was destroyed by the mistral wind, which reaches maximum speed when it passes through the valley of the Rhone.

But perhaps the bridge’s fame is due to the children's song "Sur le pont d'Avignon". Although the kids were taught this song in school this year, they obviously refused to sing it for us when we were on the bridge.


  1. Gonzalo, me acabo de leer todo el blog en una sola sentada. Que maravilla de aventura. Ustedes están haciendo lo que muchos quisiéramos y no encontramos la determinación. Lo felicito y les deseo lo mejor para este verano. Un abrazo.

  2. I loved Avignon, and I love the history of the papacy in Italy that drove it into exile for nearly 70 years. What is your third photo? It looks like the main city gate, but it may have University written over the entrance.

    Thanks for the link