Avignon, France: City of the Popes

UNESCO Sites in Avignon

Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes)

Most people associate popes with Rome. But key to Avignon’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) is an interesting and very important part of European and papal history.

The story of the popes in Avignon begins in the 13th century when the King of France had a feud with Pope Boniface VIII. After the pope’s death and months later the death of his successor, Clement V, a Frenchman, was elected pope and he chose to stay in France rather than move to Rome. Between 1309 to 1377, seven popes lived in the Palais des Papes in Avignon, not Rome. During this period, Avignon became a major capital of the world with its population rising from about 5,000 to over 30,000.

Cathedral of Notre Dame des Doms and Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes), Avignon

Cathedral of Notre Dame des Doms and Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes), Avignon

Surrounded by 4.5-km of ancient ramparts, the palace took almost 20 years to build during the papacies of Benedict XII and Clement VI, and it’s the largest Gothic palace in Europe. There are 25 rooms open to the public, including the private apartments of the pope and grand rooms that were used for formal ceremonies and banquets. The adjacent Romanesque Cathedral of Notre Dame des Doms is also included in the UNESCO World Heritage designation.

Frescoes in the papal apartments, sculptures, and other design features shown below represent the work of many artists who came to Avignon during Pope Clement VI’s papacy.

Mosaic tiles, frescoes and sculptures: St. Catherine of Siena (bottom right) was instrumental in bringing the papacy back to Rome

Mosaic tiles, frescoes and sculptures (St. Catherine of Siena [right] was instrumental in bringing the papacy back to Rome.)

Below left is one of my favorite scenes from inside the palace where I could imagine the popes sitting and gazing through the window at the Provençal countryside. The “Window of Indulgences” on the right is where the pope blessed the faithful in the central courtyard outside below.

Windows overlooking the Provençal countryside; Window of Indulgences in the Palais des Papes in Avignon, France

Windows overlooking the Provençal countryside; Window of Indulgences

Pont d’Avignon (Pont Saint-Bénézet)

Another famous and beautiful site included in the Avignon UNESCO designation is the Pont Saint-Bénézet, known as Pont d’Avignon. You may have heard of the 15th century children’s song about the Pont d’Avignon. It begins, “Sur le pont d’Avignon on y danse, on y danse…” which translates toOn the bridge of Avignon, we all dance …”. The song added to the allure of the bridge for me.

Pont St. Benezet (Pont d'Avignon)

Pont St. Benezet (Pont d’Avignon) “….. On the bridge of Avignon, we all dance there in a ring”

Legend has it that Saint Bénézet was divinely inspired as a 12 year old boy to build a bridge in Avignon and that a very large stone he inexplicably threw into the water became the support for the first arch. Originally built with wood in the 12th century, it was rebuilt in stone in the 13th century. Successive flooding of the Rhône River continued to damage the bridge and now only 4 of the original 22 arches remain.

Find out what else we loved about Avignon and other nearby places in the Vaucluse area of Provence: Off-Season Provence: Things to Do in Avignon and the Vaucluse

Windows in the Palais des Papes in Avignon, France

12 thoughts on “Avignon, France: City of the Popes

  1. Pingback: Off-Season Provence: Things to Do in Avignon and the Vaucluse | Traveling with Sweeney

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      You’re so right about the villages of France. I’m happy to say that we’re headed again to France next week to explore more of them.

  2. Marilyn Jones

    I love history and I find it fascinating that these popes chose to stay in Avignon, France instead of going to Rome. Your photos are so inviting. It’s frustrating sometimes to read about so many lovely places to visit and so little time!

  3. Patti Morrow

    Avignon was one of the first places I visited in France, many years ago. In fact, so many years ago that I have “snapshots” from a non-digital camera that are basically unusable. I guess it’s time to return!

  4. Pingback: UNESCO Treasures on the Rhine: Sites to Visit on a River Cruise | Traveling with Sweeney

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.