Historic Centre of Avignon
The ‘City of Popes’ is known for its well-preserved ancient center
Introduction to the Historic Centre of Avignon
Situated in the southeastern region of France, Avignon is bordered by the Rhone River and is home to about 95,000 inhabitants. Often called the City of Popes because it was home to the papacy for nearly 70 years, Avignon is known not only for its well-preserved ancient town center as well as for its rich arts and cultural scene.
Exploring the UNESCO World Heritage portion of Avignon puts visitors in the midst of the historic ancient town center, where the honored structures are located.
Avignon’s Romanesque cathedral, Notre Dame des Doms, was intended to be the centerpiece of the ancient city. However, it is generally dwarfed by the immense palace that sits by its side. Nonetheless, this was an important church in the history of the papacy and in France’s history as well. The seat of the Archbishop of Avignon, this structure was built in the 12th century in Provencal Romanesque style. In order to make it stand out a bit more, despite the presence of the nearby palace, it was decided that a cupola would be added in the 14th century. The first cupola, however, collapsed and was rebuilt in 1425. Baroque-style galleries were added a few centuries later and an eye-catching gilded statue of the Virgin Mary was placed on top during the 19th century. Some of the popes are buried inside. Visitors to the cathedral should be sure to also enjoy the Rocher des Doms Park behind the cathedral, with its duck ponds and pretty views.
The town’s Papal Palace (Palais des Papes) was built in two phases, which were given the names Old Palace and New Palace. The first section was built under the direction of Benedict XII and it included a cloister in the center surrounded by four wings with high towers. Popes Clement VI, Innocent VI and Urban V expanded the building to form the new section. Three new towers and a 52 meter-long (170 feet) Grand Chapel were part of the additions, and the interior of the palace was decorated with ornate frescoes, tapestries, paintings, and sculptures. After the papacy moved back to Rome, the building suffered and was eventually used as a barracks and prison during the French Revolution. In 1906, it became a museum.
Also worthy of a visit is the Petit Palais, the small palace that was the home of the archbishops of Avignon. In addition, the Church of St. Pierre – though not a major church – is another that is worth a stop, if only to snap a picture or two of its beautiful flamboyant Gothic façade and its solid walnut doors with elaborate carving. Inside the church, the High Renaissance Altar is simply spectacular as are the paintings on the walls.
Pont d’Avignon, the medieval Avignon bridge – also honored as a World Heritage Site – was built between 1171 and 1185 and once spanned the Rhone River and was the only fixed crossing between Lyon and the Mediterranean. Originally 900 meters (2,950 feet) in length, the bridge suffered frequent deterioration when the river flooded. It was reconstructed many times but its final demise came when the 1668 flood took down many of its arches. Only four remain today. The bridge is the subject of a favorite French children’s song – Sur le pont d’Avignon.
Though Avignon was believed to have been founded by the Gallic tribe of the Cavares and functioned as an important Phocaean colony, the true history of Avignon – especially the historic center – began in 1309 when the newly elected Supreme Pontiff, Frenchman Bertrand de Got (Pope Clement V), refused to go to Rome in serve, instead holing himself up in Avignon’s Dominican convent and staying there until the end of his papacy. This created problems with the Catholic Church but, nonetheless, seven popes would make their home in Avignon between 1309 and 1378.
In 1348, Queen Joanna I of Sicily sold Avignon in the pope, Clement VI. Following this acquisition, the popes who presided there began to build the walls that would soon fortify the city. Historians say, however, that those particular walls weren’t very strong. However, the walls of the Papal Palace were extremely strong and this was where the popes felt protected. This particular palace had started life as the bishop’s residence but was improved and added to by a line of popes, beginning with Benedict XII in the 1340s.
Though the popes departed Avignon in the late 14th century, the town belonged to the papacy until 1791. At that time, as the French Revolution raged on, it was returned to France. After the revolution, Avignon no longer played an important role in French politics. Instead, it became one of the cultural capitals of France and continued to grow through the 19th century and into the 20th. Unfortunately, many residents of Avignon were lost during World Wars I and II but the city recovered by the 1970s, emerging as a prime tourist destination.
The Palace des Papes is open year around with hours varying according to season. The last tickets are sold an hour before closing. Tickets include either an audio guide or a guided tour. Two tours each day are available in English. Visitors may purchase a combo ticket that includes a tour of both the palace and the Avignon Bridge.
The Cathedral Notre Dames des Doms and the Church of St. Pierre can be visited for free and are open daily. Tours are self-guided.
For those traveling by train, Avignon can be reached from Paris on the TGV high-speed train in about 2 hours and 30 minutes. These trains take passengers to the Gare TGV outside of the town center. A shuttle bus is available to whisk visitors to the historic area of the city, about 10 minutes away.
Those who choose to drive from Paris can take the A6 autoroute south to Lyon and then pick up the A7 south to Avignon. It takes about 7 hours to get from one to another, especially during peak tourist season when the roads are extra crowded.
- 12,000 of Avignon’s inhabitants live in the historic town center
- The so-called Avignon Papacy lasted from 1305-1377
- The immense Papal Palace is the centerpiece of the old town
- Notre Dame des Doms Cathedral was built during the 12th century
- Avignon is also home to a popular annual theater festival
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