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Avignon’s tourism promoters bill their town as “the City of the Popes.” As with much marketing hype, there’s truth amidst the puffery. Avignon was indeed the home of seven popes, and the center of the Catholic Church, for most of the 14th century. But no pope has actually lived in Avignon for nearly 600 years. That’s not much of a problem, since Avignon still has much to offer within its walls.
Even without a resident pope, le Palais des Papes— the Palace of the Popes— is impressive. It’s massive, ornate, and pretentious, befitting a ruler at the apex of the society that built it. You can spend a whole day exploring it inside and out— or relaxing in the large square in front of it while watching the parade of fellow explorers.
Although it’s one of Avignon’s cardinal attractions for tourists, the Palace is primarily a convention and exhibit center. (When a convention or state function is going on, the Palace can be partially or totally off-limits to the public.) When I was there, French President Jacques Chirac was visiting to inaugurate an art exhibition. His peregrination and attendant throng offered a pale echo of the pomp and pageantry that must have surrounded the popes.
It all started in 1305, when the College of Cardinals in Rome elected a French pope, Clement V. They surely could not have realized what a mistake that was. Accepting the invitation of a French nobleman who saw an opportunity to leverage his influence on a local pope, Clement moved the papacy lock, stock, and miters to Avignon in 1309. Clement sought to escape the infighting among the Italian families from which recent Popes had been elected. His six successors built the Palace into a suitably imposing edifice. The line of Avignon popes lasted until 1376, when Gregory XI finally moved back to Rome.
After Gregory XI died, his successor, Urban VI, got inspired to take action against the corruption that had led Clement V away to Avignon. The College of Cardinals, still mostly French, weren’t happy about those reforms. So they elected a pope of their own, Clement VII, who moved back to Avignon.
From 1378 through 1417 there were two popes! This “Great Schism of the West” divided the Church, as well as secular rulers throughout Europe who had to choose between the rival popes. As Christ’s Representative(s) on Earth, both popes devoted themselves to sacred spiritual pursuits: Denouncing and excommunicating each other while scheming to regain a monopoly on lucrative tithes, taxes, and the burgeoning sale of indulgences. (An indulgence is the Catholic Church’s special reward for good deeds. But at that time, officials at all levels of the Church hierarchy were lining their pockets by selling indulgences as a kind of “get out of Hell free” card. A century later, the continued abuse of indulgences would provoke Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” that began the Protestant Reformation).
The “Schism” ended in 1417 with the election of Pope Martin V, who was acceptable to all factions. Martin officially declared the rival Avignon popes illegitimate “anti-popes.” The Palace in Avignon was abandoned and soon gutted. Like so many other buildings, it was looted and pillaged during the Revolution, and became a prison and barracks. Restoration has been going on continuously since 1906.
Alongside the Palace is what used to be an orchard planted by Pope Urban V. The trees are gone, but a quiet little courtyard remains. Also adjoining the Palace is Rocher des Doms, a very pleasant terraced garden park atop a hill that offers sweeping views.
If you studied French as a child, you might have sung a little song about the Pont d’Avignon, upon which a motley troupe of gentlemen, ladies, cobblers, and laundrymen (sometimes joined by soldiers and musicians) danced en rond, in a circle. That bridge is real, and it’s officially called Pont Saint-Bénézet.
The story goes that in 1177, Jesus appeared to the shepherd boy Bénézet and told him to build a bridge over the Rhône. (Angels would take care of the sheep.) Bénézet ran to Avignon to inform the bishop, who summarily pronounced him insane and sent him to the local magistrate for a flogging. Bénézet won over both the bishop and the magistrate after he miraculously moved an impossibly heavy stone to serve as the bridge’s foundation.
Bénézet was only 21 when he died. But he subsequently did eighteen more miracles that qualified him as the patron saint of Avignon (and of bachelors). The miracles apparently had dissipated by the 17th century, when a flood destroyed most of the bridge, leaving only four of the original 24 arches.
Guidebooks, as well as the recorded audio tour you get when you visit the bridge, point out that the bridge is too narrow for anyone to dance on it en rond, as in the song. The dancing actually happened under the bridge— sous le pont. At some point that was mis-heard as the now-familiar sur le pont, and perpetuated that way by people who presumably had never seen the bridge. The only problem is that, as you’ll notice in the pictures, the Rhône River flows under the bridge. Could one of Bénézet’s miracles perhaps have let people not only walk on the water, but dance on it?
The best view of the bridge is from Ile de Barthelasse, an island the middle of the Rhône, at sunset. From there you can see that the bridge connects to the city wall, directly in front of the Palace of the Popes. Ile de Barthelasse also explains that mysterious dancing. The bridge originally was nearly a kilometer long. It crossed the island and continued all the way to Villeneuve-lès-Avignon on the other side of the Rhône. If anyone actually danced under the bridge, they did it on Ile de Barthelasse.
Villeneuve-lès-Avignon— “New Town Near Avignon” in the local version of the Provençal language— is across the Rhône from Avignon, on the other side of the Ile de Barthelasse. If Avignon was the “City of the Popes,” Villeneuve was the “City of the Cardinals.” Perhaps feeling a bit crowded and claustrophobic within the walls of Avignon, the cardinals built their palaces in Villeneuve and commuted to Avignon on the Pont Saint-Bénézet.
Fort Saint-André and its well-preserved gate tower in
Villeneuve are contemporary with the popes and cardinals. Inside the fortified
walls was once an entire village, as well as a Benedictine abbey.