Home to seven popes during the 14th century and one of the most beautiful cities in France today, Avignon, the main city of Provence, is a treasure house of palaces, museums and meandering lanes, surrounded by an old fortified wall that protected the town from bandits and invaders during the Middle Ages and later helped preserve the historic center for us to enjoy today. You will find a delightful Old Town filled with historic sites and modern shops all linked together in a large network of pedestrian streets ideal for strolling. Avignon makes the perfect home base for visiting the attractive nearby cities and sites of Arles, Aix, Marseilles, Pont du Gard, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and Les Baux, with easy bus and rail connections for independent travel, along with a variety of tour operators to take you on day-trips. Many hotel choices in a variety of prices will take good care of you, and restaurants on nearly every corner will keep you well fed.
We stay in Avignon four days in order to see the many sites within and beyond, which can then be enjoyed with a relaxed pace enabling you to juggle around the itinerary suggested here to suit your preferences. For those with more or less time the schedule can be adjusted to accommodate your plans. Alternatively, several nearby towns, especially Aix and Arles would make good overnight destinations, but the hassles of relocation and packing/unpacking reinforce the value of centrally located Avignon as an ideal place to stay, unless you really have a lot of time to spend in this region.
To simplify a big picture, Avignon can be roughly divided into five zones for your exploration: 1) the main street, République; 2&3) shopping streets to the west and east of République; 4) two main squares, Place de l’Horloge and Place du Palais; and 5) Palace of the Popes. In this outline we cover all of it in one full day, leaving three days for travel in the surroundings, but more likely, you will be re-visiting various parts in Avignon throughout your visit to appreciate the historic sites and neighborhoods in more detail both day and night.
Avignon lays claim to several UNESCO World Heritage sites, especially the great Palace of the Popes which was gradually enlarged into an imposing fortification during the 60-year papal residency and is now an excellent museum open to the public. This palace is the largest Gothic building in all of Europe and the most important single site of your visit.
In 1309 the pope departed crime-ridden Rome for political and security reasons and six papal successors, all of them French, remained in Avignon until 1377 -- the city’s golden period during which great mansions were built and the wall was constructed around the town for protection. This was a time of wild growth, with massive wealth flowing into the church coffers, which resulted not only in continued enlargement of the palace, but construction of much of the Old Town we see today, creating the prime reasons for your visit.
Place de l’Horloge
Avignon’s historic center can easily be seen on foot in one day, for it is a compact zone about one kilometer wide and long. Begin your orientation at the main square in the center of town, the Place de l’Horloge surrounded by City Hall, restaurants, bars and shops with a colorful carousel in the middle. Excavations have shown this has always been the center of town, starting from the earliest beginnings when ancient Phoceans established the first settlement 2,500 years ago. It was renamed the “Clock Square” after the first public clock was installed in the new City Hall tower in 1471. This remained a smaller plaza until expansions in the 16th and 17th centuries. The original tower remains but the Hôtel de Ville was rebuilt in 1862 in neoclassical style. Public spectacles here included the guillotine during the Revolution, and construction of the Municipal Theater in 1823, adorned with statues of Corneille and Moliere.
If you got an early start you probably just had breakfast at your hotel, but consider another coffee at an outdoor table to soak in the delightful ambience, with people walking by, beautiful buildings all around and a lovely, tree-shaded park environment throughout the square. Perhaps identify possible restaurants for lunch or dinner later on. Of course, there are other dining places in town a bit less tourist oriented than those in this main square, but locals eat here too, and the advantages of dining in Place de l’Horloge at a choice outdoor table are the central location and atmosphere offering hundreds of outdoor restaurants seats during mild weather. In the Place the principal building is the City Hall, Hôtel de Ville, built in 1862, which has a tower constructed in 1353-63 (best seen from the back), with a clock, giving its name to this “Clock Plaza.” Adjacent is the modern Opera Theatre,
Major routes lead out from this square in all directions, so you will be returning and walking through it again several times in your visit. Avignon’s main shopping areas on three sides of this place are best saved for later because you want to see the adjacent major square one block north, the Place du Palais, containing the city’s most historic site, The Palace of the Popes.
Place du Palais
Looming above like a man-made mountain with walls 150 feet high, the Palais des Papes looks like an austere fortress, majestic but bleak, with a plain facade running along the east side of the square. In order to gain a wide-ranging overview of the rest of the city, admire the massive exterior for now but don’t plunge inside the vast structure at the start of your visit. You’ll want to look around town then come back later, perhaps tomorrow afternoon, for an enjoyable interior visit, which will take at least one hour or two if you read the many explanations that accompany the exhibits. However if you are unfortunately pressed for time, go in now, as described later in the chapter.
