Friday, July 24, 2015

Avignon: France’s medieval Vatican City is the gateway to Provence

The Palace of the Popes was once the seat of the Papacy in Avignon, France during the 14th century  (wikipedia)
AVIGNON, FRANCE Like St. Louis, which is the gateway to the west in the United States, historic Avignon begins the route to Provence and the south of France. Each is represented by dominant symbols which signify their prominence; St. Louis with its arch and Avignon with its historic Palace of the Popes.

Avignon opened a state of the art TGV station in 2001 (wikipedia)
Today, thanks to the wonder of high speed rail technology, Avignon is more accessible than ever before, not only from France but other Europeans cities as well.

From Paris, a TGV covers the distance of roughly 450 miles in less than three hours, making a Paris/Provence holiday a delightfully diverse combination of destinations for travelers.
Situated on the Rhone River, just above its confluence with the Durance, Avignon was founded by the Greeks on an untamed promontory along the river route used by Greek, Marseille and Italian sailors seeking trade with Northern Europe.

Thanks to the Rhone and its geographic location on the primary route between Spain and Italy, Avignon flourished in the Middle Ages. So much so, that its majestic ramparts were doubled around the city in the 14th century to ensure its safety and protect its wealth.
The Papal Palace, home of the Catholic Church for 70 years, has walls that are 18 feet thick  (wikipedia)
It was another event however, that brought prestige to Avignon which has lasted into modern times and made it a thriving UNESCO World Heritage site as well as a popular base for exploring Provence. The turning point came in 1309 when Pope Clement V moved the seat of the Papacy from Rome to Avignon.

High speed TGVs make Avignon readily accessible  (wikipedia)
The move altered Avignon’s place in history and changed its architectural physiognomy forever. A decision which, even today, is a major contributor to the city’s economic welfare.

Known as Altera Roma, the “City of the Popes,” Avignon became a thriving multicultural metropolis overnight. For seventy years, it was the center of Catholicism under the leadership of seven popes and two anti-popes.

In 1377, Gregory XI decided to take the seat of the Papacy back to Rome resulting in an ecumenical division in the church that became known as the Great Schism. Thus with the Catholic Church in disarray, the two popes who followed Gregory XI in Avignon, Clement VII and Benedict XIII, became known as “anti-popes.”

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the pope’s tenure in central France were the immediate construction projects that resulted because of their presence. The ramparts of the city, though impressive, were not strong enough to provide the necessary protection. As a result, the “Palais de Papes”, or Papal Palace, was built upon a natural outcropping of rock between 1335 and 1364 featuring impregnable thick 17-18 foot walls.

After the French Revolution, the palace became a barracks and later, a prison before being renovated into its present configuration as a museum.

Following Clement V, each successive pope added his own personal imprint to the building making it one of the largest medieval buildings in Europe. Today, the palace is among the most visited attractions in France thanks to the twists of history and the vision of Jean Vilar who created the Avignon Theatre Festival in 1947.

The international festival for the performing arts takes place annually in July incorporating the courtyard of the palace as an immense open-air stage. Two other major events happen in conjunction with the theater festival, one before and a jazz fest afterward, making Avignon a lively destination throughout the summer.

The city is served by two railway stations; the historic Gare d’Avignon-Centre, built in 1860, is situated just beyond the city walls, and the modern high speed Gare d’Avignon TGV that is part of the Mediterranean line connecting northern and southern France. Spain, Italy, Switzerland and, thanks to the Channel Tunnel, even England are convenient destinations for visiting Avignon.
The Bridge of Avignon, Pont Saint-Benezet, was rebuilt many times but today only spans half of the River Rhone  (wikipedia) 
Another popular sites in Avignon is the Pont Saint-Benezet, also known as the Bridge of Avignon. Today the bridge only partly exists, making it a popular landmark for visitors.

Following a siege of the city, the bridge was rebuilt with 22 stone arches that often collapsed during regular flooding of the Rhone. Ultimately, further reconstruction was abandoned in the 17th century, leaving the original bridge, built in 1345 by Pope Clement VI, extending only partly across the river with only just arches remaining.

One note of caution for visitors to Avignon, superb as the rail service to Avignon may be, taxis leave much to be desired. Cabs must be called for by phone and may take longer to arrive than reasonable expectations in a relatively compact community. Prepare for such eventualities by allowing ample time for transfers.
Avignon is the threshold to the stunning beauty of the Provence region of central France  (wikipedia)
Today, the ancient ramparts remain, giving Avignon a medieval flair as the entrance to one of the most beautiful regions in France. It’s an ideal site for a base to visit Provence and, with excellent TGV rail services, a Paris/Provence vacation is an ideal way to journey through France.