Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Avignon and the Palais du Papes

Pont du Avignon & Palais du Papes

We purchased four sets of train tickets to finish out our trip around France, once we settled on the dates and where we'd like to go. At the Gare Part Dieu in Lyon, a young man whose English was good, with a very American accent, helped the ticket seller figure out the best routes for our plan. He had never been to America, he learned English from watching US movies all his life!

We decided on a week in Avignon, a small city on the banks of the Rhone, almost at its mouth on the Mediterranean. In the 1300s, it had been the Holy See, the seat of the Catholic Church, and the move caused huge rifts within the Church. Apparently the first French Pope hadn't felt very safe in Rome so he purchased the entire city of Avignon, remodeled it in less than ten years and moved in. Eight other popes, all French I believe, followed after him over the next 100 years.

The story behind the purchase is fascinating. Joanna (Joan) Queen of Naples had been accused of conspiring to murder her husband. She was also the ruler of large swaths of land in what is now France. In order to purchase a sufficiently large indulgence (and protection) from the Pope, she agreed to sell her rights to Avignon for a relatively cheap price. She was later found innocent and cleared of all charges.  

Pope Clement V built a thick wall around the city, a palace on the hillside, and enlarged the existing church, where two popes are buried today. In addition to the Palais du Papes, there is the Petite Palais, a massive building, but smaller than the castle, which was originally home to cardinals, and later became an administrative center. It is now a museum that houses many religious works, some by famous artists like Sandro Boticelli.

Guard tower of the Palace & the church
topped with a golden statue of the Virgin Mary

The gardens overlook the Rhone valley in that part of Provence. In the distance on a clear day you can see the tall foothills of the Alps. On the other side of the river is a fort & castle belonging, back in the 1300s, to the King of France, who afforded some protection to the Papal See. A long bridge connected the two castles, called Pont Bénézet. It was named for the sheepherder who had a vision where an angel told him to go down from his home in the hills and convince the people to build a bridge. According to the legend, he was a scrawny little fellow who (with the help of angels) picked up a huge block of stone that had been too heavy to move when the Palais was built, and placed it right where the bridge should begin. That was miracle enough to convince the Pope and the people in the area to build the bridge. Now it is the Pont du Avignon, and all that is left of the huge bridge are four arches and a small chapel, dedicated to mariners, built on the side of one of the support piers. The tower that anchors it to the river’s edge is a museum with an ongoing video describing the legend, efforts to stabilize what is left, and a project to digitally rebuild it in its entirety for future visitors to enjoy.

The city has many lovely attractions: a huge indoor market with plants growing up the outside walls (called Les Halles); a free ferry across the Rhone to an enormous park with paths all round for pedestrians, bicycles, skateboarders and picnicking families; excellent restaurants featuring local produce and recipes; and a large shopping area in the center of town on closed streets where our favorite store, Jeff de Bruges, was located (an out of this world chocolate shop!)

We stayed a week, could have stayed a month. Avignon is a perfect location to explore nearby towns. The train station is right across from the walled city gates, and trains leave constantly for other parts of France. 

Model of the Palais 
Sandro Boticelli's painting of
Mary and baby Jesus

Jesus' bris, the only painting of that event
I've ever seen 

St. Michael slaying a demon

View from the Palais gardens across the river to Fort St. André

Inside Les Halles market, piles of flavored salt!