Built on the banks of the Rhone River, Avignon sprang to international prominence in the 14th century A.D. At the time, the town was not part of French territory, but belonged to the duke of Anjou, a vassal of the Pope. As such, Pope Clement V deemed it a safe location in which to center the Church. Italy was consumed by political chaos at the time, and Avignon was also seen as a more central location within the Christian world.
Avignon’s role as residence of the popes was relatively short-lived: The Avignon papacy—or “Babylonian captivity,” as some dubbed it—was controversial within the Church and lasted only from 1309 to 1377, but it left behind a lasting imprint on the city.
Beginning in 1335, a magnificent palace was constructed to house the popes. Completed in less than 20 years in two phases, the Palais des Papes is the largest Gothic palace in Europe and a breathtaking example of the architecture of the time, as well as the site of a collection of intricate frescoes by the Italian master Matteo Giovannetti.
Seven popes occupied the palace before the papacy moved back to Rome in 1377, but that was not the end of Avignon’s role in the church. Instead, cardinals of the Sacred College selected an “anti-pope” to rule from Avignon. The Great Schism, during which time there were rival players claiming the papacy, lasted until 1417.
The palace in Avignon remained property of the papacy until the French Revolution, when it was seized by revolutionaries. It was later converted into a military barracks and prison under the Napoleonic administration.
Today, visitors can wander the halls of the papal palace and gander at the former private chambers of the pope, picturing themselves as players in the intrigues of medieval church and state. The city’s historic center was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995 for its architectural and cultural significance and preserved as a museum.
What to See
The palace is surrounded by other monuments, including the Cathedral of Notre Dame des Doms, which predates the papal complex, having been built in 1150. Atop the cathedral’s bell tower, a 20-foot gilded statue of the Virgin Mary presides over the surroundings. Not far away, the Petit Palais, once the residence of bishops, now houses an art museum with an extensive collection of works from the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
A short stroll from the cathedral is Rocher des Domes, a park with panoramic views of the Rhone. The green space, centered around a pond populated by swans and other waterfowl, offers a green refuge from the summer heat to tourists and locals alike.
Also adjacent to the complex is the remnants of the St. Benezet Bridge, which once spanned the Rhone. Today only four of the original 22 arches remain, but the construction is solid enough that visitors can still stroll along the span.
How to Visit
Avignon is a popular tourist destination both on its own and as a base for exploring the Provence area. The tourism infrastructure is well developed, and the city can be reached by car, train, or airplane. The climate is relatively mild year-round, but for the most pleasant weather and to avoid summer crowds, consider visiting in the spring or fall.
Abby Sewell is a freelance journalist based in Beirut. She covers travel, politics, and culture with a focus on the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @sewella.