Facing the palace is a grand building, L'Hôtel des Monnaies, formerly The Papal Mint where money was made and kept, elaborately decorated with sculpture on the façade in vivid contrast to the blank palace wall. This mansion, now a music conservatory not open to the public, is a rare French example of Italian Baroque architecture, built in 1619 for a nephew of Pope Paul V, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, of a noble Roman family that controlled the finances of much of Italy. Similar to their Palazzo Borghese in Rome, this is an impressive structure designed to provide all the comforts while showing off wealth and power.
As you walk through this vast cobblestone square gazing at the wonders all around, be careful to watch out for the payment underfoot because sometimes there is a small hole or a rock sticking up you might trip on.
Just beyond the palace towers the Cathédral Notre Dame des Doms, the town’s major surviving Romanesque structure and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built on a high point of the city believed to have been site of a pre-Roman village, the present building dates to the 12th century but the first church probably stood on this spot in the 4th century. Destroyed by the Saracens in 731, it was rebuilt in 1111 and expanded in later centuries, finally topped off in 1859 by the gilded statue of Mary atop the spire.
During the 14th century this became the world’s most important church, home to seven different popes. The interior nave is entirely encircled by a Renaissance gallery with rich marble balustrades from one end of the choir to the other. The apse was added in 1671. Significant art works include various frescoes, statues, ornamented side chapels, and a highlight, the Tomb of Pope John XXII, a masterpiece of 14th century flamboyant Gothic.
On the northern end of Palace Square stands the fortress-like Petit Palais, first built in 1318 as a mansion in the medieval style with fortified turrets, crenelated walls, Gothic pointed arches and an open interior courtyard. Now an art museum, it houses a collection of 300 medieval paintings, and the masterpiece of Botticelli’s Madonna and Child. Simply walking through this delightful mansion is even more thrilling than the paintings on the wall, once home to Julius II before he became pope. Julius was the famous Pope who hired Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling and was also a great warrior leader pope, who expanded the powers of the Vatican throughout Europe.
Walk a few minutes north from the Place du Palais into a lovely public park called Roche des Doms, resting on the top of a small hill overlooking the Old Town. This park is a hideaway that you don’t notice when you're at the Palace of the Popes or in the plaza in front, but the entrance is right next to the Cathédral. There are no escalators, no elevators so you've got to do it on your own power, but it’s an easy walk up the gentle switchback ramps through a lush garden.
From the top you are rewarded with beautiful views across the rooftops of the city and along the majestic Rhône River. You’ll also spot the romantic castle of St. Andre in the distance and the famous half-bridge, St-Bénezet. Notice the Park of the Dome also has a beautiful pond with ducks, fountains and a statue in the middle with tree-shaded benches all around – a lovely ensemble. The park is a great place for families to hang out - kids can pedal around in rented vehicles - even a little toy horse and buggy with foot pedals. Look for the cotton candy saleslady, dishing up sweet treats for the kids.
It is easy to walk down from here back down that same little zigzag ramp or a staircase beyond. For the easy exit from the park, retrace your steps back down to Place du Palais. If you really must have a better look at the St-Bénezet Bridge, take the more strenuous route from the north end of the park, down a steep staircase to the river, then along Quai de la Ligne, which provides fine views of the fortified wall, but be advised, this will add 800 meters and 30 minutes to your already-busy walk.
Avignon’s legendary Pont St- Bénezet, yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built across the River Rhône in 1177 through 1185 under the direction of St-Bénezet. This bridge, which stood for only 100 years, was 2952 ft. long and 13 wide, on 19 arches, of which four still remain. It was often restored but it's been in ruins since 1669. On one of the piers of the bridge stands the Chapel of St-Bénezet, rebuilt in the early 13th century with a second upper apse added in 1513. Don’t bother paying admission to walk on the bridge, since you can see it well from the river bank, unless you want to dance on it as in the famous 15th-century children’s song:
“Sur le Pont d'Avignon, L'on y danse, l'on y danse”
“On the bridge of Avignon, We all dance there, we all dance there”
This was the only bridge across the lower Rhône River when built, connecting the kingdoms of France and Germany, and thereby turning Avignon into an important trading center. Even though it only goes halfway across the river now, because it was broken down and collapsed in earlier centuries, and not fully repaired, the bridge makes a great sight. You'll find that it's rewarding to admire the view from different directions: look at it from one side, look at it from above, look at it from below, look at it from the other side. To get back into the town, enter the Porte du Rhône gate through the town wall then follow signs along Rue Ferruce and Rue de la Balance that lead you back to Place du Palais and then to Place de l’Horloge.
THE OLD TOWN
Start out once again from Place de l’Horloge. Stand at the south edge of the plaza and take a look down the main street of town, the Rue de la République, truly a grand boulevard with wide sidewalks, many shops, department stores, fast foods, fine dining and lots of people. This is a fine street you will come back to many times during your visit, but unless you are compelled by its attractions now, save it for later and instead, begin exploring the charming little side lanes of town.
