In a country that boasts a city as amazing and beautiful as Paris, it’s understandable that you might not consider seeing other places in France. Paris has it all – great food, shopping, museums, parks, and people watching. But if you’re travelling through the south of France, do make the journey to Avignon.
Here are 5 of the coolest things to see and do in Avignon:
Palais des Papes
The Palais des Papes, or Papal Palace, is really a spectacular building. It’s one of the largest medieval Gothic buildings in Europe, with quite a fascinating history. Hang tight, because I’m going to throw a big history lesson your way!
Back in medieval times, Avignon was in the Kingdom of Arles, and part of the Holy Roman Empire. Philip IV, the King of France, tried to control the French clergy to strengthen his own position. This power play put him in opposition of the pope at the time, Pope Boniface VIII.
Raymond Bertrand de Got, archbishop of Bordeaux became Pope Clement V in 1305. Clement refused to move to Rome, and instead created a majority of French cardinals in order to assure a line of French popes. King Philip didn’t want the church involved in secular affairs, and defined the pope’s ruling authority.
In 1307, Philip turned his sights on the Knights Templar, a Catholic military order. The Knights Templar were closely tied to the Crusades, and when the Holy Land was lost, support for them waned. Not only did rumours about their secret initiation ceremonies cause public distrust, but Philip was deeply in debt to the order. He took advantage of their negative press, and in 1307, Philip accused the Templars of heresy. On October 13, 1307, scores of French Templars were arrested and tortured into giving false confessions, then killed.
Pope Clement called for a council to meet at Vienne, Dauphiné to settle the issue. In 1309, Clement arrived in Avignon and stayed at the convent of the Dominicans during his residence. He soon decided that Avignon was more suitable than Rome for church administration. This was the beginning of 7 successive popes residing in Avignon over the next 67 years.
Meanwhile, the Council of Vienne convened in 1311, and in 1312 Philip forced Clement to suppress the Templars. Under extreme pressure from King Philip IV, Pope Clement V issued an edict, officially dissolving the Order of the Knights Templar.
So, this is how Avignon became the seat of Papal power. But where does the palace fit into the story?
Construction on the Palais des Papes started in 1335, under the reign of Pope Benedict XII, the third Avignon pope. The building was designed as both a fortress and a residence. It was built on the site of the old episcopal palace of the bishops of Avignon.
The palace was built in two distinct phases, the Palais Vieux (Old Palace) and Palais Neuf (New Palace). The section under Pope Benedict XII is the Old Palace. The New Palace was built under the orders of the next three successive popes: Clement VI, Innocent VI and Urban V.
The New Palace below:
By the time of completion, the Palais des Papes spanned an impressive 118,403 sq ft! In fact, the palace was so large that it once housed the largest papal library in Europe. It’s size also helped to facilitate the centralization of the church and its services.
The popes eventually returned to Rome in 1377, under Pope Gregory XI, the seventh, and last, Avignon pope. However, his death soon after arriving in Rome prompted the Papal Schism, at which time antipopes Clement VII and Benedict XIII made Avignon their home until 1403. The palace remained in the hands of the antipopes until 1433, when it was returned to the papal authorities.
Over the years the palace fell into disrepair. During the French Revolution, it was seized and ransacked, causing even more interior damage. The Napoleonic French state then used it as a military barracks and prison. The Palais des Papes became a national museum in 1906, and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
Address: Place du Palais, 84000
Pont Saint Bénézet
The name of this bridge might not be instantly recognizeable to you. But what about Pont d’Avignon? This, of course, is the bridge popularized in the song, “Sur le pont d’Avignon”.
Construction on the bridge began in 1177, after a young shepherd named Bénézet came down from the mountains, declaring that God told him to build a bridge here. Bénézet formed a “Bridge Brotherhood” of 24 men to construct the bridge. Historians believe that this original bridge was a wooden structure built on top of stone piers.
King Louis VIII’s siege on the town in 1226 destroyed most of the bridge. After a few years passed, the people of Avignon rebuilt the bridge themselves – this time completely in stone.
