Directly across the river Rhône from Avignon stands the almost equally historic town of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. Seen from the Jardin des Doms in Avignon, this former market town is dominated by the huge and imposing medieval fortress of the Chateau de Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. Just one of numerous ancient buildings that are dotted amidst the red-tiled roofs of the town – many of which are themselves attached to ancient houses.
The history of Saint André, as Villeneuve-lès-Avignon was once called, is intertwined with that of Avignon itself, and until the mid-17th century the two were connected by Pont Saint Benezet, the ruined bridge that is also one of Avignon’s iconic sights. The medieval Philippe le Bel Tower is all that is left of the fort that was attached to the bridge on the Villeneuve side. Today, it sits forlornly at the river’s edge.
Philippe le Bel, better known in English as King Philip IV, the Fair, would change the course of history for these two towns on either side of the Rhône. It was his endless conflict with Pope Boniface VIII that resulted in the papacy relocating from Rome to Avignon in 1309, and it was Philip who transformed Villeneuve-lès-Avignon into a fortress town so that he could control trade across the Rhône.
I walked over the busy modern road bridge from Avignon and then took a path along the river to the tower, and then headed uphill towards the castle. Standing beneath its massive walls, it’s hard to imagine that this fortress began life on top of Mount Andaon as a Benedictine monastery, the Abbey of St André. Founded around 1000 AD, Philip ordered the Abbey fortified in the early 14th century.
Once a symbol of the power of the French monarchy, today the castle stands guard over the peaceful village of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. Inside you can still find the old Abbey buildings and the walls offer sweeping views in all directions. It felt strangely familiar, the shape and colour of the stone were reminiscent of crusader forts I’d seen in Syria and Jordan. They date from a similar period.
I descended from the castle close to the 14th century monastery, La Chartreuse du Val de Bénédiction. It took a while to find the entrance, but once inside the calm and tranquility gave a hint of the peaceful cloistered lives that monks must have once had. It was a peace that was achieved by levying taxes on and exploiting the peasants of the region the monastery controlled, but peace nonetheless.
The French Revolution got rid of the Order of Chartreuse, not before their headquarters in the mountains near Grenoble had given the world the sickly green (or yellow) liqueur of the same name. Chartreuse is proof that with enough free time humanity can turn anything into alcohol despite the results tasting vile. I left the monastery and headed to Place Jean Jaurès, the pleasant town square.
It looked like the restaurants that surround the square had been busy at lunchtime, I’d have stopped for a drink but they were now mostly closed preparing for the evening crowd. Not unlike its larger twin across the river, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon has a lot of very good restaurants. It would make an interesting and relaxed base for exploring the region.
I made a quick visit to the 14th century Eglise Collégiale Notre-Dame and its attached cloister, one of many religious buildings constructed in Villeneuve at the height of the papacy in Avignon, and then wandered back towards the river. It was late afternoon and the sun was sinking in the sky as I crossed back over the bridge. Avignon was beautifully illuminated in a soft golden light.