A tale of rivalry and royalty at Avignon…
As you near the ramparts of the fortified old town, you will know why it’s considered the prettiest town of Provence. Entering one of the seven gates of the 4.3 km medieval ramparts punctuated by 39 towers, you are transported into a fairytale. Aptly deserving of its UNESCO world heritage site status, Avignon’s one-half mile wide and long historic centre has a unique soul…and it will connect with you…subtle, but sure.
Avignon is the station to explore the dramatic beauty that is Provence. Charming villages, oceans of vineyards, fields of fragrant lavender fields and summer sunflowers stretching far into the horizon…breathtaking vistas that fuelled the creative genius of art masters like Van Gogh, Cézanne and Picasso as well as legendary writers like Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. But the charming town itself has two stunning landmarks…the unbelievably grand, Roman-styled 14th century old Palace of the Popes and the amazing arched bridge, Pont St Benezet stretching across the river Rhone. Consider adding Avignon to your itinerary of Southern France purely to gawk at these!
Roam the maze of cobbled old streets named after the ancient professions of the Middle Ages and along the shady tree-lined Rue de Republique, centre of Avignon’s high street shopping. Stroll along the broad, bustling boulevard, Place de l’Horloge overflowing with outdoor street cafes beneath shady plane trees. Hard to imagine that this was the centre of an early Roman town settlement in the 1st century BC through to the medieval times, from where narrow streets radiated out to the town fortifications.
The grand palace, located in an average-sized square, a 5 minutes walk from Place Horloge, is unmistakably Avignon’s piece de resistance. The square is filled with cafes, but doesn’t feel that crowded…simply because the palace rises high above you, as if kissing the skies. Purely for the wonder-factor, take a seat amongst clutter of tables out in open. Between sips of steaming coffee or a chilled beer, stare unblinkingly at the mammoth structure. The majestic towers and the gold statue adorning the top, will magnetically pull you…and you will be drawn unthinkingly.
Imagine. This was once the largest Gothic building in the world measuring more than 165,000 square feet. A colossal palace, which served as a temporary home for the nine Popes from 1309-1377, and housed offices for the legates, a prison and an army barracks later…the most fortified palace of the age. Why did the Pope move to Avignon from Rome? Because Italy was ridden with political turmoil and plague at the time and this was a safer haven! Compelling enough reason to explore it from within.
The tour is enlightening to say the least. The interiors have worn away with time, most spaces are empty halls, and all that remains are beautifully decorated photo albums, souvenirs, and wine from the papal vineyards. But this is a city within a city, enclosed by a formidable fortress, a labyrinth of vaulted halls, echoing rooms, small chapels and narrow staircases, remnants of elaborate frescos and friezes, flamboyant ceilings, beautiful floor tiles. Drool.
Spend a few hours walking in the footsteps of several Popes, getting fascinating by the fact that they had such a luscious palace, even more grandiose than the palace of the French royals! Church, in those days, was the highest authority and the Pope, controlled more power than even the King. Wait, was that a soft rustle of a black robe in that corner? Nah…just my thoughts running wild.
There are several eye-openers in the Papal Palace…massive cathedral, huge dining area, luxurious living quarters, hidden rooms for riches, accounting rooms, a list of 500+ employees (all men), and the Pope’s lavish bedroom with intricately decorated walls and painted-tile floor. The self-guided audio tours helps fill in the blanks to a great extent and you try to hold on to the history lesson, while taking in the visual grandeur.
We walked and out of the shadowy recesses, traced our footsteps down arched corridors, leaned out of tall gothic window frames, gazed at the red-roofed town sprawled beyond…went back in time. I still couldn’t believe we were guests in the palatial powerhouse of the Pope.
Later, after exiting the palace, we ascended literally hundreds of steps up from the palace grounds, to reach the monumental promenade of the the English styled terrace garden, Rocher des Doms to enjoy 360-degree views of the River Rhone and the town. It was here that the first inhabitants of Avignon had lived some five thousand years ago. Gazing down at the river from above, I could see the Pont St Benezet stretching halfway across the serene river. I visualised a group of cardinals, seated in a horse-driven carriage rolling along the rough cobbled bridge to attend a dinner with the exalted Pope! Glorious times. Of course, it’s not enough to admire that view from afar. One needs to walk over the bridge itself to complete the surreal experience and we did too.
As you step onto the centuries old structure, mull over the fact that it originally extended for 1000 meters across the river and had 22 arches, which were broken over and over again due to floods and rebuilt several times. Today, only 4 of the arches remain and the bridge abruptly ends mid-way. Yes, is a broken bridge. Stop at the edge, and peer out into the distance to locate the outlines of another fort. A funny story. Out of jealousy for the Pope’s magnificent palace, the French king built a fort palace across the river, but he could afford nothing except three high towers. So, he satisfied himself with just a free-standing facade and three towers…there was no actual palace behind the towers. The French king went ‘me-too’…funny, but also intensely insightful. What a great icon of power the Papal Palace would have been in that era…enough to make a French king discontent with his royal apartments!
We timed ourself well (suggest you do too), to enthral ourselves with another spectacle of a different kind…the amazing sunset view of the Palais des Papes and Pont St Benezet from across the Rhone. Bathed in soft, orange-gold light of the setting sun…the Palace facade and the bridges’ arches were simply breathtaking. The blue of the sky merged into the waters below and the ochre colours of the palace stone spread far across the delicate ripples, offset by the shadows of the muted dull green of the trees on the banks. It was worth it, going that extra mile. The glow was on our faces too…the spirit of Avignon had enlightened us!
At night, we made time to attend a one-of-a-kind Illuminating Light show at the Palace. Over 1 million people are covered over a period of one month that the show is exhibited. Standing tightly packed in the Court of Honour, a large open courtyard within the palace, under the stars, along with 1000 others, we embarked upon a 35-minute dreamlike voyage through the centuries, based on the turbulent yet inspired history of the Popes’ Palace at Avignon.
An astounding play of colour and lights…religious imagery and historical scenes draped the fortress walls like giant curtains…the windows, towers and even the stone gargoyles incorporated into the scenes so naturally…the walls metamorphosed into war fields, vineyards, or even the flooding waters of the Rhône itself, one after the other the images flowed down the surrounding four walls. Though we did not understand the narration (all French), we felt it all…the visuals and sound, more than compensated for the words we missed.
And that was a flawless curtain-down to our Avignon trip. We left with indelible memories of the ‘French Vatican’ converted into a thriving contemporary city…a strangely interesting blend of medieval history and urban sophistication. In a league of its own!