Avignon is a city on the Rhône river in the south of France. It is surrounded by walls of Avignon (French: Les Remparts d’Avignon) – a series of defensive stone walls that were originally built in the 14th century during the Avignon papacy and have been continually rebuilt and repaired throughout their subsequent history.

We entered through Porte Saint-Michel. The 14 century entrance to the city.

At the first glance, Avignon looked and felt like the backdrop of a medieval fairy tale. Today this walled Provençal town is a youthful place full of atmospheric cafés, fun shops, and numerous hide-and-seek squares ideal for postcard-writing and people-watching.

The handsome Town Hall of Avignon sits next to the Opera Theatre d’Avignon on the Place de l’Horloge, the most important square of the city. In 15th century the councils of Avignon bought the Gothic Library from the Benedictines and tried to turn it into a public building. They changed the tower into a belfry but no further significant progress was made until the 19th century. At that time the Regional Council provided the city with a genuine city hall.

The Opéra d’Avignon is an opera house constructed in 19th century. Avignon’s charm spreads all across the century. I stood in front of the building for some time, admiring its architectural style.

The city’s history dates back to well before when the Romans came to town, but it was the Catholic Church that put Avignon on the map. In 1309, a French pope was elected (Pope Clément V). He bought the town from Joanna I of Naples.

The new pope, fearing Italy was too dangerous, moved the papacy to Avignon, where he could enjoy a secure rule under a supportive French king. Along with clearing out vast spaces for public squares and building a three-acre papal palace, the Church erected more than three miles of protective wall (and 39 towers), mansions for cardinals, and residences for its bureaucracy. 

Papal control persisted until 1791 when during the French Revolution it became part of France.

Visiting the Palace of the Popes in Avignon was a long time on my to-do list. I always wondered how and why. So when I finally arrived here I felt a bit disappointed as not much has been preserved. There is a lot to read, from the displays so I understood certain historical moments better. But somehow, I could have not placed my self back in time, as I usually would do.

Palais des Papes (the Popes’ Palace) in Avignon is one of the most well-known and beloved monuments in France and a national tourist attraction. It has a history that includes rebellion, enlightenment, pilgrimage, and massacre.

Each successive pope left his mark—the fortified palace has ten towers—and it came to symbolize the mighty influence of the Catholic Church. It housed Europe’s largest library, and became a hotbed for thinkers, philosophers, composers, and musicians. Covering 15,000 square meters, the palace is the biggest medieval Gothic building in Europe and the largest Gothic palace in the world.

Despite its grandeur, the main focus for many of the Popes was on eventually returning to Italy. In 1376, Pope Grégoire XI managed to restore order and reestablish the Holy See back in Rome but two years later. A new Italian Pope, Urban VI, was elected in Rome while in Avignon the cardinals elected another pope, Clement VII, to rule from Avignon. This was the only time the Vatican had two popes at the same time.

The palace came to symbolize the rift in the Catholic Church.

The popes had great taste in wine delicacies. Today this is one of the attractions and a souvenir. All the bottles carry the names of the pope and I believe the character too. 🙂

For a close-up look at Avignon life, meander the town’s back streets — home to pastry shops, earthy cafés and galleries, and cobbled lanes lined with trees and streams. I love parsing the street signs here, revealing vivid names like “Street of the Animal Furriers,” “Hosiery Street,” and “Street of the Golden Scissors,” all of which recall the neighborhood’s medieval roots.

Just next to it is the Avignon Cathedral – a Romanesque building, constructed primarily in the second half of the 12th century. The bell tower collapsed in 1405 and was rebuilt a few years later. The most prominent feature of the cathedral is a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary atop the bell tower which was erected in 19th century.

The Rhone river is one of the most powerful rivers in France and it’s very long. A wooden bridge was built here in Avignon, across the Rhone in 12th century but it was later destroyed during a siege in 1226. Based upon the engineering at Pont du Gard (one of the world’s most famous Roman aqueducts, just up the road), a shepherd called Bénezet began building a new bridge that was 900 meters long with 22 arches. 

Legend has it that he heard a voice from God telling him to build the bridge in this location and he carried an impossibly large boulder down from the mountains and threw it into the water to lay the first foundation stone. He was later made a Saint.

While there’s so much to see in fascinating Provence, a detour to Avignon is time well spent. Clean, lively, and popular with travelers, this city is an intriguing blend of medieval history, youthful energy, and urban sophistication.

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