No travel page on Avignon would be complete without a review of the Palace of the Popes. So here's my humble offering.
Anyone with a knowledge or an interest in Avignon would already know even if only vaguely, the history of the Palace. It was built in the 14th century or thereabouts as a residence for the Pope who was relocated from Rome for reasons of health and security. Nine popes in all, resided here before the relocation back to Rome in the fifteenth century. That's it in a nutshell, anything more you need to know (like minute historical details of dates and architectural style etc.) can easily be found on dozens of other tips here on VT or in a million other sites on the web.
The palace can be found in the centre of the Old Town and is impossible to miss as it quite simply dwarfs everything else in town.
In the 14th century, the Pope's residence was moved from Rome to this town. Nine popes governed the Roman Catholic Church from Avignon. The Palace as seen from Villeneuve-les-Avignon across the river Rhone.
The medieval papal palace dominates the town . The Avignon Palace was the HQ of the Catholic Church in the 14th century, during that time there where 7 Popes in Avignon. There is an admission charge Tip. If you call in the Tourist Office in the main street before you start your visit and ask for a Avignon card.You pay full price admission on your first admission at a museum, then greatly reduced at all further museums The AVIGNON CARD IS FREE.
I'm not sure if I'd say the interior of the Palace is a must see, certainly the history is interesting and there is an audioguide that accompanies the tour but the Palace was looted during teh French Revolution and honestly there really isn't much in the way of decor inside although you can see the scope of the Palace.
Built in the 14th century, this palace. now Unesco Heritage, is a very important remain of one of the most dramatic period of the catholic church. Escaping from the violence in Rome, the pope Clement V moved to Avignon, fixing there the pope's official residence, until their return to Rome in 1377. French didn't accept and elected a second pope, opening the crisis known as the occidental schism, lasting until 1403.
occupied by Napoleon to install his troops it was severely damaged, but in 1906 it was recovered to become a museum, with permanent reconstructing works since then.
Coming to the end of our self guided tour of Palais des Papes, by which time we were reaching saturation point and pretty well 'poped out', I was taken aback to find my patron saint staring at me from the wall ... Not a vision, I might add, but a striking wood carving of St Catherine of Siena, staring serenely into the middle distance - and about the first female figure that we'd seen in the testosterone-dominated palace.
In certain Christian traditions, the concept of a personal patron saint is significant, and in the Orthodox rite, celebrating your saint day is a big deal. This tradition also used to be widespread in Catholicism, although I suspect that these days it is being drowned in a tidal wave of Britneys, Rihannas and other trendy Christian names of non-saintly provenance.
I, for example, am named after my two grandmothers - another Irish tradition for an oldest daughter, which has also probably fallen into obselescence - and my two patron saints are St Catherine of Siena and St Louise de Marillac.
St Catherine of Siena is probably a very appropriate choice, as she appears to have been the sort of bossy, formidable 'woman on a mission' (if you'll excuse the pun) that pops up every so often in the Church's history. She has a great deal in common with St Teresa of Avila (my all time favourite saintly battleaxe) in that she took advantage of the status, education and relative independence offered by religious vows to become a woman of immense political and religious influence at a time when the lot of women was little more than child bearing and domestic drudgery.
Catherine was Italian, and joined the Dominican order after narrowly avoiding being forced to marry her dead sister's widower: interestingly enough, she achieved this reprieve by going on hunger strike. She developed into a noted theologian and carried on a long correspondence with Pope Gregory XI, in which she consistently urged him to reform the clergy and to return both himself and the Papal Curia to Rome from where it had fled at the beginning of the 14th century. She travelled to Avignon as an ambassador of Florence and so impressed Gregory that he agreed to relocate the papacy back to Rome - however, this process was stalled by his untimely death,. As a result, the Church was torn apart by the 'Western Schism', resulting in the bizarre situation of there being one Pope in Rome and a corresponding Antipope, firstly based in Avignon and later based elsewhere. This sad, sorry situation which limped on for forty years before being finally resolved at the Council of Konstanz.