Throw yourself into the vast network of pedestrian shopping streets that make up a good chunk of the Old Town center and offer some of the nicest walking, with various historic sites sprinkled into the mix. Avignon’s Old Town is a charming neighborhood of shopping lanes, narrow residential streets and little back alleys, perfect for strolling. Some of these routes are exclusively for pedestrians, especially in the shopping center just southeast of Place de l’Horloge. The curved shape of these streets will keep you guessing what’s around the bend, or which museum or monument is coming up next. Streets are level but not straight, riddled with little plazas, fountains, trees, some benches, and numerous cafes. While this neighborhood is very old, the shops and galleries are up-to-date with modern interiors and contemporary European items for sale.
There are many possible routes that we shall cover, but an excellent place to start is from the southwest corner of Place de l’Horloge at the small junction called Place du Change, from which several pedestrian lanes radiate. During the 14th century this was a busy location for moneychangers, who dealt in coins, ingots and gems, a combination of bank and pawnshop, along with a foreign exchange service for travellers coming to town. Deals were made, duels were fought and houses knocked down to make room for more horse carriages, making this a lively downtown intersection, which it still is today.
This zone just to the east of Rue de la République is the heart and soul of Avignon, the great gathering place for strolling, people-watching, snacking and great shopping among hundreds of small stores packed into this friendly little neighborhood. It is a small area only 200 meters long and wide with a dozen walking lanes that twist and turn, keeping you wondering where you are, so it might seem vast and disorienting, but you can’t get too lost in this retail paradise.
Town planners have created “human scale” here at its very best, with buildings just a few stories high, providing plenty of air, light and sufficient room to walk without getting run over by a car or truck. Bordering streets with cars are also quiet, with good sidewalks, more shops, cafes, and little traffic, so the friendly zone extends further out about 600 meters from Place de l’Horloge, giving you plenty of room to explore. Main pedestrian lanes here are: Change, Marchand, Principaale, Fourbisseurs,Vieux Sextier, Tremoulet, Rappe, Rouge, Bonneterie, Galante, all marked with cross-hatch lines on the map.
Now is a good time to wander and cut loose in this little district that you will hopefully have time to return to later, because the scene gets even better in late afternoon, like the passegiata in Italy, with locals strolling, shopping, seeing their friends, having a bite, having a drink, getting ready for dinner. Consider this a 30-minute reconnaissance walking a circuit along the main pedestrian lanes of Marchands, Rappe and Galante, returning where you began at Place du Change to continue your expedition.
The pedestrian zone is conveniently framed by three historic sites: St. Pierre on the north, St. Didier on the south, and the waterwheels of Rue Teinturiers to the east, all of which act like a boundary for the next part of your walk.
Continue your historic explorations just beyond the north end of this pedestrian zone with a walk along Rue Favart to the church of St. Pierre, built in the Gothic style in the 14th century and then completed during the early Renaissance. The choir stalls are especially impressive with their elegant 17th-century woodwork. The classical form of the interior contains six side chapels, a nave and large gilded high altar, a fine example of the high Renaissance. Six side chapels added in the 15th century contain a variety of art treasures – oil paintings, statues, gilded woodwork and tombs. A feature the church is most famous for are the solid wooden doors in front, with a lovely statue of the Madonna and Child above the doorway. The exterior is especially impressive with its flamboyant Gothic style and the carved stone tracery of the stone ribs completed in 1524. According to legends, the first church was built here in the 7th century but destroyed during Saracen invasions, in the turbulent times of frequent attacks by Goths, Franks, Muslims and barbarian bandits.
Walk east through Place Jerusalem past the Synagogue, which had been center of the Jewish ghetto, one more block to Place Pie, a large, tree-lined square surrounded by quaint buildings and cafes. This could easily be overlooked by a casual visitor because it's not really on lists of places to visit or prominent in postcard shots, but you will see that it is a very lovely spot. The origins of Place Pie go back about 500 years when it was an area of housing that was pulled down in 1562 to open up free area for a very busy outdoor food market.
Place Pie (say “pee) is not named for the large round pastry, or a place to relieve yourself, but after Pope Pie (Pius) VI, an Italian pope who reigned during the Revolution when most church property was nationalized. Victim of bad timing, he was then arrested by Napoleon and forced to sign a treaty in 1797 turning over papal territories, including Avignon and much of Italy to France. The pope was buried in St Peter’s in Rome where he is commemorated with a statue by Canova, although his heart remains entombed in Valence, France, where he died in captivity in 1799 after a reign of 25 years, fourth-longest in church history.
