The virtual road trip continues! Again! This week we’re staying in the south of France and heading to the beautiful town of Avignon. The home of Popes, world-famous bridges, and a renowned annual theatre festival. It is also home to quite possibly the most head turning piece of art I’ve ever seen. So let’s dive right in!
A Simple Greek Emporium
Avignon, unlike last week’s Roman destination, can be traced all the way back to the time of the Greeks when Phocaean traders founded the Emporium of Avignon in 539 BCE. It later became the capital of the region, and thrived for centuries due to its strategic location on the Rhône River. Unfortunately, that strategic location also meant that Avignon was very susceptible to invasions. In 121 AD, Emperor Hadrian officially proclaimed Avignon to be a Roman colony. Over the next millennia, the city was invaded, sacked, and laid siege to by dozens of conquerers, including the Franks, Goths, Saracens, and Burgundians. In the 13th century, the people of Avignon declared their independence on two separate occasions in an attempt to establish an autonomous republic. Unfortunately, neither venture was successful. However, brighter days were just around the corner, because in the 14th century, Avignon suddenly became the centre of the world.
To be more specific, Avignon became the centre of the Christian world when Pope Clement V decided it would be the new seat of the papacy. Between 1309 and 1377, the Pope ruled from Avignon, not the Vatican, and a magnificent palace was built to house the pontiff and his court. Imposing walls were built to protect the city (and the Pope!), and both the palace and those walls survive to this day. Today, the Palais des Papes is one of the largest and most important Gothic buildings in all of Europe. The Papal court eventually returned to Rome, but Avignon found itself caught between France and the Holy Roman Empire for centuries afterwards. It wasn’t until 1791 that the National Constituent Assembly voted to annex Avignon into the French state. It was finally, and more importantly, officially, a part of France. A status it has retained to this day.
A Home Worthy of a Pope
It would be the understatement of the year to say that the Palais des Papes is impressive. It is a towering building to behold, both inside and out. Interestingly, many of the rooms have not been restored, meaning you can literally see the wear and tear of history on the walls and floors. Others, like the main chapel, are just as breathtaking as they must have been in the 14th century. And after you’ve thoroughly explored the interior of the palace, there is a beautiful public garden outside it that boasts stunning views of the city, its walls, and the surrounding countryside. The Palais des Papes was the main reason why I wanted to go to Avignon, and it was absolutely worth the trip. And that was before I discovered the light show.
If you happen to find yourself in Avignon during the summer, trust me when I say that you have to see the summer light show. It uses digital projections on the walls and towers to tell the history of the building, and multiple locations throughout the palace are illuminated. On the night I visited, I happened to be the only one who bought a ticket for my time slot. It would seem that Wednesday at 9:45PM was not a popular time to visit on that particular night. But I wasn’t complaining. I had the entire courtyard to myself as I waited for the show to begin. And afterwards, I found myself wandering through medieval hallways where Popes once walked, on my own, wondering how I got to be so lucky.
A Bridge Not Meant for Crossing
The Palais des Papes is not the only famous location in Avignon. Arguably, the most famous is not a building at all, but a bridge. The Pont d’Avignon, also known as the Pont Saint-Bénézet, was originally built in the 13th century. It was almost a kilometre in length, and needed 22 arches to span the Rhône river. It was also the only link between Lyon and the Mediterranean at the time of its construction, and for most of its life, it was heavily guarded on both sides. Today, only four arches remain, but the bridge itself is known throughout the world due to the famous 15th century song and dance “Sur le Pont d’Avignon“. To date, this song has been featured in operas, plays, and even Star Trek. Yes, really.
A Trip Back in Time
The historic centre of Avignon was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, and it is easy to why. Walking along the winding medieval streets is like walking back in time. You can feel the history seeping out of every cobblestone. But what about that painting I mentioned earlier? Would you believe me if I said there was a painting in Avignon of two medieval monks making out while Jesus in a grass loincloth looks on in shock and amusement? Well, believe it. I may have stood in front of this painting for 15 minutes just staring. In both shock and amusement. It was a great day.
Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.