What do you think of when you think of Avignon?
You might, like me, think of the Picasso painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (which was painted in Barcelona, not France).
You might think of the Bridge of Avignon, which I’d never heard of but is apparently quite famous.
Or you might reach back into your tenth grader AP European History class and pull out some half-forgotten chunk of knowledge about the medieval popes. Mainly that for almost a hundred years in the 14th century they called Avignon home, instead of Rome.
That’s basically all I had to go on: south of France, pretty name, something about popes. So I went to wikipedia, where I learned that in 1309, the newly appointed Pope, a frenchman named Clement V, decided that Rome was so over, and established his offices in Avignon instead. Six other popes followed his lead, until 1377 when they pope finally moved back to Rome. Even after that a couple of “antipopes” still ruled in Avignon, opposing the real pope. This was called the “Western Schism” and it went on until 1403.
Why does this history lesson matter? Because the end result was one of the most impressive castles I have ever seen. You see, the Popes in France got pretty busy spending some of that Catholic money, and built themselves a new vatican. It’s the biggest gothic palace in Europe- the original was over 2.6 acres in area and cost most of the papal treasury to build. The interior space is the equivalent of 4 gothic cathedrals. It’s a monster.
Admission to the Palais de Papes (Palace of the Popes) is 10.50 € and includes an audio guide, which is essential for such an enormous undertaking. Wandering through you’ll see chapels the size of football fields, massive courtyards and long stone hallways. The popes must have really liked feeling very, very small.
After 1403 the palace gradually deteriorated. It was sacked during the French Revolution, used as a prison by Napoleon and then later on as a bunker. Many of the luscious frescoes, tiles and other decorations that used to adorn the palace are long gone, leaving only small hints of what once was.
I kind of like it better this way though. With nothing left but cool stone, you can really appreciate the scope of the place: the huge high ceilings, the elegant arched windows and the bare stone floors, all 700 years old. It’s like a massive shell, a leftover remnant of a time when money was no issue and the Catholic Church let their imagination run wild. I’m not sure I’d like to live in that era, but it’s crazy to think about.