Surprisingly, the humble town of Avignon once served as the powerful center of Christianity.
Situated along the Rhône River, Avignon is an hour north of Arles, another popular stop in Provence. The town’s important religious history is evident the moment you step into the Place de l’Horloge, the main square. Perched atop a hill, the massive Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) dominates the landscape and earned the title of the largest Gothic palace in the world.
In the 14th century, an unsteady political climate forced nine popes into temporary residence here. This period was known as the Avignon Papacy. Due to the urgency of creating a base for the Holy Roman Empire, it impressively took less than 20 years to build the palace.
Over 600,000 people visit Avignon every year but in off-season, we had the town to ourselves.
We spent a few hours touring the enormous Palace of the Popes. The audio tour offered many insights into the ceremonial rooms, chapels and frescoes. But our favorite part of the visit was a decidedly non-historical aspect: wine tasting.
In La Bouteillerie du Palais des Papes, we sampled several excellent Côte du Rhône wines:
2004 Desmeure Domaine des Remizieres Crozes-Hermitage Cuvee Particuliere
2003 Chateau La Nerthe Chateauneuf-du-Pape
2003 Cote Rotie Louis Drevon Domaine de Rosiers (Grand Vin des Cote du Rhone)
2004 La Ferme Romaine Domaine LaFound, appellation Lirac
With a pleasant afternoon buzz, we headed over to the town’s other main attraction, the Pont Saint Bénézet bridge.
This bridge was famous by the song, Sur le Pont d’Avignon (which I can still proudly still recite en français thanks to my middle school French class). Over the years, the bridge’s arches repeatedly collapsed due to flooding. Eventually, the town stopped maintaining them and to this day, only four arches remain abandoned in the river. Literally, a bridge to nowhere.
The view of the bridge is particularly striking from Jardin du Rocher des Doms. We hiked up to this picturesque hilltop park with its lovely fountains and gardens. Even with winter’s grey skies and bare trees, it’s a beautiful place for an afternoon stroll. Taking in the serene landscape and peaceful surroundings, our thoughts returned to the Avignon Papacy. With such beauty, we wondered if maybe, just maybe, the popes were disappointed when they eventually had to return to Rome.