On the south side notice the large green Les Halles, a modern food market hall that was built in 1970s ugly modern, with an interesting living green wall on the outside that hides the modern, brutalist style. Originally this was a smaller market created in the 1800s as a metal shed at first which then grew larger and was demolished to make way for this multi-story monster with a parking garage on top. Fortunately this is about the only bland building in the Old Town, but it does serve a good purpose with 40 food stalls, true ambassadors of local produce: fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices, olive oil and other cookery specialties in a typical atmosphere of authentic Provence, open from 6am daily except Monday.
Cut through the indoor food market to see for yourself, maybe grab a bite, and emerge out the back door on the south end at Rue Bonneterie, which in a few blocks east, turns into one of the most picturesque streets in town, Rue des Teinturiers, the “street of the tinters.”
Several ancient water wheels on this cobbled lane are still turning, pushed along by a quaint little, tree-lined canal. The wheels were once used to provide power for the manufacturing and dyeing of textiles and printing and a few other industrial applications at the beginning of the Industrial Age. This has become a recently renovated trendy street, with cafes, boutiques and a small theater, a mere ten-minute walk from the town center.
You might want to come back again for another look at twilight when it takes on a different atmosphere. And, of course, that's when the restaurants will be really coming to life. This street is the kind of place you just want to drop anchor for a while and hang out, sit down on a bench, lean up against the wall, relax, and watch these water wheels. Of course, the wheels are no longer functioning to power any equipment obviously in this modern age. They're here mostly as historical landmarks and for your entertainment, so take advantage. It becomes very hypnotic to just stand watching these wheels go round and round.
Stroll back towards the town center along Rue des Lices. Notice the large four-story building with the arcaded windows and tree-shaded courtyard in front, called the Aumône Générale. The history of the building is fascinating and reflects a range of very different uses over the centuries. It started life as a poor house in 1592, and separate sections were established for men and women - divided by a chapel - presumably to reinforce moral conduct and prevent fraternization. There was even a section called 'The Galley' which was set aside for Avignon's 'fallen' women. The U-shaped ensemble of buildings, with its four superposed arcaded galleries, went up between 1669 and 1778. In the 19th century, it was converted into a 'travellers' barracks' and in 1890, transformed its purpose yet again to house the Ecole des Beaux Arts. In 1998, it was sold by the city, and has since been converted into private and very desirable apartments in the heart of the city. Ironically the building evolved from a poorhouse which catered to the destitute into extremely upmarket bijou apartments. This is not a mainstream tourist attraction by any means, yet is appealing on many levels -- the sort of 'second division' attraction you might enjoy discovering.
Rue des Lices passes one of the most charming little plazas in town, the Place des Corps Saint, with its burbling fountain and there's a picturesque little church of the Cellestines, and there's a bar of the same name. There' s a lively array of café tables that are spread out here in fair weather. Several small restaurants around the square are perfect for lunch and even better at dinnertime, so be sure to make a note of location and come back for a lovely meal or two. Easy to find, the is just one block east of the Tourist Information Office on the main Rue de la République, coming up soon in our itinerary, but not quite yet.
On the north end, Place des Corps Saint becomes Rue des Trois Faucons, another one of the charming shopping streets of Avignon. Some automobiles, yes, but a narrow road with wide sidewalks, outdoor cafes and an excellent variety of small shops – an ideal street for strolling. This leads a few blocks north to another important church worth visiting: ancient Collegiate church of St. Didier, one of the largest Gothic churches in Provence, with a very tall hexagonal bell tower with harmonious proportions, visible from blocks away.
St. Didier was originally built in 1008 and then rebuilt much larger in 1358 due to the presence of the popes. You will find it contains charming arcades and a small Gothic pulpit in stone. In the first chapel on right is one of the first Renaissance carvings in France, a relief in marble representing Christ bearing his cross, executed by Francesco Laurana in 1478 at the request of King Rene. Opposite, over second arch, 36 feet above the floor, is a stone pulpit with a sculptured pendant. The grave of St. Bénezet (builder of the bridge) is under a plain slab in the middle of the nave, in front of the high altar. Most of the art and furnishings were looted during the Revolution, but it is surely worth a few minutes to absorb this very old, large interior space.
Exit the front door of the church and turn left on Rue Théodore Aubanel which quickly brings you to the mid-point of Avignon’s main Rue de la République, with an attractive fountain and small, decorated obelisk at the intersection. You have finally reached the heart of town! Our route so far has intentionally avoided this main street, not because it is undesirable – it is one of the great streets of France -- but in order to show you all the small back lanes that make Avignon so special.
Rue de la République is a wide, straight road that was cut through in the mid-1800s through what had been typical narrow winding twisted medieval streets of Avignon that you still find throughout the rest of the historic center. It is a Grand Boulevard with lovely wide sidewalks, terrific department stores, restaurants, fast food, fine cuisine, wine shops, clothing stores. It is the retail downtown center of Avignon, especially wonderful on Saturday afternoons when it is closed to traffic and become a giant pedestrian mall. In the evening after 8 PM the Rue de la République is the busiest place in town, when most of the stores in the little side lanes have closed down.
