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.
9 thoughts on “The west bank of the Rhone, Villeneuve-les-Avignon”
Thank you for the beautiful insights and the amazing photos, the sky in the south is always bluer than elsewhere 😉
It was early October as well, such good weather.
I passed by Villeneuve many times on my way south. A nice walk around that old town. Thank you.
Funny that Philippe le bel should be “the fair” in English. He was anything but. Ask the Templars.
All’s ‘fair’ in love and war and winning power from the Templars! It’s a nice place, worth a stopover if you have the time Brian. The castle is amazing.
It does look great. So many places so little time.
I chuckled at your description of Chartreuse (the liqueur). I have never had it, but strangely because of what you said about it now I want to try it — and will probably regret my decision later.
I suspect regret is the thing most people feel after drinking Chartreuse. I have to say though, I’ve only tried the green one, so who knows, the yellow one might be delicious!
“Chartreuse is proof that with enough free time humanity can turn anything into alcohol despite the results tasting vile.” LOL. I’m glad to learn I am not the only person in the world who dislikes this strange liqueur.
Your fine photos of Villeneuve-lez-Avignon brought back nice memories of my visit there several years ago: https://operasandcycling.com/category/france/villeneuve-lez-avignon/
It’s interesting looking at your photos, there is an avenue of trees running up to the entrance to La Chartreuse that are much larger and bushier today. A fascinating place. As for the beverage of the same name, I simply don’t understand how people can drink it, or how they got away with selling it as a life enhancing liquor for centuries.