Looking across the Rhône from Ile de la Barthelasse, the skyline of Avignon is dominated by the magnificent Gothic Palace of the Popes (Palais des Papes). The whole complex is quite impressive, the Rocher des Doms (Dome Rock), the Palais des Papes, Notre Dame des Doms (Dome Church), the St. Bénezet Bridge, the famous "Pont d'Avignon" and the ramparts. Needless to say it is a UNESCO "world heritage for humanity" site.
On the right bank of the Rhône opposite Avignon lies one of the hidden gems in this region, Villeneuve lez Avignon, a medieval town perched on a hill with the magnificent Chartreuse Notre Dame de Val de Bénédiction, also known the Chartreuse d'Avignon, one of the largest monasteries in Europe. The town has a small, but good selection of hotels, historic B&Bs and restaurants.
Avignon has a colorful history. Founded by traders from Marseille it developed into an important Celtic settlement. Reportedly the name derives from Avenio, which in Celtic either meant "daughter of the river" or town of the "violent wind" (the Mistral roars down the Rhône valley during the winter time). During Roman times it was one of the main cities in the Provincia Narbonensis. In medieval times Avignon was nearly as important as Paris. The Popes resided here for a short while but ruled Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin (area East of Avignon, including Carpentras and Vaison la Romaine) until the French Revolution. For more on the history of the Popes in Avignon click here.
Today Avignon is one of France's major tourist attractions and an important cultural center during the summer time, when the Festival d'Avignon draws thousands of visitors. It is one of the most important summer festivals for modern theatre and drama, including some very avant-garde pieces pushing the limits.
Avignon is an easy place to visit as all tourist attractions are located "Intramuros", i.e. within the fortified medieval walls surrounding the old part of Avignon. You can explore it easily by foot; just wander through the maze of narrow streets and alleys. Peak into the small shops, the beautiful courtyards and gardens. Some streets are named after certain trades, such as Rue des Teinturiers (dyers), Rue des Fourbisseurs (weapon makers) and Rue du Vieux Sextier (Old Sexton) and some take their names from inns, like Rue du Chapeau Rouge. The main street (the first section is named Cours Jean Jaurès, then it becomes Rue de la République) runs from the train station to the Place d'Horloge, close to the Palais des Papes. The Place de l'Horloge is Avignon's main square, home to the Hôtel de Ville (city hall) and the Opera d'Avignon. To the East and West of Rue de la République are the shopping streets with lots of nice restaurants and cafés. Our favorite is Rue Joseph-Vernet, where some of Avignon's most fashionable shops and restaurants are located. Visit also Les Halles, the market hall - the building is ugly as hell with a parking garage on top. But the market hall inside offers a dizzying array of products. It is open from Tuesday - Saturday from 6:00AM to 1:30PM.
If you stay outside of Avignon your main challenge will be to find a parking spot during the summer season. The most convenient is the huge parking garage underneath the Place du Palais (the large square in front of the Palais des Papes), which you reach from Boulevard du Rhône near the Pont St.Bénezet. Another option are the free parking lots East and West of the old town.
Don't forget to ask for the Avignon Carte Pass. They either give it to you at the first admission you buy or at the tourist office (located on 41 Cours Jean Jaurès). You pay full price for the first admission but get 20 - 50% reductions in subsequent admissions to participating attractions, which include the Palais des Papes, Pont St.Bénezet, the Musée Clavet, Musée Vouland and the Musée du Petit Palais in Avignon and the Fort St.André and Chartreuse Pontificale du Val de Bénediction in Villeneuve lez Avignon. The pass is valid for two weeks of unlimited visits for the holder and family members. Now, let's explore the major attractions of Avignon.
Palace of the Popes
During the summer season the Place du Palais teams with visitors, street artists and pickpockets. It is a wonderful, lively atmosphere. You might have to stand in line, but the visit of the Palace of the Popes is simply a must. But don't be disappointed! This is not the Vatican with extensive art collections. The palace was looted during the French Revolution, so there is practically none of the original art inside. But the architecture alone - inside as impressive as outside - is worth the visit. Take a look at the offical plan here to get an idea. In other words, it is a matter of expectations. Buy the combined Palais des Papes and Pont St.Bénezet ticket and pick up the head-phone audio guide available at the ticket counter, it is included in the ticket price and indispensable as written explanations are in French only. For more information on opening hours, consult the Palais des Papes official website.
From 1305 to 1403 one of two claimants to the Papacy resided in Avignon. They constructed the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) as a mighty symbol of the church's power in ecclesiastical and also worldly matters. The Catholic Church regards the seven popes residing in Avignon from 1305 - 1378 as legitimate popes. The last two popes, "Clement VII" (1378 to 1394) and "Benedict XIII" (1394 to 1403) are considered antipopes.
Benedict XII had the old episcopal palace razed and replaced with a much larger building, today known as the Palais Vieux. It is heavily fortified, the four wings are flanked with high towers looking down on an inside cloister. Under Popes Clement VI, Innocent VI and Urban V, the complex was expanded with the construction of what is today known as the Palais Neuf, the New Palace. The magnificent 52 m long Grand Chapelle served as the central place of worship. Innocent VI had two more towers built and Urban V added the main courtyard and further buildings adjacent to it. The interior of the palace was decorated with frescos, tapestries, paintings, sculptures and wooden ceilings.
