Avignon has a long and epic history. There has been a human settlement here for over 5,000 years, and it was a flourishing centre of trade long before the Romans arrived in 120 BC and established Avignon as a military and trade link between Italy and Spain. It was the building of the first stone bridge in the 12th century though, that really saw Avignon become a medieval powerhouse.
It was that which was of particular interest to a series of popes, who chose to make Avignon the papal capital when endless wars in Italy made it unsafe to remain in Rome. It would remain the capital of the papacy and de facto capital of the Catholic world from 1309 to 1377. In fact, Pope Clement VI went as far as to buy the city in 1348. It was only reclaimed by France in 1793 during the French Revolution.
The remarkable thing about the Avignon popes is just how utterly corrupt many were. Even by medieval papal standards, debauchery during the Avignon years was impressive. The poet Petrarch had this to say: “It is a sewer where all the filth of the universe gathers. They despise God, adore money, trample divine laws and human laws. Everything there breathes deceit: the air, the earth, the houses and above all the bedchambers.”
While Avignon was the capital of the papacy for seven decades and seven popes, the controversies didn’t end when the papacy returned to Rome in 1378. At best, papal politics were complex, but the election of Urban VI as pope in 1378 led directly to the Great Schism. This led a faction in the Catholic church to elect a different pope, Clement VII, who took up residence in Avignon’s only recently vacated Palais des Papes.
This situation lasted for another three decades, and in fact there was a third pope vying for Catholicism’s top job from 1409 until things were finally resolved in 1417. So, in addition to the seven fully legitimate popes, we can add two ‘Schism Popes’. It’s just as well that the history of the Avignon papacy is so exciting, because the formerly opulent palace they lived in is low on visual stimulation.
The once richly decorated walls and ceilings have not survived, and there is little that remains from that period. The magnificent architecture can’t be denied, but when you learn that Clement VI served up 7,428 chickens, 3,043 fowl, 1,195 geese, 1,023 sheep, 914 kids, 180 oxen, 101 calves, 60 pigs, 50,000 tarts and 95,000 loaves at his coronation, it’s disappointing not to have some of that opulence on display.
If the interior of the Palais des Papes was underwhelming, Avignon compensates in different ways. The nearby Musée Du Petit Palais, once the 14th century residence of Avignon’s Archbishop, is anything but disappointing with its extraordinary collection of Renaissance paintings. Nearby, stairs lead up to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame des Doms d’Avignon, from where you continue upwards to the lovely Jardin des Doms for epic views over the Rhône.
If these are Avignon’s showstoppers, there is even more to be gained from just wandering its ancient streets inside its medieval defensive walls. It doesn’t really matter which direction you go in, it won’t be too long before you land in a picturesque square or in front of an historic church or centuries-old water wheels on the Rue des Teinturiers, the center of silk spinning and dyeing from the 14th to 19th century.
There are plenty of other museums, galleries and palaces to visit, but Rue des Teinturiers gives a hint of what makes Avignon special. The street is lined with small and fun bars and restaurants where you can sit out in the evening sun sipping a beer in a mixed crowd of locals, students and tourists next to the Canal de Vaucluse. For all its history and Unesco designations, Avignon is a town filled with life.