At the beginning of October I stayed in Avignon, France for research on the city during the fourteenth century. Since the city is rich in history, a quickie background. At that time it was home to the papacy for seventy years, a center of cultural activity as a result of patronage, and suffered from the onslaught of the plague that killed almost half of Europe’s population between 1347-50. It was not technically part of the kingdom of France.
Although the papacy owned the nearby Comtat Venaissin, Avignon was sold to the papacy in 1348 by Queen Joanna of Naples in return for being cleared of charges regarding the gruesome death of her husband. Villeneuve-les-Avignon, across the Rhône, belonged to the king of France and his fortresses as well as a medieval abbey and charterhouse stand on the heights.
I’ve been to Avignon several times but this was the first time I stayed in the city. Alas there are no Marriotts even close, so I stayed at the Hôtel de l’Horloge. While it’s no Marriott, it was perfectly located in a central square a block from the Papal Palace and the Petit Palais, home of a former cardinal and now a medieval art museum. A short walk further takes you to the city walls and the famous Pont d’Avignon, which you probably don’t want to use to get to Villeneuve (after too many floods washing away the bridge, they gave up and stopped rebuilding it). It ends in the middle of the river, but was the site for the famous children’s song Sur le pont d’Avignon:
To avoid scaring people, I did not dance on the bridge.
I began with a tour of the papal palace, which completely dominates the city (over 2.5 acres). The inside is sparsely decorated to say the least. During the French Revolution, the palace was taken and counterrevolutionaries were massacred inside; during Napoleon’s era it was used as a barracks. The most spectacular rooms are the Saint-Martial Chapel, the Room of the Stag, and the Pope’s bedchamber, which are stunning (they are among the only places in the palace where you can’t take photos). While I was there, I visited the boutique several times – worth it! Not just the typical books and memorabilia, but also a wine store. There I bought a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape named appropriately Clement VI -- the best wine I have ever tasted.
I was lucky enough to be able to join a much smaller group that visited the parts of the palace that are not open to the public. It began with a multi-course brunch with wine then lots of climbing up winding medieval staircases till we reached the top and a breathtaking view of the city, Villeneuve and the Rhône. For over two hours, we toured all the parts of the old palace, including the baths.
While most of my time was spent in research, part of that meant finding all the medieval parts of the city. I found the spot where the poet Petrarch said he first met his beloved Laura; the domed synagogue that replaced the one first built in 1221; and the Rocher des Doms, a park above the cathedral and overlooking the river. It would normally be the perfect place for a picnic, with swans swimming in the pond. However, torrential rains had struck the day I arrived in France, making two ponds!
One day I took a tour of the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape which is very different from the nearby Côte-du-Rhône. The terroir in which the grapes are grown consists of pebbles that are the remains of glaciers. The tour also included a visit to the gorgeous hilltop town of Gordes. The famous mistral was blowing so hard that day that it felt like if you got too close to the edge you’d be blown off. We ended the day at the Roman aqueduct, the Pont-du-Gard.
I’d encourage anyone who is planning a trip to southern France to spend some time in Avignon and not only these nearby villages but also the great towns with Roman ruins such as Nîmes, Arles and Orange.
I’m enclosing some photos here and in the next post.
As always, a wonderful story and spectacular photos!!!
Thanks so very much!
This entire area is on my list of vacation destinations! Hopefully, by that time (within the next couple of years) there will be a Marriott or two in the general area! Bill, are you listening???
Your story brings back wonderful memories of a visit there with friends a couple of years ago. Your description of the papal palace being 'sparsely decorated to say the least' is really right on. The emptiness was a dissapointment to us as we went through, but we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Avignon and the surrounding area. We too bought some wine at the palace to enjoy back at our villa and we all agreed it was excellent.
Thanks for the story.