Dedicated to Lisa (who was concerned we didn’t go into the Palais des Papes on our first day in Avignon) and to Louise (who wondered if we’d gone “sur le pont” and done the tourist thing). On Day 1 in Avignon, because we’d arrived late, we just did an orientation walk, but this was our proper touring day. It was a shame that we missed a full day in Avignon as there’s so much to enjoy there, but fortunately Cerbère was interesting.
Palais des Papes
We don’t know a lot about mediaeval history. Sue focused on modern history in her studies, and Len, the scientist, did languages (very helpful now) and geography rather than history. However, Sue has always been interested in mediaeval history, more so really than ancient history, so has picked up bits and pieces along the way. However, neither of us knew much about the story of the popes in mediaeval times, the schism, and the role played by Avignon. The huge Palais des Papes with its excellent audioguide and the various English sub-titled av presentations throughout rectified this somewhat.
First, the story … in 1309 Pope Clement V chose Avignon as his residence, and from 1309 to 1377, Avignon rather than Rome was the seat of the Papacy. Seven popes lived here. And then, during the Great Schism from 1378-1415, the antipopes Clement VII and Benedict XIII also resided here. After the popes left, the palais was used by various rulers, merchants etc, and, following the French Revolution, as barracks, and then a prison for many years. Thank goodness the revolutionaries didn’t burn it!
Now, the building … The town walls, built then and still surviving, were not particularly strong. However, the building was constructed with 17-18ft thick walls on a natural spur of rock, making it pretty impregnable. It was built between 1335-1364, so it’s Gothic. Amazing how quickly they built this, unlike the cathedrals (though it was fiddled with plenty over the years, by the popes and those coming later!) It helped, we suppose, that it doesn’t have all that time-consuming sculpture you find in cathedrals.
However, it did have frescoes, many of which have all but gone over the years. We were not allowed to photograph those that remain but, oh joy, Sue discovered one of her long-time favourite Gothic artists here, Simone Martini. Sienese-school Martini was known for his lyrical, expressive work, compared with Florentine Giotto’s more corporeal style. While working on the frescoes at the Palais, conservators have discovered how much reworking Martini did – even with his Christ figure, having him hold a globe, then changing to a book, and then back to a globe again. These frescoes are in poor condition.
Further into the palace, in the Pope’s living quarters, are some much better preserved frescoes depicting profane subjects like stag hunts and other “princely scenes”. This was unusual for the day and, the audio guide said, heralded the Renaissance.
We won’t go on, except to say that while we were there they had an exhibition called Les Papesses comprising sculpture in various media by five contemporary female artists. The exhibition’s name was chosen to commemorate the 10th century Pope Joan. We particularly liked Louise Bourgeois’ Welcoming Hands sculptures placed in the pope’s garden.
Hotelkeeper Pascal said it would take about two hours and he was right. It was 2-hours very well spent. We were initially concerned by the waves of tour buses which arrived early like us, but they fell away after the first couple of rooms and from then on it was just scattered independent tourists who rarely got in each other’s way in this immense place.
Lunch at Au Tout Petit
We originally planned a light lunch but happened to pass one of the restaurants recommended by Pascal which was advertising a €12 plate of the day lunch, targeted to locals as much as tourists. We couldn’t go past this. It included the plate of day – lovely fusion dish of rolled sole – and a choice of their desserts. Just what the doctor ordered … and served very pleasantly in a light, airy space.
Then it was THE PONT. While the best way to see the pont is what we did on Day 1, you can’t go to Avignon and not walk – or sing and dance – on it, and so we went on the pont, sans, this time, the audio guide. We can tell you though that the bridge’s real name is Pont Saint-Bénezet and it was originally built across the Rhone between 1177 and 1185. What fascinated us most was that there are chapels along/under the bridge, one of which is for St Nicholas who was the patron saint of the Rhône boatmen. Wikipedia provides a good history of its construction, if you’re interested, and why it no longer spans the whole river. Anyhow, it was fun to walk ON the bridge as the video below will show (Louise!).
We did then visit the outside of the Cathedral (closed for restoration), and the pretty churches of St Pierre and St Didier before …
Doing the Laverie
Washing has to one of the worst parts of travel – where, when and how to do it (without ruining one’s clothes) – but this time it was fun, even though we ended up with blue underwear because the medium temperature wash was not so and Sue’s jeans, a few years old and washed multiple times before, must have run! It was fun because of the French woman who was also doing her washing. She was in town settling her son into university and was a French teacher who loved languages and who felt French was harder to learn that English. We talked about language, the washing, where we lived, and so on – in mixed French and English – thus whiling away the time very nicely.
Dinner at Le Caveau de Théâtre
For our final meal in Avignon we ate at another of Pascal’s recommendations. A little bigger and a little more formal than the first two restaurants in particular, it was nonetheless good. The ambience was jazz-focused in wall images (Cotton Club, etc) and in background music. The meal was modern French. Sue had pork tenderloin and Len guinea fowl, both served with a tasty black rice. A very pleasant meal, though we probably would have liked slightly stronger flavours … but perhaps they were living up to the quote on their menu:
La bonne cuisine, c’est quand les choses ont le goût de ce qu’elles sont. (Auguste Escoffier)
We were not disappointed with our last night in Avignon.
LEN: French Papacy, Conversation
SUE: Frescoes, Politics, Religion
… and the stills slide-show
… and Sur le Pont: The Video