Rick Steves: Catholic Church put Avignon on the map

When a French pope was elected in 1309, the Catholic Church actually bought Avignon and built the imposing Palace of the Popes. Seven popes ruled from here for nearly a century. During this time, Avignon grew from a sleepy village into a thriving city.

Clinging to a bend in the Rhône River in the south of France, Avignon looks and feels like the backdrop of a medieval fairy tale. While it’s largely famous for its 14th-century heyday as a papal capital and its even older 12th-century bridge, Avignon has plenty to offer beyond history. Today, this walled Provençal town is a youthful place full of atmospheric cafés, fun shops, and numerous hide-and-seek squares ideal for postcard-writing and people-watching.

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An easy side trip from nearby must-sees such as Arles and Les Baux, Avignon’s charms can be sampled in half a day. Climb to its hilltop park for the town’s best view, tour the immense palace that was once home to popes, stroll the traffic-free shopping district, lose yourself in the back streets, or just find a shady square to call home.

The city’s history dates back to well before when the Romans came to town, but it was the Catholic Church that put Avignon on the map. In 1309, a French pope was elected (Pope Clement V). The new pope, fearing Italy was too dangerous, moved the papacy to Avignon, where he could enjoy a secure rule under a supportive French king. Along with clearing out vast spaces for public squares and building a three-acre papal palace, the Church erected more than three miles of protective wall (and 39 towers), mansions for cardinals and residences for its bureaucracy. Avignon was Europe’s largest construction zone, and its population grew from 6,000 to 25,000. (Today 13,000 people live within its walls.)

The massive Palace of the Popes was the most fortified palace of the time and with 10-footthick walls, it was a symbol of power. Today, it’s the largest surviving Gothic palace in Europe. In all, seven popes ruled from here, making Avignon the centre of Christianity for nearly 100 years.

The palace itself is pretty empty today. Along with lots of big, barren rooms, visitors can see a few original wall paintings, an elegant Gothic chapel and some beautiful floor tiles. Its climbable tower offers grand views.

Nearby, the /Petit Palais Museum, located in what was a cardinal’s palace, displays the Church’s collection of medieval Italian painting and sculpture. Visiting this museum before going to the Palace of the Popes helps your mind furnish and populate that otherwise empty building and captures art and life during the Avignon papacy. You’ll also see bits of statues and tombs remnants of exquisite Church art destroyed during the French Revolution.

After a visit to the Palace of the Popes, hike up above it to the Parc de Rochers des Doms for a panoramic view of Avignon, the Rhône River Valley, and the St. Bénézet Bridge the one made famous by the nursery rhyme Sur le Pont d’Avignon, known to all French school kids. As one of only three bridges crossing the mighty Rhône in the Middle Ages, this strategically important span carried pilgrims, merchants and armies into and out of town.

Over the years, floods damaged the bridge several times (and each time it was rebuilt). But in 1668, a particularly disastrous flood destroyed most of the bridge. This time, the townsfolk decided not to rebuild, and for more than a century, Avignon had no bridge across the Rhône. Today, you can pay a small fee to walk along a section of the ramparts and onto what remains of the bridge. It’s fun to be in the breezy middle of the river with a sweeping city view.

For a close-up look at Avignon life, meander the town’s back streets, home to pastry shops, earthy cafés and galleries and cobbled lanes lined with trees and streams. I love parsing the street signs here, revealing vivid names including “Street of the Animal Furriers,” “Hosiery Street,” and “Street of the Golden Scissors,” all of which recall the neighbourhood’s medieval roots.

Along the way, step inside the modern market hall, Les Halles, for a sensory celebration of organic breads, olives and festival-of-mould cheeses. Six mornings a week, the hall is bursting with fresh produce, meats, and fish. With plenty of cheap cafés, bars, and tempting cheese shops, this is the local hotspot for lunch and I can’t resist a big plate of mixed seafood with a glass of white wine.

Theatre buffs may want to visit in July, when Avignon booms with its massive three-week theatre festival, featuring about 2,000 performances (hotels book up far in advance). Every venue is in action, creating a Mardi Gras like atmosphere: The entire city is a stage, with mimes, fire-breathers, singers, and musicians filling the streets.

While there’s so much to see in fascinating Provence, a detour to Avignon is time well spent. Clean, lively and popular with travellers, this city is an intriguing blend of medieval history, youthful energy, and urban sophistication.

Rick Steves (ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

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