In 1377, Cardinal Blandiac had the bridge paved, as the slippery surface caused a few accidents, including people falling into the river.
During the Middle Ages, the bridge was part of one of the most important pilgrimage routes between Italy and Spain. However, the cost of maintenance was too much for the city to bear, and they were unable to keep up with repairs.
When the Rhône flooded in 1603, an arch of the bridge collapsed. Two years later, three additional arches fell. Another flood in 1669 destroyed even more of the bridge. Today, only four of the original 22 arches remain.
As for the song that made the bridge famous? Actually, there were several early songs that referenced Pont Saint Bénézet. In the 16th Century, Certon Pierre, composer of the King’s chapel, wrote a mass called: “Sus le Pont d’Avignon”. This version of the song is quite different from the one we know today, though. The nursery rhyme version first appeared in an operetta by Adolphe Adam in 1853. But it didn’t become internationally famous until an operetta in 1876, called “Sur le Pont d’Avignon”.
The bridge became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
When you visit the bridge, you might even hear the song played on a loop, as we did. You’ll become very familiar with it by the end!
Address: Boulevard de la Ligne – 84000
Climb the Walls
A 4.3 kilometre stone wall encircles the center of Avignon. Construction on Avignon’s city walls began in 1355 during the Papacy of Pope Innocent VI. They were completed in 1370, and served to protect the city from outside attacks from mercenaries. (There was an earlier wall, but only fragments remain today).
The wall once boated seven city gates. A 4-metre moat futher prevented easy access to the city. The walls were approximately 8 metres high, and encircled by 35 high towers and 50 intermediary towers.
You can access the ramparts from the Avignon Bridge entrance. Best part? Access is free of charge!
Rocher des Doms Garden
The Rocher des Doms Garden is a lovely public garden 30 metres above the Rhône River. The park dates back to 1830. Here, you can enjoy panoramic views of Avignon and the countryside surrounding it.
You can get to the park from the steps leading from the Notre Dame des Doms cathedral, from the steps leading from the banks of the Rhône, or by taking the Sainte-Anne steps. The park has a pond, sculptures, and even its own grotto:
The park also has a cafe if you fancy a meal or a beverage. It’s definitely worth a stroll, especially if you need a break from the crowds. The views up here are just breathtaking:
Address: Montee du Moulin off pl. du Palais
Eat and Drink
France has some incredible food. But the food in Avignon is really memorable. Maybe it’s the medieval city walls, or the scent of lavender in the air in the spring. But we had some really great food in this little city.
If you visit, you must eat outdoors if the weather is favourable. There’s just something about this place that entices you to be outside. And if you can find a pizza place that serves up chili-infused oil on the side, even better:
We had another great meal at a Vietnamese restaurant near the Palais des Papes:
Actually, every meal we had in Avignon was incredible. Maybe it was just dumb luck, or maybe the food here really is that good overall. The only way you’ll know is to try it!
And of course, when in France, you must drink the wine!
By train: Direct high-speed trains to Paris (2 hrs 40 mins), Charles de Gaulle airport, Lille, Lyon, Geneva, Brussels, etc.
Avignon Centre station: High-speed train, Eurostar Avignon-London in the summer
By air: Avignon Caumont airport: 8 km from Avignon: direct flights to Paris Orly Ouest 4 times per day. To Southampton (Flybe) from May to October 3 times a week.
By car: Motorways A7 and A9; Major roads RN 7 and RN 100
Avignon Tourist Office and the Avignon Passion Pass
For more information on Avignon, check out the website for the Avignon Tourism Office.
Another good tip is to ask them about the Avignon Passion Pass. This free pass is available at tourist offices and museums. You pay full admission price for the first museum or attraction you visit, but after that, the pass scores you discounts of 20-50% off admission for the entire family for the next museums you visit (maximum of 5 family members).
This blog post is now on GPSmyCity! Find it here: 5 Things to Do in Avignon, France