Avignon France: A Treasure Trove of Surprises

by Clare Thorne

Today's Avignon is a bustling city teeming with energy and people, from the local residents and students who attend university here to the throng of tourists who come to enjoy all the treasures this city has to offer. Foodies, wine connoisseurs, history buffs and art enthusiasts will find plenty to enjoy in this cultural oasis located in the tranquil countryside of sun-drenched Provence.

Saint Benezet's Bridge

Viewed from a distance, the walled city of Avignon is a feat of architectural majesty for any time period -- the fact that it was built in the 13th century just makes it all the more impressive. The city is located on the banks of the Rhone river and the famous Avignon bridge (aka St. Benezet's bridge) juts out into the river and ends abruptly midstream -- the world's most famous one-fifth of a bridge.

Sur le pont d'Avignon, on y danse, on y danse, the lyric to the popular children's song, is about dancing on this very bridge. Centuries ago it was the main point of entry into the city and an engineering triumph in its own right. Of its original 22 stone arches that spanned the mighty river only four remain today after floods repeatedly demolished the bridge and residents grew weary of rebuilding it.

What's an Anti-Pope?

Although Rome is synonymous with popes, it was Avignon that was home to the papacy back in the 14th century when Pope Clement V made the unprecedented decision to abandon Rome and live in Avignon. Over the next 70 years, the popes put Avignon on the map transforming it from a quiet town in the French countryside to a fortified city of pomp and circumstance befitting the center of Christianity.

The centerpiece of the city, the immense Pope's Palace (Palace Des Papes), a World Heritage Site, is actually an amalgamation of two palaces -- an old one (Palace Vieux) built by Pope Benedict XII and a new one (Palace Noveau) completed by Clement VI twenty years later. Although empty of furnishings, its immense size and soaring halls display the wealth the church possessed and the splendor of the lifestyle.

A short stroll uphill from the Place du Palais, the square in front of the Pope's Palace, is the beautiful gardens of the Rocher des Doms covering seven acres of paths, ponds and impressive views of the Rhone river and valley. Three miles of stone ramparts encircling the city were erected to protect the city, the Pope and the vast Vatican bureaucracy housed in multiple palaces and mansions inside its walls.

After 70 years in Avignon, Pope Gregory XI returned the papacy to Rome. That decision was not universally accepted and split the Catholic Church in two with a pope in Rome and a second pope, or anti-pope in Avignon. The Great Schism, as it was called, lasted 40 years until the church finally unified behind one pope in Rome.

The Historic Center

The city is easy to explore. Meander the town's back streets to discover pastry shops, galleries, outdoor cafes, trendy clothing stores, and lavender shops selling soaps and perfume made from the surrounding lavender fields that bloom throughout the Provence region. Cobbled lanes named Street of the Animal Furriers, Hosiery Street, and Street of the Golden Scissors hint at the neighborhood's medieval roots like ghosts of a distant past.

Les Halles

A profound appreciation of good food and wine seem to be woven into the tapestry of daily life. Surrounded by a region famous for its agricultural produce that grows over half the country's fruits and vegetables, the residents enjoy that good fortune. Fresh ingredients from local farms and orchards arrive daily at Les Halles, the main market hall and the pulsing heartbeat of the city. With over forty stalls brimming with vegetables, meats, fish, fruits, cheeses, olives, breads, pastries and flowers -- it's a sensory delight of sights, smells and delicacies. Along with the locals, it's the go-to destination of restaurant chefs throughout the city who come to choose the day's freshest ingredients for their evening culinary creations.

One such place is the Hotel Le Mirande, once the palatial home of a 14th century cardinal and now a five star hotel that boasts 28 elegantly furnished rooms that sits quietly in the shade of the Pope's Palace. Along with their exceptional restaurant you can take classes at their cooking school Le Marmiton where they teach participants to whip up Provencal delights in the hotel's 19th century basement kitchen and afterwards sit down at a large table to enjoy the results.

Chauteanuef De Pape

Pope John XXII built a summer palace twelve miles north of Avignon to escape the city heat. The name means the pope's new castle. While there he planted the first vineyards that today produces one of the word's great red wines, Chauteanuef de Pape or Pope's wine. As the second largest wine-growing region in France, Rhone Valley vineyards produce many famous wines. Chauteanuef de Pape is one of the more famous. The Chauteanuef de Pape still produces and sells wine world-wide in distinctive bottles adorned with the papal keys.

Avignon's charms are many. It's intriguing mixture of urban sophistication, unique history and bustling energy. A city full of joie de vivre!

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Clare Thorne is an Atlanta-based travel writer. Her work is published in numerous magazines including Go World Travel, Travel Post Monthly, Coldnoon, the Journal of International Travel Writing and Litro Magazine.

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