Renouned palaces of the popes
www.avignon-tourisme.com Tucked in a kink of the Rhône, and surrounded by vineyards, Avignon awaits its annual summer invasion of the cultural classes cloaked in medieval walls and reflected glory. The Romans established a settlement here (Avenio) which prospered in the 12thC when a local shepherd lad (later Saint Bénézet) set about building a bridge across the Rhône with the help of a sturdy angel. The result has been immortalized as the pont d’Avignon of the famous song. In 1309, Pope Clément V transferred his court to Avignon from Rome hoping to escape endemic corruption and armed struggles, but the vice came too, and Petrarch reported the city ‘a sewer where all the filth of the universe has gathered’. Avignon remained a papal state after the resident popes departed (1377) until the French annexed the city in 1789.
The town centre remains enclosed by anti-Pope Benedict Xlll’s 14thC walls – unless you are staying in town it is wise to park outside on the Rhône side of town. At the heart of the Old Town, place de I’Horloge is the place to watch the world go by from a café table. Check out the passing parade of street entertainers and the l9thC mechanical figures stepping around the Hôtel de Ville’s clock tower.
The main sights lie to the north around the cobbled expanses of place du Palais. One of Europe’s most monumental medieval edifices, the Palais des Papes is in fact two palaces for the price of one. Arranged around a central courtyard, the Vieux-Palais reflects the Cistercian simplicity of Benedict XII, a former monk, while the Palais-Neuf bears the flamboyant hallmarks of an entirely different character, the luxury-loving Clément VI. Much of the original decoration has been stripped; soldiers billeted in the palace during the l9thC vandalized the site and hacked away frescoes to sell. However, there are traces of its former grandeur in Matteo Giovanetti’s frescoes in the chapels and Grande Audience, Gobelins tapestries in the Consistoire, and Clément Vl’s beautifully-restored suite in the Palais-Neuf which graphically illustrates how a broad-minded Prince of the Church could appreciate more earthy pursuits.
While its exterior is rendered somewhat ridiculous by the addition of a l9thC topknot featuring a weeping Virgin, candles throw little light on the interior of the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame-des-Doms. Persevere in the gloom and you will find a couple of papal tombs, a 12thC white marble papal throne and stained glass which comes to life on a sunny day. Behind the cathedral, a path leads up to the Jardin de Rocher with views over the town and across the Rhône to Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, founded by Philippe le Bel. The French king also built the landmark 13thC tower to keep an eye on papal antics on the opposite bank.
At the top of the square, the excellent if somewhat overpowering Musée du Petit Palais fills a former 14th-15thC episcopal palace to bursting with some 300 medieval Italian masterpieces, plus sculpture, carvings and works from the 14thC School of Avignon, displayed in restored and individually decorated galleries.
For a more eclectic selection of artworks, do not miss the Musée Calvet, 65 rue Joseph-Vernet, www.musee-calvet-avignon.com, housed in the faded charm of the 18thC Hôtel de Villeneuve-Martignan. Amidst moulded ceilings and panwww.avignon-tourisme.comelled walls, there is an Egyptian mummy, Roman pottery, crowded Breughal scenes (La Kermesse), Vernet seascapes, a tortured Soutine and delightful Utrillo amongst others. In 1782, the Montgolfier brothers tested their hot air balloon in the courtyard, now home to a couple of peacocks.
Take a stroll around the Quartier de la Banasterie (basket weaving) for a taste of 17th-l8thC architecture, stopping for a look at the Renaissance Eglise de Saint-Pierre, place Saint-Pierre, with its marvellous carved door featuring an Annunciation, St Jerôme walking his lion and more. The southern end of rue des Teinturiers is a picturesque spot where the cobbled street divides a huddle of artisans’ cottages from waterwheels on the narrow canal. The much sung-about Pont Saint-Bénézet juts out into the Rhône from the northern section of the city walls. Just four of its original 22 arches remain. Too narrow to dance on, revellers probably partied on the island of La Barthelasse, sous (under) rather than sur the bridge.
The annual Festival of Avignon (mid-July to mid-August) winds the town up to fever pitch. Accommodation is in short supply as arts enthusiasts descend for a kaleidescope of theatre, film and dance with music and a lively fringe scene (‘le off’) thrown in for good measure. See www.avignonleoff.com.
Villa holidays: Avignon, its surroundings and the whole of Languedoc-Roussillon offer many holiday rental properties.
Winter sun: Avignon and south central France have some winter sunshine.
To explore the Camargue, see South-Western Provence.