Despite an extensive restoration in 1516, the palace gradually fell into disrepair. It was seized and plundered during the French Revolution. In 1791 it was the scene of a massacre of counter-revolutionaries; their bodies were thrown in the Tour des Latrines in the Palais Vieux. The palace was subsequently used as military barracks and prison. During the Third Republic (1870 - 1940), which was strictly anti-clerical, a lot of the interior woodwork was ripped out to make place for stables and the frescos were largely destroyed. Finally in 1906 the palace became a national museum and restoration commenced (still ongoing today). You can visit over 20 rooms, including the large audience hall and the pope's private chambers. Unlike the Vatican, most of the rooms are quite bare, thanks to the French Revolution and the Third Republic, which was strictly anti-clerical. But the architecture alone, the magnificent halls, rooms and inner courtyards are worth the visit. Look at some of the photos on this webpage (click on the photos to enlarge) and you get an idea what you can expect.
Rocher des Doms
Walk up the steps to the Dome Rock and you will find a wonderful park and a large terrace overlooking the Rhône. Across the Rhône you see below Pont St.Bénezet (the famous Pont d'Avignon), the Ile de la Barthelasse, a popular recreation spot and behind it one of our favorite towns in the region, wonderful, historic Villeneuve lez Avignon. On top of the hill is the Fort St.André and below the Philippe le Belle tower. Turn Northeast and view Mt.Ventoux and the Dentelles de Montmirail.
Cathédrale Notre Dame des Doms
Originally built in the 12th century it was extensively modified in the 14th and 17th century. The gold gilded St.Mary statue was added in the 19th century. Frankly after all the grandeur of the Palace of the Popes, this cathedral is a bit of a let down. Remarkable are the 16th century figure of Jesus Christ in the left chapel, the magnificent cupola and the 12th century bishop's seat. You will also find the tomb of Pope John XXII in a chapel adjacent to the sacristy.
The famous Pont d'Avignon was constructed between 1171 and 1185. It originally spun the river Rhône, connecting Avignon on the left bank with the Ile de la Barthelasse in the middle of the river and from there Villeneuve lez Avignon on the right bank. Its original length was 2950 ft (900 m). It was destroyed various times during floods and had to be reconstructed several times. After a catastrophic flood in 1668, which swept away parts of the bridge, it was abandoned. During the next 200 years more and more of the original arches collapsed or had to be demolished. Today only four of the 22 arches remain intact. The bridge is named after St.Bénezet, who is buried in the small chapel on the 2nd pier of the bridge. Legend has it that he was a small shepherd boy who had the vision to construct the bridge. He proved his point by lifting a huge block of stone as the 1st foundation stone. In the end he won financial support from wealthy merchants. They formed the Bridge Brotherhood to fund its construction.
The song "Sur le Pont d'Avignon" (On the Bridge of Avignon), has made this bridge quite famous. The original version of the song was actually "Sous le Pont d'Avignon" (Under the Bridge of Avignon), because in medieval times there were popular cafés with dancing and other pleasure activities (which remain unnamed) on the Ile de la Barthelasse, under the arches of the bridge. Nobody would have been allowed to dance on the bridge.
Avignon prides itself of an astonishing number of small museums. There is museum life outside Paris after all! We select five here, which are quite interesting to foreign visitors. So after you have done all the sightseeing and visited lots of historic villages and lively markets in the Provence soak in some of the art exhibited here.
We like foremost the Musée Angladon-Dubrujeaud, a private foundation established in 1996 by two Avignonaise artists who donated their family inheritance to the foundation. Located in the Hôtel de Massilian, a mansion on Rue du Laboureur, it houses works of Degas, Daumier, Cezanne, Sisley, Manet, Modigliani and Picasso. It is the only museum in the South of France which owns a van Gogh (Wagons de Chemin de Fer).
Collection Lambert in the Hôtel de Caumont, an elegant mansion on Rue Violette, which was established in 2000. It houses a well known contemporary art collection, with works of Anselm Kiefer, Douglas Gordon, Cy Twombly, Nan Goldin and other important artists.
Musée du Petit Palais (Museum of the Small Palace), at the Northern end of the Place du Palais. It was built for Cardinal Béranger Frédol between 1318 and 1320. After extensive rebuilding it was used by Pope Benedict XII as residence, while the papal palace was razed and today's Palace des Papes (the Palace Vieux section) constructed. In 19 rooms an extensive collection of frescoes, sculptures and Italian religious paintings from the 13th to 16th centuries are exhibited, including some Botticellis.
Musée Calvet, located in an impressive 18th century mansion on Rue Joseph Vernet, houses a collection of paintings and sculptures from the 15th to the 20th century. The Marcel Puech collection contains furnishings, faiences and bronzes. There is also a small collection of modern art.
Musée Mont de Piété, on Rue Saluces; definitely an off the beaten track type museum (free entrance). It traces the history of one of the oldest pawn shops in France, which was run by the Mont de Piété, a public institution providing services to the silk industry in Avignon.
Want to explore more museums in Avignon? Visit Avignon's museum website.