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Published: January 26th 2018
We had heard from many other cruisers that we met that we had to spend a few days in Avignon so that was the plan. A few days turned into 9 days, but this was due to the fact that not only were there a few places to check out in Avignon itself, but it served as a great base for day trips to visit other villages/towns allowing us to learn more about the history of this very interesting area of France.
When anyone says “Avignon” the first thing that most people picture in their mind is “the bridge” that is seen in many advertisements for this area of France. What we were surprised to see was a very large palace with a large gold statue of the Virgin Mary on top – we actually could see the statute long before we made the turn into the town of Avignon. Unknown to us was the fact that this was the Pope’s Palace which was built in less than 20 years starting in 1335. That is actually somewhat deceiving as it was the result of the joining of two previously built palaces by two Pope’s.
Yes, Rome was not the
A Drawing of the 22 Arch Avignon Bridge
when it completely spanned the Rhone River
home of the Popes for a period of time – Avignon was the Papal State. During the 14th
C. the Popes’ Palace was the home of 9 popes before they returned to Rome as their home base. This palace is known as one of the largest and most important medieval Gothic buildings in all of Europe. It served not only as a palace but also a fortress. In case you may have missed the meaning of this, to make it clear the seat of Western Christianity during the 14th
C. was not Rome, but here in Avignon. Pope Clement V in 1309 did not want to deal with the violence that was occurring in Rome at the time of his appointment so came to Avignon and stayed as a guest at a monastery here which started the period known as the Avignon Papacy. Later in 1335 Pope Benedict XII decided to have the previous palaces of the bishops combined to build what is known as the Old Palace and the next pope, Clement VI built a New Palace. The Old Palace was built with fortifications centered around a cloister and was austere. The New Palace included more fortifications with the
addition of towers, additional building space with included a grand Chapel that was 52 meters long (170 ft). The New Palace was highly decorated with frescoes, sculptures, paintings and wooden ceilings in contrast to the Old Palace.
The popes returned to Rome in 1377, but this gave rise to what was called the Papal Schism with Avignon now being the home of the antipopes Clement VII and Benedict XIII until 1403. It stayed in the hands of the antipapal group until the papal authorities gained control again in 1433 and kept it for 350 years. During this time the Palace was deteriorating and then when it was seized during the French Revolution in 1789 it was damaged again.
Our second day in Avignon we toured the Papal Palace and in actual fact were very disappointed with the audio guide as it definitely was lacking compared to others that we have used, but it was still informative. They now have been using the building and courtyards for art displays and while we were there they had modern sculpture. We have nothing against the sculpture, but having it on display in this medieval building did not add to the experience,
in fact, it seemed to distract as you could not enter a hall and see it as it might have been, instead they had so many pieces of sculpture it sometimes was hard to get a clear view of the architectural details.
Included with the ticket for the Papal Palace was the ability to walk out on the famous Avignon Bridge – actually called the St. Benezet Bridge (Pont St. Benezet). They had very informative videos and signage telling the history and building of the bridge. It was built between 1171 – 1185 and was one of only three bridges to span the Rhone River. It was very important in providing a way across the river for merchants, pilgrims as well as armies. Unfortunately it had been damaged numerous times by floods and rebuilt, but in 1668 most of it was destroyed and the decision was made to not rebuild. The original bridge had 22 arches and it extended for 3,000 feet connecting the Vatican territory on the east bank of the Rhone to the west bank which was French territory.
On the bridge is the Chapel of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of boatmen, which remains today.
Boatmen used to come here to worship, but as it became more difficult to get here they built a chapel on dry land in which to worship. Even so, there remains a chapel on the bridge to this day, but it in fact narrows the bridge at this point, which makes many historians question how merchant carts were able to cross.
There is a gatehouse that you must pass through to get onto the bridge, this having been built in the 14th
C. in order to provide protection, again due to the fact that this side of the river was controlled by the Pope and the King of France controlled the western bank.
There was a very interesting film that showed archeological work that has been done over the years giving rise to the question asking if the Romans had built a bridge in this location prior to the famous St. Benezet Bridge. They found evidence of stones near the base that do not seem to match up with the design of the current stone arches and they were able to carbon date some timbers located here from Roman times, but nothing has been decided conclusively. They also
The Notre Dame is the Cathedral of the Archbishop
in Avignon & was built in the last half of the 12th C.
demonstrated how the bridge could have been constructed as it definitely had inherit difficulties being built over a very powerful river, the Rhone.
