Avignon, the popes, and oh that mistral!

Palais des Papes

Did you know that for 70 years the popes of the Catholic church governed from Avignon, and not Rome? Me neither! And I grew up Catholic, and have been to Rome a few times. I think it might be something the Catholics don’t like to talk about much.

The history of this Avignon papacy is complex, so here I will greatly oversimplify. In 1305, the French pope Clement V was elected by a deadlocked conclave following significant discontent between the King of France and the Roman papacy. Clement V decided not to move to Rome, and instead brought the papal court to him in Avignon. Seven popes then ruled from Avignon before Pope Gregory XI elected to move the papacy back to Rome.

That wasn’t the end of it. Gregory XI died a few months after arriving in Rome. There was then a breakdown in relations between the cardinals and the next pope, Urban VI, creating what was called the Western Schism, a period when there were two popes – one in Rome, and one in Avignon. This lasted 20 more years, and two more Avignon popes, but now those two popes are referred to as “antipopes” and not recognized by the Roman Catholic church.

Or something like that. Like I said, it’s complicated.

Palais des Papes

The papacy’s move to Avignon grew the city from around 4,000 residents to 40,000, making it one of the largest cities in Europe at that time. The Palais des Papes came to be with Benedict XII building the smaller old palace and then Clement VI adding on the massive new palace. It is said that Clement VI was an extravagant pope and thought it necessary to demonstrate the papacy’s wealth and power through this much larger construction. Although that quality of the Catholic church is one of the reasons I left it, I can’t help but be impressed by the Palais des Papes. Definitely worth a visit, and please shake your head with me at the entire tower dedicated to the Pope’s wardrobes.

Pont Saint-Bénézet

Avignon is also well-known for the Pont Saint-Bénezet, also known as the Pont D’Avignon. The bridge was originally built in the 12th century and spanned the Rhône between Avignon and Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. Just 40 years later it was destroyed in a siege by the French, but was soon rebuilt. However the bridge needed constant repair due to the Rhone river floods, and in the 17th century it was abandoned. The remaining four arches of the original 22, along with the Palais des Papes and the Cathedrale Notre-Dame des Doms are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There is another major presence here in Avignon that cannot be overlooked if planning travel here, and that is of Le Mistral, the strong, frigid, relentless winds that blow through the Rhone valley roughly 100 days a year. They can blow up to 65 miles per hour, may blow for several days in a row, and have an upside of creating the unusually sunny climate and clear air of Provence.

When these winds started blowing on my first day here, I was certain I would never be warm again. I thought I knew what strong winds felt like – I know the Santa Ana’s in southern California, the prairie winds of Nebraska, and the hawk of Chicago. These winds have nothing on Le Mistral. If your view of a trip to Provence is long walks outside and leisurely espresso’s and wine on terraces, seriously consider the time of year you are going (winter and spring are the worst for the mistral winds), and be prepared that no matter when you go, you might have to face these winds.

Avignon is an interesting city with beautiful views, but can easily be visited in a day:

  • Start with a walking tour at 10 AM with Avignon City Tours. Reserve ahead of time and you’ll have a small group tour with tour guide Caroline. She’s extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the city, and since she’s just starting out with her own business, prices are low at €30.
  • After Caroline’s tour, grab a quick sandwich then visit the Palais des Papas.
  • Once you’ve toured the palace, spend some time admiring the massive building from the outside, walk up to the Rocher des Domes park with views of the city and palace, then wander down towards the Pont Saint-Bénezet. I recommend skipping the €5 fee to walk on it, and instead either take the free river shuttle or walk across the Pont Eduoard Daladier to Ile de la Barthelasse. Walk along the Rhone river admiring the views of Avignon and the bridges.
  • Finally have dinner at L’Essential  or at Fou de Fafa. I wasn’t able to make it into Fou de Fafa, but I heard it was excellent and the menu looked incredible. Make reservations, and make me envious by letting me know how it was.
Van Gogh inspiration in Arles

If you decide to stay longer, my day trip with Provence Reservation was a highlight, and included Arles (with a focus on Van Gogh), Orange, Les Baux de Provence, and wine tasting at a Chateauneuf-du-Pape cellar. I would highly recommend this company – the tour was thorough and the tour guide quite knowledgeable.

Avignon will not make my list of cities to which I will return. The winds were freezing, my skin is so dry it’s turning to paper, and my hair is a permanent rat’s nest. I couldn’t quite figure the city out, and the people here had no patience for my mispronunciations in French. But the history is fascinating and the locals do love it, so this is just one point-of-view. Have you been? If so, leave a comment and let me know what you thought!

For more photos of Avignon and Arles, see the photo gallery.

3 thoughts on “Avignon, the popes, and oh that mistral!”

  1. I’m pretty sure it was Avignon where I made a fool of myself in a shop trying to speak French, and the shopkeeper lady was NOT amused. Also, it was where Becca had a crepe that seemed to be covered in Hershey’s syrup, and after walking through the Palace of the Popes listening to a seemingly endless audio tour, we decided we were suffering from old building fatigue.

  2. I’ve never been here, but I am loving reading your blog! And I grew up singing Sur le Pont d’Avignon and always pictured the bridge as a simple small country bridge. Wow! Not so!

  3. I love reading your description of Avignon. It was similar to my experience: somewhat interesting history, encounters with rude French people, probably won’t return. Vicki and I believe it was the birthplace of our tradition of “wine in the afternoon” which I now think of as WITA. I hope you join us in celebrating this tradition someday!

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