Avignon is located at the heart of the Vaucluse region of France, most famous for its bridge sung by school children worldwide in the celebrated “Sur le pont d’Avignon”. There is a real medieval 14th century feel to Avignon – from the storied Palais des Papes where seven exiled popes settled during the 14th century to escape the corruption and civil strife of Rome, to the long, low bridge of the Pont d’Avignon spanning the majestic Rhône.
But Avignon is more than just a museum. Absent its historical context, the town would be a marvel based on its own merit. Situated strategically at the confluence of two once-mighty rivers, the Rhône and the now-dammed Durance, Avignon’s beauty demands attention – its secluded courtyards, secret gardens, and winding cobbled streets are quiet yet decorated with elaborately adorned chapels, cozy pavement cafés, and fine restaurants. Add to that Avignon’s warm summers, the ringing of its medieval church bells, and the lighthearted embrace of alfresco activities, and you can see why this romantic and idyllic setting can in many ways serve as the perfect getaway.
Avignon has been settled since the Stone Age in the caves of Rocher des Dames, which today overlook the Rhône River. It was later inhabited by Gallic tribes of the Cavares and subsequently became an important colony of the Greek city state of Phocaen. Under Roman rule, Avignon flourished although there are very few remains from this period except vestiges of the forum near Rue Saint-Etienne and Rue Racine in the city’s west.
In medieval times, Avignon became an important trade center. Its famous bridge across the Rhône was one of only three bridges spanning the river between the Mediterranean and Lyon. Because this river was such a major trade route in those times as was the Durance River, Avignon’s location at the confluence made it strategically crucial – and its accessibility from Rome is probably the main reason why the papacy chose to make it their home. It was in 1309 when Pope Clement V fled Rome partly on security grounds to escape the dissensions stirring among Roman aristocrats and partly to appease his French supporters. For the next 76 years, six other popes aside from Clement V resided in Avignon, one after another. In 1378 after the death of Pope Gregory XI, the Catholic Church’s miscalculated election of two popes created the Great Schism, which resulted in a divided Europe with the French and Scottish contingent supporting Clement VII in Avignon as pope and the English and Italians supporting Pope Urban VI in Rome. Clement VII and his Avignon successor, Benedict XIII, have since been deemed antipopes.
The papal presence in Avignon during the 14th century truly transformed it from a quiet village to an important political and economic center. And several of the rich architecture of its churches, chapels, and palaces still seen today are mere by-products of this glorious era.
Palais des Papes
Avignon’s main attraction is the colossal Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes), the 14th century fortress enclave built and resided by the seven Avignon popes and the two antipopes of the infamous Great Schism. The Palais des Papes’ graceful and ornate spires are awe-inspiring – hard to believe the structure was once a modest episcopal building that had to be transformed into the present magnificent palace.
Close to Palais des Papes is the Petit Palais, which was the residence of the catholic bishops and cardinals before the Palais des Papes was built. Today, it is home to a large collection of Old Master paintings, many of them being early-Renaissance Italian pieces from Florence, Venice, and Siena. The highlight of the collection is Botticelli’s Virgin and Child and the Venetian paintings of Giovanni Bellini and Carpaccio.
Rocher des Doms
Across from the Pont d’Avignon or Pont St Bénézet is the Rocher des Doms (Rock of the Domes). This is a wonderful park on a cliff overlooking the city and its palaces, churches, rooftops, and surrounding countryside. You can get there by walking along the ramparts and up a spiral staircase to the parks’ hilltop gardens, which are also home to a swan-filled lake. The Rocher des Doms is nicknamed the “cradle of Avignon” with its cave grottos inhabited by Stone Age humans.
The Pont d’Avignon or Pont St Bénézet (St Bénézet bridge) is a must-see, if only to witness firsthand for yourself the bridge you sung about as a kid in school. Unfortunately, Pont d’Avignon, the bridge of Avignon, has been damaged by flooding and the decay of time. Less than half of the 12th century bridge remains today.
Churches and Bells
Next to the Palais des Papes is the Cathédrale Notre Dame des Doms, which is a fine 12th century Romanesque church featuring Byzantine arches, papal tombs, and a famous gilded statue of the Virgin Mary surmounted on its western tower.
Other minor churches include the St Pierre with its graceful façade and ornamented doors, and the Gothic St Agricol and St Didier.
The Hôtel de Ville, although not a church, is Avignon’s city hall. It is only a modern building but it features a 14th century belfry – a reminder of the days when Avignon was nicknamed “the ringing town” for its swarm of active bells.
The Musée Lapidaire and the Musée Calvet are the two main museums in Avignon. The former has a collection of statues, sculptures, stonework from Gallo-Roman times, Greek and Etruscan artifacts, and carvings and mosaics from the Stone Age.
The latter museum, Musée Calvet, housed in an 18th century Palladian-style building has a rich collection of antiquities, including Roman finds, as well as classical-inspired works. Among its Neoclassical and Romantic offerings include paintings by Manet, Daumier, Rodin, and Dufy.
Walls and Ramparts
In the 14th century, the popes built ramparts to protect the city from the contagion of the Black plague and also from the many invaders of this unruly era. The ramparts today provide one of the best of examples of medieval fortifications found anywhere. There are 39 massive towers guarding several gateways to Avignon; three of these towers are originals from the 14th century while the others have been restored.
Every July, the popular Avignon festival or Festival Annuel d’Art Dramatique is held in the town and features over 300 world theatrical productions, many of them performed at the Palais des Papes’ courtyard or in the town’s many churches and cloisters. The festival attracts various performance arts aficionados.
The local “Off” Festival also takes place at around this time of year and features non-stop fringe acts that run 24/7. Cafés and squares end up crammed with artists, clowns, musicians, and minstrels strutting their stuff.
Food and Nightlife
The Place de l’Horloge, under the town hall’s medieval clock tower, is the social center of Avignon where you’ll find all the restaurants, bistros, brasseries, pubs, and shops. There is even a 1900 merry-go-round.