When we left Tsamaya we entered the city first by climbing a long set of stairs that took us up to the top of a bluff where a garden is located complete with grottoes and meandering pathways and wonderful overlooks to view the Rhone valley. Next to the garden and before arriving at the Popes Palace we saw the Avignon Cathedral, built in the 12th
C. in the Romanesque style. This has been the seat of the local bishop for more than a thousand years. A gold gilded statute of the Virgin Mary was added in 1854. In fact when traveling down the Rhone toward Avignon we were able to see this from quite a distance away so wandered through and saw its rich artwork, painted walls and carved sculptures.
Avignon is most definitely a tourist town as the river cruise ships stop here filling the courtyards and streets with plenty of people. In reading through our guidebook we heard of Rue des Teinturiers (street of the dyers) which sounded interesting and felt that as
The Virgin Mary was Added in 1859
which can be viewed from quite a long distance
it was away from the Palace area we might escape some of the crowds. This area was the center of the cloth dying and textile production area in the 1800’s. There is a stream running next to the street and in its heyday there were 23 waterwheels located here which powered the mills. It was a pleasant area of the city to visit and did succeed in getting us away from the “swarms” of people in town. The only down side was that it was quite a hot walk as the temperature got up to 101 degrees! The one down side of stopping on the river is that we miss the cool breeze that we can pick up when we are on the water. Oh well… learning so much history on just the 2nd
day here was well worth it.
The next day was taken up with some of the more mundane chores that we all need to do – laundry. The positive about doing it was that it was free (included in the price of staying at the marina) and there was a place to sit inside with an air conditioner. Amazing how easy it is to make
us happy!! Another wonderful part of waiting in the marina office area was that we got to meet some people that we know already will continue to be friends for many years to come even if our paths will separate. There are just some people that you meet that you have an immediate connection. We found that they will be heading to the same marina that we are going to put our mast up so will connect with them again in the near future.
Unknown to us until we talked to people at the Tourist Information office, we found that there were a couple of villages nearby that had excellent examples of Roman amphitheatres and temples. Yes, we are still in France, but the Romans had quite an impact on this area. We decided to take in two of the towns, starting with Orange. The information we had stated that there were two Roman remains here.
The most impressive to us was the Roman amphitheatre as it is the only one with a completely intact standing scene (acoustic) wall in Europe. The scene wall is 338 feet long and stands a very impressive 121 feet high. It is
the only feature of the theatre that had been architecturally decorated with marble mosaic tiles and numerous statutes in the niches located within the wall. When you enter the theatre you see Julius Caesar larger than life statute overlooking the stage that can be seen clearly from every seat in the theatre, however, there is the belief that there had been a statute of Apollo, the god of music and the arts. There originally was a wooden roof to protect those that came to the performances but it had been destroyed by fire at one time. Over the stage area there was a roof made of cloth similar to linen used to help with projecting the voices of the actors. Those leather caricature masks that you may have seen at souvenirs nowadays also were to function as a megaphone – what they thought of to help in making the actors heard in this large theatre. It sometimes is hard to believe that this was built in the 19AD, it is still standing and better yet, it is still being used!
The seating was divided up by social class, similar to the different price categories we still have today in
our theatres. The seats up front are for the elite, merchants and tradesmen, then next are the working class and the slaves, beggars and prostitutes were given a place in the “nosebleed section” along the back wall way up in the back. This theatre was able to seat 10,000 people so without electronic equipment the acoustics had to be excellent which we found out still is true today with its acoustic stage wall still intact. Now due to safety regulations they can seat up to 7,300 people in the theatre today. The theatre had gone into disrepair over the years, but back in 1825, reconstruction was started in order to continue the tradition of having live theatre here in Orange. We were glad to hear that they still use the theatre extensively – quite a testament to the magnificent structure and knowledge of acoustics that went into the building of this theatre. Fortunately with the renovations in the 1800’s and further excavations in the 1930’s they have been able to uncover many historical objects and obtain a clearer picture of the history of this area.
Some may be surprised to hear that the theatre was very important in Roman
times – the theatre was used extensively with mime, pantomime, poetry readings and comical farce presentations with very elaborate scenery. Roman authorities felt that the theatre was an excellent way to spread their Roman culture to the colonies (those that they took over) and a way to distract the people from any political activities that were going on at the same time. They had up to 180 days of entertainment a year presented in the theatre by the time Rome finally fell. That must have been quite an undertaking to get the sets and costumes ready for each performance. Surprisingly the theatre was free of charge for all that came no matter what station you belonged to – from those of the upper classes to the pauper and slave.