In view of the amazing amount that this formidable woman achieved, it is astonishing that she died at the tender age of 33 in Rome. She is one of only three female doctors of the church (there are 33 in total) - a distinction she shares with St Teresa of Avila and the considerably less bossy St Teresa of Lisieux.
In a curious piece of happenstance, I discovered when writing this tip that Catherine's father was a cloth dyer ... curiously apposite given Avignon's proud tradition of calico dying (see my travelogue on Rue des Teinturiers).
I've put off writing this Avignon tip until last, as frankly I don't know where to begin describing something as large and wonderful as Palais des Papes!
Let's just start by saying that all the positive pre publicity that you may have read about the place is true - it is a truly extraordinary place, and justifies a trip to Avignon solely on its own merits (although there are many, many other wonderful things to do once you're here).
The Palais des Papes is most commonly described as the 'largest Gothic palace in Europe', which, whilst accurate, is also misleading. It may have housed the papal court for 60 years - which would have been every bit as majestic as that of any monarch - but make no mistake that this was first and foremost a fortress that was designed to defend the Pope from harm at a time when there were any number of people who would dearly have loved him to have suffered a life threatening misfortune. For more on the history of the Papal Schism that prompted the construction of this Palace in the first place, please see my Avignon introductory page.
Pope Benedict XII ordered that the old episcopal palace of the Bishops of Avignon be razed and replaced with a much larger and more heavily fortified complex. I love the pared down architectural style of the palace - starker still due to some comprehensive redecorating undertaken during the French Revolution which destroyed most of the original interiors. The fact that it was constructed relatively quickly means that it has a fairly consistent and harmonious style, unlike some palace complexes which have evolved over longer time periods and end up as architectural mongrels.
Following the French Revolution, the Palais was used during the Napoleonic period as a prison and a barracks. In recent times, a section has been modified to create a conference centre, which must provide a valueable stream of revenue, and also means that the place retains a vibrant air of purpose.
The entrance fee - €10.50 (€8.50 with an Avignon Card) at the time of writing in October 2011 - may seem steep, but it's actually excellent value for money given how long it will take you to explore the complex at leisure (I would allow yourself two hours as a minimum and more if you're a history buff). The admission fee includes audio self tour equipment, and the commentary is absolutely excellent and very well thought out. For example, there is a commentary on each and every one of the Antipopes, but you can choose whether or not to listen to this degree of detail, meaning that people can customise the tour to match their level of interest.
Bear in mind that there is quite a lot of stair climbing involved, so unfortunately the complex would be challenging for those with limited mobility.
Apologies for the title, but it just seemed like the sort of bizarre epithet that Robin would utter in the 1960s Batman TV series, and I couldn't resist!
The question of course is, why would a papal palace - home to a man of God and his earthly representative - need instruments of warfare?
The answer of course is obvious. Popes may have been men of the cloth, but they were in effect warrior princes who just happened to have taken holy orders - often as a matter of political expediency rather than out of any deep religious vocation - and conducted themselves as such. Added to that, for much of its papal history, Avignon was home to the Antipope, whom powerful political influences (backed by significant military might) were trying their best to dislodge.
The Palais des Papes may be described as the largest Gothic palace ever built, but it isn't really a palace: it's a beautiful fortified corporate headquarters.
Aesthetically, I just loved this pile of cannonballs, which are located just inside the entrance to the palace. I was enchanted by their erratic hand hewn shape, rough texture, varying size and differing colours - in fact, I was sorely tempted to 'borrow' a few for my rockery!
In the present view the Palace represents the significant construction. In its territory there is Notre Dame Cathedral on which roof there is the huge statue of maiden Maria is installed. The Popes’ Palace is the biggest Gothic palace in all of Europe (15,000 m2 of floor space, which is the equivalent of 4 Gothic cathedrals).
The Popes’ Palace has welcomed more than 650,000 visitors. It is one of the most visited monuments in all of France.
