On our very first day in Avignon and we woke up to sunshine and clear blue skies. It took us just over 15 minutes to walk into Avignon from the campground. We got our first sight of the Pont St Benezet and the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) as we crossed the bridge across the Rhone River.
Avignon has an illustrious history. The name of the city dates back to the 6th century BC when it was a Greek trading area. The Romans arrived in 120BC and the town and area surrounding where the first transalpine province of the Roman Empire. During the middle ages the town/city played an important role regularly fought over but grew in status.
The beginning of the 14th century saw the most important history of Avignon reflected in many of the historic building seen today. Between 1309 and 1376 Avignon was the centre of the Holy Roman Empire rather than Rome when seven popes resided in Avignon. Even after the last official pope Gregory XI finally moved the Holy See back to Rome, Avignon’s grip on the papacy persisted. After Gregory’s death in Rome, dissident local cardinals elected their own pope in Avignon, provoking the Western Schism, a ruthless struggle for the control of the Church’s wealth which lasted until 1409. Avignon remained papal property until the French Revolution.
After finding the tourist office for a map etc we started our exploration of the town. The city is enclosed by impressive ramparts which were built between 1359 and 1370. They were restored during the 19th century, minus their original moats. Even in the 14th century they were never a formidable defence as they, lacked machicolations (openings in the parapets for niceties like pouring boiling oil on attackers or shooting arrows at them).
For our morning coffee break we stopped just off the place de L’Horloge which had the imposing Hotel de Ville and the Opera House. Tony would have happily sat at the pavement cafe all day but Daisy was anxious to explore!
Entering the Place du Palais we were struck by the size of the Palais des Papes. It was colossal. The palace was primarily built as a fortress. As we had Daisy with us we decided we would leave the exploration of the palace for another day.
Next to the palace was the cathedral of Notre-Dame-des-Doms which was closed but in was a huge crucifix with views across the Place du Palais. Just up from the cathedral was the Rocher des Doms Park which had great views across the surrounding countryside. We sat and eat lunch near the Petit Palais, enjoying the lovely sunshine.
We then wandered down through the narrow streets to the Pont St Benezet or its better known name of the Pont d’Avignon. Legend says Pastor Bénezet had three saintly visions urging him to build a bridge across the Rhône. Completed in 1185, the 900m-long bridge with 22 arches linked Avignon with Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. The bridge was destroyed during the siege of Avignon by Louis VIII of France in 1226 but beginning in 1234 it was rebuilt. From recent work undertaken by a team of historians and archaeologists, in an interesting exhibition, we learnt that they believe that the earlier bridge may have consisted of a wooden superstructure supported on stone piers and that only when rebuilt was the bridge constructed entirely in stone. The bridge was only 4.9 m (16 ft) in width, including the parapets at the sides. The arches were liable to collapse when the river flooded and were sometimes replaced with temporary wooden structures before being rebuilt in stone. The bridge fell into a state of disrepair during the 17th century. By 1644 the bridge was missing four arches and finally a catastrophic flood in 1669 swept away much of the structure. Since then, its surviving arches have successively collapsed or been demolished, and only four of the initial 22 arches remain.
We finally made our way back to the campground after an excellent day in Avignon.