History lesson for visitors to classy Avignon

Trip Start May 30, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of France  , Provence,
Saturday, August 21, 2010

My itinerary had a few days between leaving Marseillan Plage and needing to be in Paris for a flight to Dublin.  I pondered lots of options before deciding on a visit to Avignon.  Avignon is famous as the city to which the Popes fled when leaving the corruption of Rome in the 14th century. The palace they built, 'Le Palais des Papes,' is the world's largest Gothic edifice. It was largely emptied over the centuries, and its vast stone rooms are filled with little more than old frescoes, but it is still an imposing building. 

Avignon ("a-veeng-YOHN") is a cosmopolitan city in southern France with about 200,000 inhabitants. It is situated on the left bank of the Rhône River about 400 miles SSE of Paris and 50 miles NW of Marseille.   Avignon has a quaint medieval feel, but its large student population and fashionable boutiques help make Avignon, as Rick Steves puts it, a "clean, sharp and popular" place with "an intriguing blend of youthful spirit and urban sophistication."

I had selected a hotel close to the train station on the main street in town that was also affordable (ie among the least expensive in town).  The Hotel Regina was perfectly located and with just a few issues (wifi was $25/day for my room or free in the lobby and the elevator went up to the 4th floor but my room was on the 5th).  Upon arrival I quickly ditched my luggage and set out to see the town.

I was already impressed with Avignon just seeing the wide and elegant main thoroughfare in the old town.  There were large squares, stately buildings, medieval walls and lots of tourists (but still that minor issue of dog poop).  My first destination had to be the Palace of the Popes which is justifiably famous and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Palace was pricey but an audio guide was included to explain much of the history to me since most of the rooms were empty.  I needed Sean's Catholic perspective to get a better understanding of the church politics involved but I was learning a lot on the tour.  To say that the Palace of the Popes is huge is an understatement.  I saw enormous room after enormous room and each had its own specific function (ie dressing for lunch, entertaining cardinal from Lyon, bedroom for Thursday night, etc.). 

According to Wikipedia the walls were 17-18 FEET thick in the Palace since it doubled as a fortress.  It was amazing how lavish the palace was with elaborate frescoes on the walls, custom painted tile floors and high vaulted ceilings.  For 68 years it replaced the Vatican as the home of the Catholic Church so it was easy to see how Avignon prospered during that time. 

The cathedral next door was about the usual large size for a European cathedral but located next to the Palace of the Popes it was dwarfed.  Both buildings share a huge square that is the heart of Avignon.  The Petit Palace, now an art museum, is on another side.  Next door is a beautiful park built upon the large rock that marks where Avignon was founded.  There were great views from the beautifully landscaped park of the Rhone and countryside. 

Le Pont Saint-Benezet is a ruined bridge not far from the Palais des Papes. My combo ticket to the Palace of the Popes also admitted me to the bridge and provided the accompanying audio guide.  The bridge was built in the Middle Ages - before the arrival of the Papacy - perhaps partly to allow the local bishop to cross the river to Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, where the church authorities had installed themselves.

The legend of the bridge's building is that a local shepherd, Benezet, was inspired by angels to build a bridge. When his appeals to the town authorities proved fruitless, he picked up a vast block of stone and hurled it into the river, to be the bridge's foundation stone. Convinced by this demonstration of divine will, the bridge was swiftly built. The poor shepherd boy was canonized, and his chapel remains on the surviving portion of the bridge.

If the bridge was divinely inspired, the Deity must have quickly changed his mind, because before long the bridge became unsafe and, following numerous floods, mostly derelict. Originally, the bridge had 22 arches, reaching across to the tower of Philippe le Bel via the mid-stream île de la Barthelasse. Only 4 of the 22 arches now remain. 

The well-known song "Sur Le Pont D'Avignon" (on the bridge at Avignon) refers to the bridge although the bridge itself is far too narrow for dancing or festivals.  The original text of the song was "Sous (under) le pont d'Avignon", referring to the festivals and entertainments staged on the île de la Barthelasse. The current version was popularized by a 19th century operetta, whose librettist clearly assumed that 'sous le pont d'Avignon' would have meant in the river. 

Avignon was very clean (except for the bus station and the dog poop) thanks to the efforts of the early morning street sweepers.  Surprisingly, beyond the Palace of the Popes and the Pont d'Avignon there really aren't any big sights in Avignon.  Fortunately it's perfectly situated as a base for seeing the rest of Provence (by tour bus or train to avoid the nasty bus station).  It's a very elegant city but with high prices for everything.  Avignon's stellar reputation brings in the tourists but I preferred Nimes.

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