There had been plans to build a train down the middle of this boulevard but the public protested and the newly-elected mayor and council cancelled the tram. Under a revised plan the city will construct a single 6km line outside the ramparts, from the train station to a suburb. The government will build a Bus Trapid Transit line instead of a longer tramway, with the idea that cheaper construction cost will make it easier to carry out plans to make mass transit free within the city. This shift is good news for travelers because it will preserve the human scale and peaceful character of this main road.
Walk south two blocks towards the Tourist Information Office, but along the way look down Rue Frédéric Mistral, a short lane that passes under a picturesque arch that connects two historic buildings. The streets name honors one of the great literary and culture heroes of Provence, Frédéric Mistral, a writer who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1904, and was a great advocate for the independence of Provence. He went to college in Nimes with further studies in Aix, lived in Marseille, Casis and his presence is felt in Avignon, also with the school named after him.
A major art museum, the Musée Angladon, is at the end of Rue Mistral, with paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries including masterpieces by Degas, Manet, Sisley, Van Gogh (the only one in Provence), Cézanne, Picasso and Modigliani, among others. This former private mansion of the Angladon family also exhibits furnishings, drawings and several period rooms upstairs, including an artist’s studio, a Chinese room and a Renaissance room.
On this same corner at 27 Rue de la République is Le Musée Lapidaire, which displays sculpture from ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt inside the chapel of a former Jesuit church. The front door is usually open so you can stand and peek in at the stone carvings and decorative arts before deciding whether to pay for a closer look, probably not.
Be sure to visit the Tourist Information Office and get their free “Welcome to Avignon” brochure with descriptions of the major sites and a useful map that provides four walking routes to follow while you are exploring the city (although the routes we are providing are better). The tourist bureau has put colored arrows on the sidewalks coordinated with the map to keep you on track. To help plan excursions out of town, you can also find train and bus schedules at this office, along with a handful of brochures about packaged day-trips and any other information you might need from the helpful staff.
Rue de la République leads from the main train station 700 meters straight through town to the Place de l’Horloge, lined by a lovely tree tunnel at the lower end. There are some restaurants and fast food choices along this broad artery, including a very good food emporium in the basement of the major department store, Carfours.
There are just a few more beautiful streets to see before you have finished with your main walking tour of Avignon. From the Tourist Office, depart Rue de la République and walk along Rue Joseph Vernet, the second-most important street in town, perhaps the prettiest street in town, lined with lovely shops, galleries and restaurants. The shops stay open throughout the day, although some close in the midafternoon for a brief siesta - we're still in the south of Europe, after all.
If you came along on today’s schedule, it is now late afternoon when the lighting is a delightful mix of soft sunshine and shop lights, enhancing the romantic atmosphere of Rue Joseph Vernet. Never mind the cars driving by, it is a pleasure to have a leisurely stroll along the full length of this special street. This street is really at its best late in the day and early evening when you have that magical combination of streetlights, shop fronts, busy people out walking and lingering twilight in the sky.
One of Avignon’s major art museums, Le Musée Calvet, is located in the lower section of Rue Joseph Vernet. The museum is set in a magnificent 18th-century mansion with collections of fine art and decorative pieces from the 15th through 20th centuries. There are many excellent paintings representing most of the important periods of art history, but it doesn't have a lot of paintings by any single artist -- usually each great painter is represented by one example.
A popular masterpiece is a large canvas by Jan Bruegel the Elder, a typical detailed picture featuring a busy village scene with a hundred activities going on. On the ground floor of the museum you'll find some Roman antiquities including a statue of a Gallic chief and mutilated statue of a Gallic warrior with shield, and a headless figure of Venus. There are some modern French sculptures and modern paintings, and a small room containing votive altars. There are Attic tomb reliefs, Egyptian antiquities, medieval and Renaissance sculptures, and many from buildings in the environs.
There are statues of apostles heads in marble, gilded stone, Gothic tombs, St. Helena and the Virgin with Angels, a chimneypiece, tombs, paintings, fragments, prayer books, religious relics and all sorts of beautiful visuals. And there are some early artists of Avignon – there's a portrait of Charles the Bold, there's Adoration of the Shepherds. And you'll also find paintings from the 19th century by Gericault, Corot, enameled metals, ivories, Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, and the list goes on in this lovely Musée Calvet.
Continue north on Vernet until you reach Rue St. Agricol, which offers a delightfully similar environment of pleasant shops and leads to the main square of town, the Place de l’Horloge. This little stretch is one of the most pleasant couple of blocks in town. Notice how they have iron posts to protect the pedestrians from the automobiles because this little street is open to traffic and yet remains very safe because of the design. There's a rich variety of kinds of shops here -- one of the favorites streets for just browsing along Rue St. Agricol, up and down, a street that connects two of the most important parts of town, Vernet and l’Horloge.
