View of the Cathedral and Papal Palace

Avignon once was, for a time at least, the seat of the papacy and the center of the Roman Catholic world. Pope Clement V, a Frenchman, moved the papacy here shortly after his election in 1303, at the invitation of France's King Philip the Fair. It remained the papal seat under a succession of French popes until 1377, when Pope Gregory XI died while visiting Rome. There, an Italian mob coerced the Cardinals into electing an Italian pope, who returned the papacy to Rome.

Once the French cardinals returned to France, they held another election and elected another Frenchman, Clement VII as their pope. This started an era of 'dueling popes' that persisted until 1403.

In the years between 1303 and 1377, a succession of seven popes built and repeatedly enlarged Avignon's most striking tourist attraction, the Palais des Papes (Papal Palace). The austere Palais Vieux (old palace), built between 1334 and 1342 by Pope Benedict XII is joined to the more exuberant Palais Nouveau (new palace) by the great courtyard.

Facade of the Papal Palace

The walking tour of the papal palace is interesting, if a bit bland. Most of the furnishings returned to Rome with the papacy. Those that remained were picked over again in the French revolution. Today the palace is the site of art shows and other exhibitions.

Another well known site in Avignon is the Pont St. Benezet, or St. Benezet's bridge. Almost every guide book you pick up refers to it as the "famous bridge of the children's song" or something similar. (I must confess I had never heard of the song. If you're interested in the song, look it up on Wikipedia. See "Pont d'Avignon".) The bridge was built in the 12th century to span the Rhone river from Avignon on the east bank to Villeneuve les Avignon on the west. Originally there were 22 arches, but today only four remain standing.

Children watching a puppet show

Avignon is a thriving city, with wide, tree-lined streets and broad plazas. The streets are filled with shops and the plazas overflow with the umbrella-shaded tables of the various cafes. Street entertainment abounds, with musicians, mimes, and puppet shows. It is well worth a visit, but a bit too crowded with tourists for a long stay. (We stayed in nearby Orange which is much less crowded and offers its own attractions.)

Located approximately 700 KM (420 miles) south of Paris and 100 KM (60 miles) northwest of Marseilles, Avignon is easily reached by car or train. It is one of the stops on the main high-speed (TGV) rail line between Paris and Nice. While a car is ideal for making side trips to all of the other attractions nearby, it is a bit of a hassle to manuver and park in the city.


Copyright 2006 Harry B. Rowe