Avignon

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Avignon

Pop. 100,000, dépt. Vaucluse, on the banks of the Rhone. This is one of the most beautiful and historic provençal cities. It is completely surrounded by thick and powerful C14 walls 9 miles long. It is the largest preserved medieval city in Europe. Inside the walls, much of the town's medieval streetscape survives. Today, Avignon is probably best known for the Festival d'Avignon, France's biggest cultural extravaganza, an annual event since 1946. This goes on for about three weeks between mid-July and early August, and covers everything from truly awful street performance to world-class theatre and concerts. You need to show the group the Place du Palais, Rocher des Doms and the Pont St. Bénézet. As for the rest of town it is enough to stop at the Place de l'Horloge, the main centre of Avignon life, and then allow the group to wander in the charming pedestrian district around the rue des Marchands with its artisanal shops and small local restaurants.

Avignon did not become an important city until the Middle Ages. The making of Avignon was the arrival of the Papacy at the beginning of the C14. The history behind this is fairly complicated but should certainly be told.

In the late C13 King Philippe IV, known as Philippe le Bel, in an effort to fill the coffers of France depleted by war, imposed a tax on church property which until that time had been exempted from secular taxation. The Pope in Rome came out in defence of arrested clergy who had refused to comply with the new orders. In his turn the Pope protested that the state had no business interfering in the finances of the Church. His protestations were met with abuse. Finally, France broke with Rome. Philippe decided to elect his own pope. The then Bishop of Bordeaux took up his post as Pope Clement V, replacing Boniface VIII in Rome. To show his gratitude to the King of France and to escape potential strife at the hands of Rome's ruling families, Clement chose to move the papal seat to France and he installed himself at Avignon, near territory belonging to the Papal States (this area, the Comtat Venaissin, was only annexed by France in 1789). In order further to curry favour with the king, he abolished the rich and powerful Order of the Knights Templar on spurious grounds, so that Philippe was in a position to confiscate and profit from the Order's property.

The Avignon Popes:
Clement V (1309-1314)
John XXII (1314-1334)
Benedict XII (1334-1342)
Clement VI (1342-1354)
Innocent VI (1354-1362)
Urban V (1362-1370)
Gregory XI (1370-1377)

It is worth trying to evoke something of the spirit of C14 Avignon, the so-called "second Babylonian captivity," notorious for corruption, licentiousness and the loosest of loose morals.

In 1377 Pope Gregory returned to Rome, but two more so-called 'antipopes' installed themselves at Avignon, so that there were two 'popes' at one time. This schism was finally resolved at the Council of Constance (1414-1417).

Le Palais des Papes  This palace-come-fortress was begun in 1316 by John XXII and for the most part built by his three successors to the Papacy. It is the largest medieval fortress-come-palace in Europe, surrounded by high, buttressed walls and flanked by 8 towers. In fact, some of the rooms are so large that when Napoleon garrisoned his troops there, he converted one room into three floors. The exterior is a superb example of C14 military architecture. From the expansive Place du Palais the view is splendid. Generally speaking, there is nothing of surpassing interest inside. The Palais des Papes impresses because of the size and power of the place, coupled with its historical resonances as the former centre of the Christian world; not because of what it contains within. If you do go in you should take a guided tour. These are easy to arrange: a couple of hours' notice and you can find an English-speaking guide. Otherwise there are headphone sets that take you round. What you will see are huge empty rooms. There are some Gobelin tapestries, portraits of the Avignon popes, a couple of frescoes and a fireplace or two. The tour lasts about 45 minutes.

From the Place du Palais climb the steps of the cathedral of Notre-Dame des Doms (of no particular interest) to the park on the Rocher des Doms, the highest point in the city. The panorama from here is magnificent, taking in the sweep of the Rhone, the Pont St. Bénézet and, across the river, the town of Villeneuve-les-Avignon dominated by the C14 Fort St. André.

Pont St. Bénézet  This is Avignon's other great monument, the broken C12 bridge that stops halfway across the river. Only 4 of the original 22 arches survive, the rest destroyed either by war or by the flooding of the Rhone. There is a minimal charge to visit it. The only virtue in visiting it is that you can sing the song there and remind yourself of your childhood. St. Bénézet was a shepherd boy who had a vision telling him to build a bridge across this unfordable section of the river. With his own bare hands he picked up the rocks from the ground and flung them across the Rhone until his vision was fulfilled. It isn't true but it's a nice story. He is said to be buried in the chapel on the bridge.

For those who don't remember the song, the chorus goes like this:

Sur le pont d'Avignon,
L'on y danse,
L'on y danse.
Sur le pont d'Avignon,
L'on y danse
Tous en rond.

(Actually, any dancing that took place would have been sous le pont, not sur it, on the little island you can see in the middle of the river.)

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