"Enchanting Avignon!" Top 5 Page for this destination Avignon by CatherineReichardt
Avignon Travel Guide: 486 reviews and 1,418 photos
I visited Avignon on a short break which I tagged onto the end of a business trip: this is the way I get to do a lot of my travel, so that I extract best value out of an expensive air ticket paid for by someone else by adding on some personal travel at my own expense. It also provided a great excuse to meet up with my parents for a few days – wonderful people who have never knowingly passed up a travel opportunity - and to take my mind off impending foot surgery that was going to leave me housebound with both feet in plaster for six weeks.
As my natural travel instinct in Europe is always to head North and/or East, I pushed myself to head South on this occasion in order to expand my boundaries. Unlike many other Poms, I have never been grasped by the Peter Mayle-inspired mania for all things Provençal: I think it’s a very nice place, but I have neither the desire (nor resources) to decamp there. However, Avignon had long intrigued me because of its fascinating history around the Papal Schism and the idea of venturing into the camp of the Antipopes from where they thumbed their collective noses at the Roman curia appealed greatly to my anti-authoritarian instincts!
I am also a sucker for a place with good city walls and good gargoyle-spotting opportunities, so Avignon was clearly the place for me!
The history of the Avignon Papacy and Antipapacy is a complex one, so let's try to boil this down to the absolute basics that will help you understand how this shaped the history and development of this beautiful town.
Pope Clement V initially vacated Rome in 1307 in response to growing concerns about his safety in Italy due to infighting between the nobility, and, after a brief period of residence in Arles, settled in Avignon. There then followed a period of nearly 70 years during which time a succession of seven legitimate Popes ruled over the Church from Avignon. Towards the end of this period, increasing pressure was brought to bear on Gregory XI (by notables such as St Catherine of Siena) to return both himself and the Papal Curia to Rome and he finally agreed to do so in 1377.
However, this process was hampered by Gregory's death, which heralded in the bizarre period of the Western Schism, during which there was one Pope resident in Rome and a corresponding Antipope based in Avignon. It is depressing to note that this is known as the Western Schism in order to distinguish it from the equally undignified Papal Schism of the 11th century, which was a standoff between the Western church based in Rome and the eastern Church based in Constantinople, which sadly seems to have taught the Church little about how to hold itself together as a single unified entity.
As successive Antipopes died, they elected successors from among their own dwindling ranks of supporters. The last Avignon-based Antipope – the Spaniard Pedro de Luna – was forced to leave Avignon and flee into exile in 1403 and he was followed by three other Antipopes.
This sad, sorry situation which limped on for almost forty years between 1378 to 1417 before being finally resolved at the Council of Konstanz which ruled in favour of the legitimacy of the Roman papacy.
In all there were seven Avignon Popes and two Avignon-based Antipopes, who left the town with an unique and extraordinary historical and architectural legacy. Recognising the fact that their papal status was scant protection against the threat of conveniently unfortunate mishaps at the hands of those supporting their enemies (both within and outside the Church), their first priority was to extend and fortify the palace of the bishop of Avignon. This resulted in the construction of what is now the largest Gothic palace in Europe: less of a palace and more of a unique crossbreed of corporate headquarters and fortress.
I found it an intriguing challenge to imagine what the Palais des Papes would have been like as a residence. Sadly most of the elaborate decorations dating back to this period were irreparably damaged in the French Revolution and have left behind a pared-down version of the palace, stripped of surplus ornamentation. The result is starkly beautiful and it felt rather like looking at the complete skeleton of an animal and trying to imagine what it would have been like when it was fleshed out as a living animal.
The only downside to visiting Avignon that I can imagine would be the hoards of tourists that would inundate the place during peak season – a major contributing factor to this being the very convenient and extremely popular Eurostar service that links London directly to Avignon during the summer months. By comparison, in the last week of September, it was comparatively quiet, with relatively few fellow tourists in evidence, so we pretty well had the place to ourselves. The weather was still hot as for the whole of that week Europe was locked in the heated embrace of an Indian Summer which improbably rendered it warm enough to swim in the River Gardon at Pont du Gard.
I would imagine that sharing Avignon with masses of tourists would be a trying experience. For me, the charm of the place is in evoking the atmosphere of the long gone Papal court and whilst this is probably not impossible, it would certainly be more difficult if you’re cheek-by-jowl with a teeming mass of tourists. Visiting during the height of summer undoubtedly better than not visiting at all, but if you have the choice, I would urge you to try and visit outside of the summer peak season when prices will be lower and you’ll pretty well have the place to yourself: I would imagine that early spring after the winter rain would be particularly lovely.
A final note on getting there. The obvious way to get to Avignon if you’re already in France is by high speed (TGV) train – a relaxing 2½ hour glide from Paris that should already nudge you into laid back holiday mood. If you have no option but to fly, Avignon can be expensive to access because at the time of writing (October 2011) it was not served by a low cost carrier. My parents neatly dealt with this challenge by flying with Ryanair into nearby Nîmes and catching the train, an easy 30 minute journey that will deposit you painlessly right on the edge of Avignon’s city walls.
Follow these links to other attractions in the surrounding area:
My Villeneuve-lès-Avignon page
My Orange page
- Pros:Beautiful and atmospheric with an (Anti)papal history so bizarre that you couldn't have made it up!
- Cons:Can be expensive and crowded - visit in high season at your peril!
- In a nutshell:Justifiably one of Provence's most popular tourist attractions - try to be greedy and not share it with too many others!
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