Don't neglect the upper several blocks of Rue Joseph Vernet, which are as beautiful and offer many more shops for browsing. It ends up at Place Crillon, the site of another favorite place to stay, the Hotel d’Europe -- eat your hearts out, or better yet, check in to this affordable 4-star deluxe legend that has been housing guests since the 19th century.
If you have been following this entire walking route the only major site left to see is the Palace of the Popes, which was viewed from the outside at the beginning of the walk. Hopefully you’ve had a chance to rest up and are now ready to tackle this very rewarding site, which will take some effort to conquer with its many rooms and staircases. Last entry is one hour before closing, but it takes about two hours for a proper visit, or longer if you read all the signs and watch the videos, so don’t go in too late in the day. Admission hours: September-October 9am-7pm; November-February 9:30am - 5:45pm; March 9am - 6:30pm; April-June 9am - 7pm.; July 9am - 8pm; August 9am - 8:30pm.
The Palace of the Popes is the world’s largest Gothic building and one of the best examples of the International Gothic architectural style, making it the most interesting and important site to visit in Avignon. Constructed over 600 years ago, this remarkable palace ranks among the 10 most-popular sites in all of France with nearly 700,000 visitors per year, so you can understand why it is really worthwhile to pay admission and go inside. During the 14th century it was world headquarters for the Catholic Church, making this the most important center of power in Europe for a brief period. The grand palace had 15,000 square meters of covered living space, equivalent to 4 large Gothic Cathédrals.
Avignon became a city of priests with churches, chapels, convents, monasteries and religious offices, yet joyously voluptuous, a moving pageant of luxurious banquets, beautiful women, ecclesiastical romps, saints and sinners -- planned for worldly profit and carried out with many sordid compromises, in the tradition of Roman popes.
The exterior of the palace looks rather foreboding, expressing a primitive feeling of tremendous strength with the fortified walls looking more like a castle than a palace. The fortress had some analogy with the contemporaneous Moorish palace of the Alhambra in that it stood outwardly grim and strong, while within it was a shrine of exquisite and luxurious art, power, decadence and revelry. There was one banquet after another, continuous festivities and enjoyment for the popes and friends. It became a place of richness and beauty, the walls glowing with azure and gold. A legion of Gallic sculptors and Italian painters lavished their art on the embellishment of the palace. The indolent voluptuousness, worldly splendor and indulgences of the debauched clergy was notorious throughout Christendom.
After the French Revolution the church lost control, and it was then used as a gloomy prison and army barracks in the 18th and 19th centuries, furniture stripped, religion erased, statues smashed and walls whitewashed. It was opened to the public as a museum in the early 20th century but the interior remained barren and uninviting, robbed of its earlier beauty. If you had visited this palace even 30 years ago the rooms were quite empty and boring, but in recent decades the government has made tremendous improvements by creating exciting new exhibits in every room, converting this into a world-class historic exhibition.
Although the original furniture is gone, the massive structure is original, with cavernous rooms offering dozens of informative displays explaining the history. Just experiencing these authentic ancient rooms and courtyards would provide a rewarding visit, but your experience is greatly enhanced by numerous state-of-the art displays including seven videos, restored frescoes, period furnishings, sculptures, oil paintings, hundreds of artifacts, armaments, 3-D models, computer graphics, costumes, tapestries, jewelry, religious items, historic photos, special exhibits, kitchens, audio guides and detailed written descriptions. There is a lot on offer, with 25 rooms open to the public on various levels connected by steep staircases, and yet the displays do not overwhelm or obscure the building itself so you can fully appreciate the original architecture. It’s such a time warp you might expect a knight in armor to charge on horseback through the courtyard and up the ramp madly waving an axe.
Upon entering your first sight will be the vast outdoor courtyard, the Cour d'Honneur, surrounded by the massive palace walls reaching 100 feet high. From the arcaded right side of this first courtyard you can enter the most impressive room, the Hall of the Audience, a huge space 150 feet long, 50 feet wide, with a 34 feet-high Gothic vaulted ceiling and massive stone pillars. This famous space could hold as many as 600 people, functioning as a banquet setting, Inquisition chamber, all-purpose room and reception hall to impress guests. Papal conclaves were convened there for electing new popes, like the Sistine Chapel today. For half a century it held the chief law court of Christendom. The chamber is divided into two naves by five clustered pillars, from which the elegant ribs of the vaulted roof spread. It was once adorned with sumptuous Italian frescoes of which only 19 Old Testament figures and a sibyl alone remain in the southeast wall. It was probably in this hall that Clement VI received St. Catherine of Sienna, who played a major role several popes later in convincing Pope Gregory to return to Rome in 1377.
