Avignon: France’s medieval Vatican City is the gateway to Provence


AVIGNON, France, July 25, 2015 – Like St. Louis, the gateway to the west in the United States, historic Avignon begins the path to Provence and the south of France. Each is represented by dominant symbols that signify their prominence; St. Louis has its arch and Avignon has its historic Palace of the Popes.

Today, thanks to the wonder of high speed rail technology, Avignon is more accessible than ever before, not only from France but other Europeans cities as well.

State of the art TGV terminal in Avignon  (wikipedia)
State of the art TGV terminal in Avignon (wikipedia)

From Paris, a TGV covers the distance of roughly 450 miles in less than three hours, making a Paris/Provence holiday a delightfully diverse combination of destinations for travelers. Situated on the Rhone River, just above its confluence with the Durance, Avignon was founded by the Greeks on an untamed promontory along the river route used by Greek, Marseille and Italian sailors seeking trade with Northern Europe.

Thanks to the Rhone and its geographic location on the primary route between Spain and Italy, Avignon flourished in the Middle Ages. So much so, that its majestic ramparts were doubled around the city in the 14th century to ensure its safety and protect its wealth.

It was another event however, that brought prestige to Avignon that has lasted into modern times and made it a thriving UNESCO World Heritage site as well as a popular base for exploring Provence. The turning point came in 1309 when Pope Clement V moved the seat of the papacy from Rome to Avignon.

The move altered Avignon’s place in history and changed its architectural physiognomy forever. It was a decision that even today is a major contributor to the city’s economic welfare.

The seat of the Papacy was in Avignon for 70 years  (wikipedia)
The seat of the Papacy was in Avignon for 70 years (Wikipedia)

Known as Altera Roma, the “City of the Popes,” Avignon became a thriving multicultural metropolis overnight. For 70 years, it was the center of Catholicism under the leadership of seven popes and two anti-popes.

In 1377, Gregory XI decided to take the seat of the papacy back to Rome, resulting in an ecumenical division in the church that became known as the Great Schism. Thus, with the Catholic Church in disarray, the two popes who followed Gregory XI in Avignon, Clement VII and Benedict XIII, became known as “anti-popes.”

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the pope’s tenure in central France were the construction projects that resulted because of their presence. The ramparts of the city, though impressive, were not strong enough to provide the necessary protection. As a result, the “Palais de Papes,” or Papal Palace, was built upon a natural outcropping of rock between 1335 and 1364 featuring impregnable 17-18 foot thick walls.

After the French Revolution, the palace became a barracks and, later, a prison before being renovated into its present configuration as a museum.

Following Clement V, each successive pope added his own personal imprint to the building, making it one of the largest medieval buildings in Europe. Today the palace is among the most visited attractions in France, thanks to the twists of history and the vision of Jean Vilar, who created the Avignon Theatre Festival in 1947.

The Pont d'Avignon only goes partway across the River Rhone  (wikipedia)
The Pont d’Avignon only goes partway across the River Rhone (Wikipedia)

The international festival for the performing arts takes place annually in July, incorporating the courtyard of the palace as an immense open-air stage. Two other major events happen in conjunction with the theater festival, one before and a jazz fest afterward, making Avignon a lively destination throughout the summer.

The city is served by two railway stations; the historic Gare d’Avignon-Centre, built in 1860, is situated just beyond the city walls, and the modern high-speed Gare d’Avignon TGV that is part of the Mediterranean line connecting northern and southern France. Spain, Italy, Switzerland and, thanks to the Channel Tunnel, even England are convenient starting places for visiting Avignon.

TGVs make Avignon more accessible than ever  (wikipedia)
TGVs make Avignon more accessible than ever (Wikipedia)

Another popular site in Avignon is the Pont Saint-Benezet, also known as the Bridge of Avignon. Today the bridge only partly exists, making it a popular landmark for visitors.

Following a siege of the city, the bridge was rebuilt with 22 stone arches that often collapsed during regular flooding of the Rhone. Ultimately, further reconstruction was abandoned in the 17th century, leaving the original bridge, built in 1345 by Pope Clement VI, extending only partly across the river with only just arches remaining.

One note of caution for visitors to Avignon: superb as the rail service to Avignon may be, taxis leave much to be desired. Cabs must be called for by phone and may take longer to arrive than reasonable expectations in a relatively compact community. Prepare for such eventualities by allowing ample time for transfers.

Provence is a scenic wonder in central France  (wikipedia)
Provence is a scenic wonder in central France (Wikipedia)

Today, the ancient ramparts remain, giving Avignon a medieval flair as the entrance to one of the most beautiful regions in France. It’s an ideal base to visit Provence and, with excellent TGV rail services, a Paris/Provence vacation is an ideal way to journey through France.
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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.

He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)

His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.

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