But for the gigantic and lavish Palace of the Popes, Avignon might have never risen to fame. The austere-looking fortress (Palais des Papes) was the residence and ruling place of 9 popes, who reigned in Avignon for nearly 70 in the 1300’s.
But how did the French city of Avignon become a papal city? Why Avignon and not Rome? Read on to find out.
Why Did the Popes Move to Avignon?
Having the Papal seat in Avignon and not in Rome surely comes as a surprise. Unless of course, you are acquainted with Europe’s political situation in the 1300s.
The 14th-century Rome was a dangerous place for the popes. So when the Frenchman Clemens V was elected Pope, he declined to move to Rome for fear he would be killed. As a result, in 1309 Clemens moved the papal palace to Avignon, where it remained for the next 67 years.
The next six popes who followed Clemens V remained in Avignon as well. It wasn’t until 1377 that Pope Gregory XI finally moved the papal seat back to Rome, thus ending the Avignon papacy.
But despite this move, a second line of illegitimate popes, known as antipopes, continued to rule in Avignon. This movement is known in history as the Western Schism.
The Construction of the Palace
The French popes did not care to maintain Roman basilicas in Avignon, starting instead the construction of a huge palace. That indicated clearly that they were absolutely determined to establish their permanent residence in Avignon.
The end result was the enormous Palais des Papes, the biggest Gothic palace in all of Europe.
Two popes were the primary builders of the Palace. In 1335 Pope Benedict XII began building the Palace in Avignon. He erected the first part, which is referred to today as Palais Vieux (the Old Palace). It’s the part on the left, when you look at the palace from the square.
Pope Clement VI continued the work, erecting the newer part of the Palace. Interestingly enough, despite its gigantic proportions, the Popes Palace took less than 20 years to complete.
What to Expect at the Popes’ Palace in Avignon
The fist thing that will strike you at the Popes’ Palace in Avignon is the immensity of space within its walls. Huge rooms, extensive courtyards, large bed chambers and halls the size of a football field! The palace is a construction of gigantic proportions. Its interior space is the equivalent of four gothic cathedrals!
Everything is so overwhelmingly big that you really feel lost when walking around. Although over 600,000 people visit the palace every year, this place never seems crowded because it’s so huge.
From the outside, the massive building looks more like a fortress than a palace. The 50 meter high reinforced walls stand proof to the fact that the popes expected major attacks here at any time.
There are in all about 25 rooms that you can visit in the Palace, including the ceremonial rooms, the Audience Hall, the Clementine Chapel, and the Consistory, where the popes held the hearings. All these rooms are of extraordinary proportions.
You can also visit the private apartments where the popes lived, including the Stag Room and the Papal Chamber. The rooms display frescoes depicting secular themes, which was totally unique for the time.
Unfortunately, most of the original furnishings and the paintings that once decorated the Popes’ Palace were lost or burned down after the papal court moved from Avignon to Rome. Very few pieces of the original pieces survived the time.
Don’t miss the rooftop terraces which provide stunning views of the Palace, the city of Avignon and the Rhone River.
Tips for Visiting the Popes’ Palace
For the most part, the visit of the Palais des Papes is accessible to anyone. There are however some steep passages and narrow spiral staircases that may be difficult for people with restricted mobility.
Be sure to wear comfortable shoes and, in you visit the Palace in summer, bring water. There are no drinks vending machines or cafeteria in this part of the Palais.
I also suggest renting an audioguide when visiting the Popes Palace. Without it you will feel lost in this huge fortress. The audioguide is enhanced with music and synchronized with several movies that play in some of the rooms.
How to Get to Avignon
The town of Avignon is in Southern France, right on the border with Languedoc-Roussillon. The closest cities to Avignon are Marseille (98 km) and Montpellier (93 km). From Paris there are about 690 km. We visited Avignon as a day trip from Nice (262 km). Driving time was about 2.5 hours.
There are two train stations in Avignon: Avignon Ville and Avignon TGV. Therefore, if you want to visit Avignon from Paris, you can use the direct train (TGV) that will bring you here in 2h40.
If you are in Marseille or Montpellier, which are both closer to Avignon, you can also arrive here by bus.
Other Things to Visit in Avignon, Besides the Popes’ Palace
After you finish visiting the Palace of the Popes, head towards the iconic Pont d’Avignon. The broken bridge is worldwide known thanks to the classic song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon.”
You can also visit the 14th century ramparts of Old Avignon, which are very impressive.
From the ramparts, you can continue climbing to the Jardin du Rocher des Doms. This is a beautiful park located on a promontory that overlooks the river. This is an excellent point for photographing Pont d’Avignon from above.
Also, don’t miss the Avignon Cathedral, located next to the Palais des Papes. The cathedral is a beautiful Romanesque building, dating back to the the 12th century. The most prominent feature of the cathedral is a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary atop the bell tower.
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