You can watch my 2 min 54 sec Video Avignon out of my Youtube channel.
Official web Papal Palace
This rather fine pair of ornate Gothic spires sit atop the main gate to Palais des Papes and are remarkable because they really don't look anything like the rest of the complex, and yet seem to fit in remarkably harmoniously.
They remind me strongly of a miniature of the twin spires on the enormous Gothic Dom in Koeln, which also have the same sort of bobbly ornamentation along the edges. I was convinced that these must have a very precise architectural name, and sure enough, quite a lot of Googling later, I discover that these 'bud like' decorations (no 'bobbly things' for serious architects) are actually called 'crockets'. For the serious triviologists, the term is derived from the word 'croc', which is in fact not a terminally unattractive piece of plastic footwear in this context, but the French term for 'hook'.
I was so excited by my New Gothic Fact that I couldn't resist sharing this fascinating nugget of information with my husband ... judging by his deadpan, "I can sleep easy now", I surmise that he wasn't quite so excited by this gem of knowledge as I was!
Anyway, they're very nice, and the view from the ramparts out over Avignon from beside these towers is lovely - see my Palais des Papes travelogue for photographic evidence.
The Cour d'Honneur gives entrance to the inner palace. In the south west corner is the Window of Indulgence which is the only large window in the palace. From there it is possble to enter the cloister with tall broad arched bays nestled under the upper floor of the palace. This makes the short towers and the machicolations seem very strong for the 14C.
The Palace is in two sections built a decade apart. There are six large chmbers with four on the ground floor and two on the upper floor. The most important room, which one visits first, is the on the upper floor and has a keel shaped ceiling (which has been restored. The walls are decorated with Gobelin tapestries which were installed in the 18C. It is called the Grand Tinel. The giant room below it has a flat ceiling and is the Hall of the Consistory whose plain walls are partly decorated by tapestries and small paintings of dignitaries all created in more recent times. There is a room recently set aside to contain fragments of religious objects and funereal remains from the 14C palace. In other rooms there are occasional fragments of other paintings, one moved here from the Cathedral that was done by Simone Martini also in 1343. In the Room of the Deer there is a second adjacent wall with a partial painting with hunters, hounds and a perched falcon. Lastly stop at the giant window looking down on the Cour d' Honneur used by the Pope for blessings (Window of Indulgence).
The inside of the two conjoined Papal Palace is surprising for its immense size. Not only are many of the rooms large but they are also tall. In the mid-14C there were few frescos and no painting on panels, little sculpture and tapestry had not yet developed. So most of the walls are bare end some of the painting has been destroyed over the centuries. The main painter in the palace is Matteo Giovannetti of Viterbo who primarily creating the Chapels on the first and ground floors, which project from the east side of the palace. The first was done in 1343-45, the lower essentially at the same time. The other extant painting is on the walls of the third level of the Tour de la Garde-Robe (also called the Room of the Deer or Cerf}. This is a secular work with the main section containing four people and a holding pond containing fish for the dinner table. Finally the Popes bedroom has walls painted with decorations and a floor covered with painted tiles. (These pictures were made in 1986; apparently these were permitted then not not after 2000, when we were last there).
The conjoined Papal Palaces are in different styles. The older one to the north and somewhat eastern section, the Vieux Palais, was built in Cistercian style under Benedict XII surrounded a cloister and between between 1335-40. The Southern West (New) section was built from 1342-51 in Gothic style. The entrance is near the northwest edge of the gothic section and leads into a large Court of Honor. The entire structure was finished in 1367 and has a total area of 15,000 square m.
It is amazing the amount of power the popes and the Catholic Church had at that time. Meetings were often held in secret to make decisions and also to retain the power of the C hurch members. You can walk round this Palace and imagine the covert goings on, the rich vestments and attire of the popes, the food and wine being served in the great hall.
It's great if you like to step back in time and see what life was like then.
This is a better site and more pictures if you want to explore:
For those trying to plan expenses, on 07.05.2010 the entrance fee for one person was 13 Euros.