A staircase ascends to the Grande Chapelle directly above, with the same grand dimensions. The extraordinary plan of placing these two lofty chambers one above the other was a daring feat of building construction. The Chapel has no pillars, being one great nave, its 65 feet-high vault springing from engaged clustered columns that run up the walls between the windows, supported by the staircase and a large flying buttress outside the palace’s south end.
Adjacent, in the Tour St-Laurent, was a robing-room. The Tour de la Garde-Robe contains a room on the 3rd floor with frescoes (hunting and fishing), probably by Italian artists (2nd half of the 14th cent.). The adjoining Tour des Anges contained the treasury, the bedroom of Benedict XII, and the library, then Europe’s largest with 4,000 volumes. The Tour St-Jean contains two little chapels, one above the, other. The lower, that of John the Baptist, has remains of frescoes (Italian; 14th cent.); the upper is adorned with scenes from the life of St. Martial by Matteo Giovanetti of Viterbo.
Next, to the west, is a wing of the Consistoire and the large dining-hall, the Grand Tinel, the longest room in the palace with a soaring ceiling. The kitchen is at one end with a high pyramidal chimney vault, called the Tour Strapade, which imparts a mysterious look, and perhaps led to its being incorrectly regarded as the chamber of torture and hall of execution of the Inquisitors. Adjoining is the Glacière, into whose underground cellars, now built up, the democrats of 1791 flung the bodies of 60 men and women they had murdered. At the northeast end, is the Tour de Trouillas, tallest and stoutest of the keeps of the mighty fortress, 175 feet high as compared with the 150 feet of the Tour de la Campane, and its walls fifteen feet thick. Nearby, enter the Salle d'Armes, with mural paintings by Simone Memmi of Sienna.
Ascending higher the grand staircase, we pass on the left the small window for the Spies, and then go along a narrow lobby tunneled in the wall, to a succession of large halls, the Galerie de Conclave, the Salle des Gardes, the Salle de Réception, and then enter the Tour St. Jean, containing the Chapelle du Saint-Office.
As one wanders through the open courtyards, chambers, passages, prisons, and chapels of the fortress palace, you realize this was a town within a town, a refuge of irresistible strength with a fascinating history. It may seem confusing but there are good signs with walking routes that will keep you organized and informed as you proceed.
It's really worth walking up to the rooftop observation deck for spectacular views of the palace and out across the rooftops of the old historic center of Avignon. The view in the other direction takes in the scene of the Petit Palais which is now an art museum, and the Roche du Dome, a beautiful park where you can walk uphill to get a nice view looking out over the Rhône River. To find this viewpoint just follow the signs for the terrace café, walking up several flights of steps and along a rooftop fortified row. And if you are there in the summer the café will be open so you can relax and have a drink while you're enjoying the view.
One design element especially noticeable from this rooftop is the entire absence of symmetry in the building complex, such as is generally aimed at in the case of the large palaces or halls of the late Gothic and Renaissance periods. Its plan follows the irregular shape of the rock upon which it is founded. Here the various blocks of building are simply placed where they are required, and the different levels and irregularities of the ground are built upon in the most natural and convenient manner, creating a delightfully varied appearance, impressive from every point of view.
This great Palace was constructed at the beginning of the 14th century to house the pope who had relocated here from the Vatican. Of course popes had lived in Rome for more than the first thousand years of the church, but in 1305 a Frenchman, Clement the Fifth, was elected pope and he did not want to leave France. For various political and security reasons he established his papacy in Avignon and six more popes served from Avignon, all of them French, until 1377 when the papacy returned to Rome.
Gregory XI, the last of the French Popes, returned to Rome, but with his death the “Great Schism” followed resulting in two popes competing for control. Clement VII, in Avignon, was recognized by France, Spain, Portugal, Scotland, Sicily, and Cyprus, while Pope Urban VI, in Rome, was supported by Italy, Austria, and England.
After Clement VII, a second Anti-pope not recognized by Rome was installed, the insidious Benedict XIII, who proceeded to lead a life of such shocking decadence, anti-Semitism and scandal that the Church could endure it no longer, and Charles V sent soldiers to evict him from the palace. Benedict defended his position with such fierce determination he destroyed one of the arches of the Pont St. Bénezet to cut off the approaches from the river. After a five-year siege and fierce fighting that destroyed hundreds of houses and killed four thousand inhabitants, the King's troops stormed the fortress, but the Anti-pope saved himself by means of secret passages and staircases leading to a vault in which he got to the river and escaped across the Rhone, seeking refuge under the protection of the King of Spain in his native country, hanging on obstinately with his hollow claims until death at 90. Those two Anti-Popes occupied Avignon from 1379 to 1403, including a brief period at the end in which three different popes all claimed the throne in 1409 due to the Council of Pisa -- chaotic times for the church and an ignominious end to the history of popes in Avignon. The palace home to bishops and papal officials for another 400 years during which Avignon prospered as a thriving mercantile city.
