Situated in southern France on the left side of the River Rhone, Avignon has been a city of pivotal importance in the history of Europe and European civilization. Avignon has the nickname, the “City of the Popes” due to being the seat of the Head of the Catholic Church (the Pope) from the year 1309 until 1377.
The historical importance and legacy of Avignon is apparent the moment one sets foot in it.
If you had just one day in Avignon, here’s what you’d probably want to explore:
Places to see, things to Do in Avignon
Palais des Papes
As mentioned earlier, the Palais des Papes or “Palace of the Popes” is probably the most striking large structure in Avignon. It is a testament to the near absolute (some would say divine) power of the Papacy in medieval Europe. It’s also reportedly the largest Gothic-style building on the continent. The palace is more like a fairy-tale castle than place of religious devotion with its spacious courtyards and halls, individual chapels, grand stairways and luxurious living quarters. Currently there are 25 rooms that are open to the public.
In 1309 when Pope Clement V moved the papal seat to Avignon, the “palace” was a much more modest structure and was the residence of the Bishop of Avignon. It was later under Pope Benedict XII that the structure acquired its more fortress-like appearance. After all, this was supposed to be the residence of possibly the most powerful man in Europe at the time. Obviously, it needed a strong and practical defense. However the interior of the palace was more like a lavish museum than the abode of the sacred. Many of the palaces rooms housed the most expensive art of the day.
The ground floor of the building held the palace’s audience chamber where lavishly detailed wall paintings depicting various prophets are currently on display. Others works can be found in the palace’s Chapel of St. John and depict scenes from the saint’s life in the form of well-preserved frescoes by Italian artist Matteo Giovanetti. The other important areas to visit are the palace’s grand Consistory and Banquet Hall. These places give a brief glimpse as to some of the lavish events that must have been thrown at the behest of the Pope back in the day. Finally, there’s also the Pope’s opulent bedroom with expensively tiled floors and an opulently-docorated ceiling. It was definitely the place to bring a fair lady to after a medieval night on the town. Too bad the Popes were (supposedly) celibate.
Oh yeah, this place is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. More information can be found on the Palace’s website.
Musée du Petit Palais
The Musée du Petit Palais is one of the prime art galleries in all of France, perhaps even Europe. While it’s technically on the grounds of the Palais des Papes (see above), it’s considered a separate museum in itself due to it’s rich collection of priceless Renaissance art. So grand is this collection that the Emperor Napoleon II purchased much of the collection to be displayed in the Louvre in Paris.
For more information on paintings, exhibits and timings, you can visit the museum’s website.
Pont Saint Bénézet
As it no longer stretches from one side of the river to the other, what was the Saint Bénézet Bridge is technically now an interesting spot to walk atop a piece of history and hang out. The story of the site is that it was built by a shepherd name Bénézet who was supposedly instructed by angels to a bridge. The townspeople laughed at him but 8 years later, a bridge was built. At its grandest time, the bridge stretched approximately 900 meters and was made up of 22 arches. Perhaps though God and His angels fell out of favor with Bénézet and the city because by the 17th century, the bridge fell into disrepair and is now in ruin. Oh well.
Churches of Avignon
You would think that a place called the “City of the Popes” would have some larger-than-life churches. In this, Avignon does deliver, sort of. There is probably no religious building to compare to that of the Palais de Papes (if you indeed consider the palace a place of sanctity), but one perhaps can find some solace at Avignon’s Eglise Saint-Pierre. The church was dedicated in the 7th century to Saint Pierre of Luxembourg and contains several of his relics within it.
Another church is Avignon’s Notre-Dame des Doms. The church by the same name in Paris it’s not, but this modest structure does have some interesting Romanesque art and sculpture tucked away inside of it. There’s also the Church of Saint-Didier, a single-aisled church with some of France’s earliest Renaissance-era art.
And there you go, all that you can see in a day in the historic (and somewhat religious) French city of Avignon!
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