Avignon (23 to 26 September 2023)

Those with an interest in the history of the Catholic Church will know Avignon as the French city from which the Popes once ruled.

Like most of the great conflicts of history, it was all about money and power.  In 1302, when a swathe of what is now southern France was part of the Papal states, Pope Boniface VIII refused a request from King Phillip IV of France to help fund his war against the English.  As a further insult, he issued a papal edict stating “every human creature [must] be subject to the Roman pontiff”.  Phillip responded, probably with a Gallic sneer, that “we are nobody’s vassal in temporal matters”.

When Boniface tried to excommunicate him, Phillip arranged for goons to beat him and he died of his wounds.  Seizing his opportunity to subvert the power of the Italian cardinals, Phillip engineered the election of a pope beholden to him.

A few years later, Pope Clement V, a Frenchman and personal friend of Phillip, moved the papacy to Avignon.   Over the next 70 years, a succession of seven popes, all French and increasingly beholden to the Court of France, ruled the Church from here.

They seem to have forgotten their vows of poverty and chastity.  They built for themselves the Palais des Papes (Papal Palace), the largest Gothic palace in Europe.

They accumulated vast wealth and lived extravagantly, with a reputation for excesses of food, drink and debauchery, leading to the period being named ‘the Babylonian captivity of the Papacy”.  In 1377, the then pope resolved to move the papacy back to Rome.   The French cardinals refused to accept this and elected an alternative ‘pope’, who continued to reside in Avignon.  Successive French and Roman popes denounced and excommunicated each other until the rivalry was finally resolved with the election of a compromise Italian candidate in 1417.

The popes never returned to Avignon but the palace remained in church hands until the French Revolution.  After various public uses it was meticulously restored and is now an historic site, cultural centre and art exhibition space.  Along with the whole of the historic centre of Avignon, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage listed site.

Next door, Notre Dame des Doms d’Avignon is topped by a 4.5 tonne golden statue of the Virgin Mary.

Opposite the cathedral is Hotel des Monnaies.  It’s often referred to as the Papal mint, but doesn’t relate to the period the popes lived here.  Inscriptions on its facade honour Pope Paul V, and it was indeed a mint operated by the Church, but it wasn’t built until a couple of centuries after the popes relocated back to Rome.

The popes surrounded Avignon with 4.3km of city walls with 39 defensive towers, punctured by a few city gates.  The city is one of the few in Europe whose original walls are still completely intact.

High above the walls on a section along the Rhone River, a rocky outcrop called Rocher des Doms was landscaped into a seven hectare city garden in the 19th century.

From the gardens there’s a panoramic view across the river to Villeneuve-les-Avignon where Phillip built a fortress of his own, Fort Saint-Andre.

The view from the gardens also encompasses one of the city’s best known landmarks, Pont Saint-Bénézet.  It’s a medieval bridge, or more correctly, half a bridge.

In about 1177, an uneducated shepherd boy, Bénézet, advised the Bishop of Avignon that he’d experienced a vision in which Jesus commanded a bridge be built over the Rhone River – at the very point where the force of water was so great that even the ancient Romans hadn’t been able to.  Despite initial skepticism, the bishop ultimately agreed.

Construction of the bridge was credited with 18 miraculous healings and Bénézet, who died before it was completed, was duly made patron saint of bridge builders.

This seems a dubious award, considering the bridge was abandoned in the 17th century after the arches repeatedly collapsed every time the river flooded.

Within the walls, there’s buildings and styles from the 14th to the 18th century but as it’s largely devoid of modern intrusions, the whole centre is UNESCO listed.

In the main square, enormous plane trees shade a string of restaurants.  Good for a coffee but the food is better in the little bistrots in the lanes and on the small plazas a few twists and turns away.

Avignon is famous as a centre for live arts.  The annual Festival D’Avignon attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every summer.  There are a remarkable number of theatres, ranging from the grand and traditional, to the small and quirky.  The second one below translates as ‘Smoking Dog Theatre’.

While tourists throng the main square and the few streets around it, you don’t have to go far to find quiet neighbourhoods and shady squares with coffee bars.  16,000 people live in the historic centre and it feels like a real town, not a tourist construct.

There’s a covered food market full of fresh produce and gourmet goodies, open six days a week.  And once a week a small but interesting brocante (flea market) sets up outside.

There are quirky trompe l’oeil paintings in windows above the streets.

One of our favourite areas was around Rue des Teinturiers (Street of Dyers).  The street follows a small channel of the Sorgue River which was originally created to feed the palace moat.  In the 14th century, waterwheels were installed along it to power small textile mills for a thriving industry of weaving and tapestry making.  At one time there were 23 waterwheels operating.

Most of them are gone now, but the street retains the feel of ancient times.

The original headquarters of the Order of the Grey Penitents is here.  The oldest penitent brotherhood in Avignon, it was established in 1226 and is still active today.  Every 30 November they celebrate the Miracle of the Parting of the Waters.  Nothing to do with Moses and the Red Sea.  It celebrates the day in 1433 when the city was badly flooded but the water in the chapel’s nave remained parted, leaving a passage for the brothers to evacuate the blessed sacrament.  A miracle, indeed!

Continuing the religious theme, we should mention our hotel, built in the 16th century as a Jesuit novitiate, later converted into a convent for nuns, and now a hotel.

Avignon is a foodie paradise.  We ate some great food, drank some lovely wine.  Next up, a five day hike to burn it all off.  Guess that’s our penance for such self indulgence.

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