Although construction took place in phases during 1335-1355 the various structures are unified as one large and cohesive space, filled with harmony and grand Gothic features of ribbed vaulting, massive thick walls and high windows. Construction began as a palace in 1252 well before the popes ever arrived. Major construction commenced on this magnificent assemblage by Pope John XXII, followed by Pope Benedict 12th who built up what is today called the Old Palace on the north end of the site. A few years later Clement VI became the greatest builder, expanding it to create what is now known as the New Palace on the south side containing the Hall of the Audience and the Grand Chapel. Not a major builder, Clement VI used the wealth of the church to purchase Avignon from the Queen of Naples in 1347, effectively creating a sovereign city-state that remained property of the Vatican until united with France in 1791 following the Revolution.
As you conclude your visit it is possible to walk out the front gates, but the suggested the route naturally brings you to the gift shop and wine store at the rear exit. If you chose for some reason not to tour inside the palace you can still freely enter the gift shop and have a quick peek at the main courtyard and Hall of the Audience, with toilets available. However there are so many wonderful sights to see inside the Palace it is highly recommend that you pay the admission and visit all the rooms, which you will find very worthwhile.
After visiting the palace, it is best to exit the palace back door, through the wine bar and gift shop, into the old neighborhood where ancient Romans first established their town 2,000 years ago in order to see the simple Roman ruins on the right side of the small square, Place de l’Amirande. Avignon became a thriving colony under the Romans but retains hardly a trace of their buildings except for the remnant of a small arch and paving. Even before the Romans, Greeks were here and simpler prehistoric peoples lived in the area thousands of years earlier.
The streets beyond the Roman site, behind the palace towards the east side, are quiet, residential back alleys with few shops or sites off historic interest, only for energetic types who just want to keep walking. Most are better off returning towards the town center along an ancient lane adjacent to the palace, Rue Peyrollerie, dramatically carved into the bedrock, like walking through a natural canyon. Look above to see the massive flying buttress that holds up the wall of the Audience Hall where you began the palace visit.
There is one more museum for art-lovers to consider visiting, the Musée Calvet d'Avignon, containing a valuable collection of treasures with 500 paintings, many statues, classical antiquities and decorative arts, located at 65 rue Joseph Vernet, a lovely street passed earlier in the walk that you would enjoy seeing again. Paintings in the great hall are by Albano, Bassano, Bourdon, Canaletto, A. Carracci, Caravaggio, David, Gericault, Holbein, Poussin, Ruysdael, Veronese, and Zurbaran. The marble busts of Horace and Carle are by Thorwaldsen. In the center of an inner room, containing the medals and engravings, is the famous ivory crucifixion, 27 inches long, of one piece, a masterpiece of the sculptor Guillermin in 1659. It is said that Canova stood in ecstasy over this delicate achievement in art.
In the outer court, and in the rooms and passages on the ground floor, are Roman altars, monuments, milestones, amphorae, and 170 Latin inscriptions, found in the neighborhood, but chiefly from Orange and Vaison. Among the sculptures in relief, one represents a Roman chariot drawn by two horses with their hoofs shod. There are 27 Greek inscriptions, 3d or 4th century. The statuary and sculpture of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance have been gathered principally from the suppressed churches and convents. The most noticeable are the mausoleums of Pope Urbain V, of Cardinals Lagrange and Brancas, and of Marshal Palice. white marble. Upstairs is a valuable collection of Roman glass and bronzes, and 20,000 coins and medals, including a complete set of the seals and medals of the Popes during their residence at Avignon, and the seal used by the Inquisition while here.
Having seen all of Avignon in this organized route, you would surely enjoy cutting loose and wandering back over these streets and discovering the hidden little passageways that abound in this old town. Walking in the early evening is one of the best ways to appreciate this special place – shops are open until 8:00pm and many locals are out enjoying the scene. It's very safe to walk around in these little streets in the evening. Of course you want to take normal precautions –don't walk around with lots of money, but you don't have to worry.
There are many fine restaurants to choose from for an excellent dinner, but maybe you have been too busy sightseeing all day and you are just too tired. For something quick and simple to eat there are snack shops, sandwich shops, pizza, and a helpful department store, Carfour, that has a nice food department in the basement where you can get bread and cheese, bottle of wine and take some snacks back to your room.
In the morning you might get up before breakfast and take a stroll. Sure, why not? There is a special lighting, there are not many people out at this hour at about 6:30 or 7 o'clock in the morning, and yet it feels like you can have the city almost to yourself. It certainly is a good way to escape the crowds, if that's your interest. Take a sunrise stroll in these little back streets, return to your hotel breakfast and get ready for another big day.
We stay four nights in Avignon to provide time for the many sights in town and the wonderful nearby cities described in the following chapters.