rented an apartment in Avignon for a week, and it served as the base
from which we explored the western part of the region of Provence.
On some of those days, Joe attended a cooking school. The school was in the basement of a hotel called La Mirande in what was its original kitchen. The classes were all conducted in French and used local and seasonal ingredients that are familiar to Provençal cooking: rabbit, duck, chicken, fish, and shrimp, as well as fresh tomatoes, artichoke hearts, basil, and olives. Some of the classes were cancelled at the last minute, due to low enrollment, but those that did take place were exceptional experiences, and since Joe did not speak much French, he often got to sit next to the chef to see best.
Avignon is most famous as the town where the popes ruled in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The reasons they moved from Rome were fairly straightforward: the papacy fell under the control of the kings of France, and they wanted the popes closer to Paris and their influence. While Avignon was not then a part of France, it was surrounded by French lands. In fact, it was an independent town that was eventually purchased by the popes and remained a papal territory until the French Revolution. The residence of the popes in Avignon was only supposed to be temporary, but soon a large palace was built to house the pope and the church bureaucracy--and enlarged by a successor pope--and it was fairly clear that the popes would remain for some time. When one pope did return to Rome, almost a century later, it caused a schism in the Catholic church, with some cardinals and kings supporting him while others elected a new pope who promised to remain at Avignon.
The old town is dominated by the Palace of the Popes.
This model of the Papal Palace shows how extensive it was. Of course, in addition to housing the pope's residence and reception rooms, it also housed the papal bureacracy, which was sizeable already in the later Middle Ages.
Avignon is fairly unique in having preserved its medieval town walls, that still encompass the entire old town. They were significantly restored in the nineteenth century (by the famous French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who also restored Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris and the medieval walls of Carcassonne), but it was a time when most cities were demolishing their medieval walls to provide ring roads around old towns for (what was then horse-drawn carriage and wagon) traffic.
Another famous feature of Avignon is the medieval bridge (and the inspiration for the children's song, "Sur le pont d'Avignon"). It was quite an engineering marvel for the Middle Ages, since the Rhône River that it crosses is very wide at Avignon. It survived in use until the seventeenth century, when a flood washed part of it away.
Like all medieval bridges, it was fortified at both ends with towers.
Looking back from the end of the bridge to the old town of Avignon, built on a rocky outcropping.
Part of the way across the bridge is a chapel, where some medieval frescoes survive.
According to legend, Bénézet, a local shepherd boy in the twelfth century, was visited by angels
who ordered him to persuade the people of Avignon to build a bridge across the Rhône River.
The people ridiculed him, saying the river was too wide, until he miraculously lifted the heavy first block
into place singlehandedly. He was remembered as a saint and is considered the patron saint of architects.
Near the Palace of the Popes and high on the rock above the river is the cathedral.
From that rock is a great view over the medieval town.
Since Avignon was such an important religious center, most Catholic religious orders had churches and monasteries there.
Some of these survive, such as this beautiful late (called "flamboyant") Gothic church from the fifteenth century.
Note its intricately carved wooden doors, from the sixteenth century.
Across the river from Avignon is the town of Villeneuve-les-Avignon. It was situated within France, and when the popes moved to Avignon, the king of France built a huge fortress on the border. It has been heavily restored, but is certainly impressive. Brian and Matt visited it one day while Joe was in his cooking school. Accompanying us was our friend Oliva from San Diego, who was also traveling in France and came down to Avignon to visit with us for a few days while we were there.
In the eighteenth century, a convent was built within the castle grounds, and today has nicely sculpted gardens.
From the castle walls there is an impressive view back across the river to the old town of Avignon.
Click here to go to the next page.
Click here to return to the main menu and the map of France.