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Avignon: the city of the Popes along the Rhone

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Avignon is located in France along the Rhone valley on a rocky outcrop overlooking a bend in the river. Wonderful city of art. In the 14th century it was the residence of the popes who enriched it with splendid palaces. The city of Avignon is delightful with its majestic Palace of the Popes, its defensive walls and for its scenic position on the Rhone. The remains of the Saint-Bénezet bridge are also very beautiful and suggestive. In 1995, the historic center of Avignon was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Avignon’s architecture is deeply marked by the history of the papacy. The Palace of the Popes which was built in the 14th century is consequently the main attraction of the town. Nearby there are museums, the Petit Palais and the Palais du Roure. The Palace of the Popes overlooking the city resembles above all a fortress and was decorated by Simone Martini and Matteo Giovanetti. Finally, in Avignon there are also interesting examples of Gothic architecture such as the Petit Palais and the Romanesque cathedral of Notre-Dame-des-Doms.


The name Avignon derives from “Avenio” which means “city of violent winds” or “city of the river”. In the 5th century, when it was damaged by the barbarian invasions, Avignon was one of the main Roman cities in the area. Avignon later passed under the control of the Burgundian kingdom and then under the reign of Arles.

At the end of the 12th century, it became an independent municipality, but in 1226 after the city had helped the Cathars, its fortifications were demolished. The city was given to the counts of Provence and then to the counts of Toulouse. From 1274 the neighboring territory of the Comtat Venaissin became a possession of the Papal States. From 1309 the papal court was moved to Avignon. Between 1309 and 1377, seven successive popes resided in Avignon (Clement V, John XXXII, Benedict XII, Clement VI, Innocent VI, Urban V and Gregory XI).

The Palace of the Popes was started in 1335. The population of the city reached 40,000 inhabitants, making Avignon one of the largest European cities. But due to subsequent epidemics and the departure of the Pope, the population soon passed to only 15,000 inhabitants. Avignon remained papal possession until 1791.


Undoubtedly the most viewed place in Avignon is the scenic place du Palais, which overlooks the famous Palace of the Popes, the Notre-Dame-des-Doms cathedral, the Hotel des Monnaies and the Petit Palais, with the gardens of the Rocher des Doms.


The Palace of the Popes, in Gothic style, is an immense fortified building of over 15,000 square meters, halfway between a palace and a castle, it was built in two phases that correspond to two distinct segments, known as Palais Vieux (Old Palace) and Palais Neuf (New Palace).


The Palais Vieux was built between 1334 and 1342 by the architect Pierre Poisson of Mirepoix, its construction was ordered by Pope Benedict XII. While the Palais Neuf was built between 1342 and 1352 by Jean de Louvres at the behest of Pope Clement VI. Externally the building is defended by ten square towers.

This is the normal tourist itinerary to visit the palace: the entrance is from the Champeaux Gate, characterized by two turrets that surmount it. The first rooms we meet are those of the guardhouse. Afterwards you enter the courtyard of honor, from where you first enter the conclave area and then the consistory area, where frescoes by Simone Martini are exposed. While the adjoining chapel of Saint-Jean is decorated with 14th century frescoes by Matteo Giovannetti from Viterbo.

Continuing through the cloister of Benedict XII you reach the first floor of the Palais Vieux where the Grand Tinel is located, a huge hall 48 meters long and 10 meters wide with exposed tapestries by Gobelins (18th century). Next to it is the high kitchen with a large fireplace and then the Saint-Martial chapel also frescoed by Matteo Giovannetti.


We then cross the Chambre de Parement, the Pope’s room and the study of Benedict XII in succession. From here you enter the Palais Neuf where you can visit the Chambre du Cerf, with beautiful frescoes, the Clementine Chapel, the Aile des Grands Dignitaires and then at the end you go down to the ground floor where there is the Grande Audience hall.


In front of the Palace of the Popes is the Hotel des Monnaies, now used as a music conservatory. Continuing the visit we can pass to the Romanesque cathedral of Notre-Dame-des-Doms, which was erected between 1140 and 1160. The interior is in a single nave and preserves some tombs of popes. On the opposite side of the square from the Palais des Papes is the Petit Palais, which was the ancient residence of the archbishops, was rebuilt in the fifteenth century and today houses a museum of medieval art.

After visiting the palaces of the Place du Palais, the route can continue with a visit to the Baroque Chapel of the Penitents (1739) and the Gothic Saint-Pierre Church (14th-16th century). An example of an ancient Avignon house can be seen in the 15th-century Hotel de Rascas. Near the Town Hall are the 15th century Saint-Agricol Church and the beautiful Palais du Roure (1469).

Worthy of a visit is the Calvet Museum of Antiquities which collects prehistoric, Greek and Roman works and is located in a beautiful eighteenth-century building. The Church of Saint-Didier is also worth a visit. Afterwards you can continue the walk by crossing rue du Roi-René – a street with beautiful eighteenth-century buildings – to finally reach the most beautiful street in Avignon: Rue des Teinturiers where once were the fabric dyeing workshops. For lovers of furniture and majolica another museum not to be missed is the Musée Louis Vouland.


The Avignon bridge (Pont St-Bénezet) is a medieval bridge which was built in wood between 1171 and 1185. Subsequently, between 1234 and 1237, the structure was rebuilt in stone. The bridge was rendered unusable by a catastrophic flood in 1668, and today only 4 of the original 22 arches remain intact, originally it was 850 meters long. Above the bridge is the chapel of Saint Nicolas. This is a place to visit especially at sunset.


The city walls are perfectly preserved, have a length of 4.3 km and were built between 1359 and 1370. Originally twelve gates allowed access to the city. The most beautiful panoramic point to observe the walls and to have an overview of the city is from the opposite bank of the Rhone where it is convenient to go especially at sunset.

NOT TO BE MISSED: especially noteworthy is the Place du Palais, which overlooks the famous Palace of the Popes. The Notre-Dame-des-Doms cathedral, the Hotel des Monnaies and the Petit Palais. The gardens of the Rocher des Doms. Chapel of the Penitents (1739). Church of Saint-Pierre (XIV-XVI century). Hotel de Rascas. Saint-Agricol church, Palais du Roure (1469). Calvet Antiquity Museum. Church of Saint-Didier. Rue du Roi-René, Rue des Teinturiers. Musée Louis Vouland. The Avignon bridge (Pont St-Bénezet), above the bridge is the chapel of Saint Nicolas. The city walls.

TO VISIT IN THE SURROUNDINGS: Villeneuve-lès Avignon, residence of the cardinals of the papal court: Fort of Saint-André (1362-1368). The Tower of Philip the Fair, the Church of Notre Dame, the Charterhouse (Chartreuse) du Val de Bénédiction. Berbentane (castle). Chateauneuf-du-Pape the pope’s summer residence: castle ruins. The museum on vines and grapes (Musée du Père Anselme des Outils de Vigneron). Abbey of Saint-Michel-de Frigolet (11th century).

The site of the municipality of Avignon.

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