The other major Roman structure remaining in Orange is the Arc de tiomphe (Triumphal Arch). There is still some question of when it was built but current belief is that it was during the reign of Augustus (27BC-AD 14). It was built to honor those that served in the Gallic Wars and Legio II Augusta. Additional modifications were made to it later to celebrate the victories over the German tribes
located in the Rhineland. The arch is covered with numerous reliefs depicting naval battles, spoils of war and Romans battling the Germanics and the Gauls.
The arch is located about a fifteen minute walk from the theatre. It isn’t that far, but the temperatures of the last few days has not dropped and with near 100 degree weather it seemed longer than that, but as we knew we would not be returning to the area so we continued on. The surprise was to find that the arch actually was part of the town wall structure during the Middle Ages placed here to guard the northern entry to the town. In studying the arch it was found that was originally constructed with large non-mortared limestone blocks. There are 3 arches with the center one being the largest. It stands almost as tall as it is long, 63 feet high and 64 feet long and a width of 27.5 feet. There is nothing near it now; it stands in the middle of a round-a-bout which definitely makes it quite an impressive structure to see. It was interesting to learn that this arch is the oldest surviving example of a design that
was later used in Rome for the Arch of Constantine.
It was only a one hour bus ride from Avignon to Orange, but we definitely felt like we went back in time as we hadn’t realized before coming to this area how much of an influence the Romans had in this area. From the bus window we could see we were still very much in wine country as we passed by plenty of vineyards with the mountains in the background. A wonderful day outing from Avignon.
We weren’t finished with our day trips as there is plenty to see here. We learned that there was a Medieval Festival occurring in nearby (7.5 miles away) Chateauneuf-du-Pape so off we went by bus again the next day. As Bob says, once I find places to explore, I find a way to get there and off we go!
As you come upon this village the outstanding structure is the ruins of a medieval castle that was built in the 14th
C. for Pope John XXII, the 2nd
pope to reside in Avignon. None of the Popes that followed stayed in Chateauneuf-du-Pape but the anti-pope Clement VII sought safety here after
the schism in 1378 with Rome. When the Popes left Avignon the castle here was handed over to the Archbishop of Avignon, but it was too large and too expensive to maintain so the stone used in its construction was used for the building of other structures in the village. By the time of the French Revolution all the buildings were sold off except for the keep and during WWII the Germans tried to destroy the keep itself, but only half of it was destroyed leaving half of the southern wall that we see today. Over the centuries there has been lots of destruction to the castle and neighboring buildings such as the church, but in 1892 the castle was put on the list of French historical monuments.
Even though there isn’t much of the castle remaining, many still come to this area as the land here was planted in grapevines and they produce a well protected and known red wine protected by the classification of Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation d’origine controlee. Many of you may know that France has strong controls on its agriculture and the production of products such as wine and cheese. Just like champagne can only be
produced in the Champagne region of France, this red wine can only be produced here in Chateauneuf-du-Pape making it still a draw for people to come to this village.
The Medieval festival brought out quite a crowd of people, but it wasn’t overwhelming thankfully. They had plenty of food vendors, wandering musicians and dancers, items for sale such as cheese, jewelry and of course wine. Many were dressed in medieval costume and demonstrating the various trades of the time ranging from stone carvers to woodworkers making spindles on foot pedaled lathes and the making of the various pieces of armor that was needed for protection at the time.
The view from the hilltop castle was well worth the trip even if there hadn’t been a festival. We had spotted this castle from the Rhone when we were passing by on our way to Avignon so it was wonderful to be able to get a view of the Rhone River Valley from this high vantage point. Another lovely trip with plenty to learn more about the role of the Popes in this area and their impact on it.
We always enjoy walking through the towns that we visit
at night as it transforms the place with the night lights so we took the next evening to wander the streets to take in the changes the night sky and evening lights bring to it. During the day we decided to stock up at the stores as we had heard that the marina we are going to stop at next did not have any stores within easy walking distance. With putting our mast up there we know we will be there for a little while – better to be prepared and take advantage of having stores in easy walking distance here in Avignon. We always try to take advantage of the known vs. the unknown as it relates to getting supplies. We typically can carry more when we walk than when we ride our bikes so provisioning was one of our tasks to be accomplished in the next couple of days.
We had to decide, do we stay another day and take a train to Nimes to learn more about the Roman amphitheatre and temple there or do we move on? It didn’t take us long to decide – Nimes won out, but as I see that I have
In Front of the Papal Palace in Avignon
which housed the Pope from 1309 until 1403
put up more than enough photos on this blog entry and rambled on enough, I’ll save Nimes for another blog entry.
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