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Memories of a visit to Avignon

Palais des Papes, Avignon

Avignon in Provence is a fascinating city. Where else can you see a medieval bridge which stops halfway cross a river and an official papal residence for nearly a century? Avignon has many sides to it. Once ruled by Greeks, then Romans, there followed a variety of kings until finally it became French after centuries of confrontation and resistance.

When I arrived, Avignon has a party atmosphere as it was in the middle of the renowned annual Arts Festival. Founded in 1947 to celebrate ballet, drama and classical music, there are two sides to it: Festival In which offers formal dance, music and theater generally inside the Palais du Papes. And Festival Off which usually takes place in the streets, parks and other public spaces and features plays, dances, musical performances, and other more informal presentations. More than 130,000 visitors attend the festivals each summer, which also include street theatre, jazz and fine arts.

Avignon’s hot Mediterranean summer days are perfect for festivals. July and August tend to average 28 C (83 F), even the coldest days in winter are around 9 C or 48 F. In July, the driest month, the rainfall is about 37 millimeters (1.5 inches). The real weather culprit is the mistral, an often-brutal wind which brings ice and snow in winter to Provence and hot, destructive wind and rain in summer, driven by wind speeds of above 110 km/h. It blows between 120 and 160 days per year!

The Palais des Papes was begun in 1316 by John XXII, and completed in 1370, extended and updated by successive popes. Built originally as a fortress, it covered 150,000 square feet. The Papal Court resided in Avignon until Urban V was able to move the Court back to Rome in 1377.  The Palace then evolved to its present form by additions and improvements and modifications during the so-called Capture of the Papacy. During that period, two Popes led the Roman Catholic Church – one in Rome and one in Avignon.

Inside the Palais the interior is dry and dimly lit, the only light from massive arched windows strategically placed in the high walls. Most of the dry, dusty rooms are empty, looted of their treasures by the Revolutionists of 1789. The Gerta Chapel is amazing for its sheer size and beauty. Inside the Consistory Hall, you can’t help but marvel at the subtleties of Simone Martini’s dramatic and humanized religious frescoes from the fourteenth century. I felt like Gulliver, small and insignificant, everything here is on a grand scale.

In the Grand Tinel – the banquet hall – there are 18th century tapestries, replacements for those that once hung there. The Stag Room, Pope Claremont VI’s study features exquisite frescoes of hunting scenes and ceramic tiles from the fourteenth century.

A stone’s throw from the Palace you’ll find the Pont Saint Benezet or Pont d’Avignon (the Bridge of Avignon). Built between 1171 and 1185, it extended nearly 3000 feet over the Rhone River. Destroyed during the siege of Avignon by Louis VIII of France in 1226, it was subsequently rebuilt and often destroyed and rebuilt after floods during the following centuries. Only four arches now remain.

There are plenty more places of interest in the town including the Université d’Avignon, formally created from the city schools in 1303 by Pope Boniface VIII. Notre Dame des Doms built during the 12th century. The Romanesque cathedral features a 19th century gilded statue of the Virgin Mary in its western tower. There is also the 14th century Église Saint Symphorien, once a Carmelite monastery, and three famous chapels: the Chapel of the White penitents built in the 16th century, the Chapel of the Grey penitents from the 18th century and the Chapel of the Black penitents in the 19th century.

The Hotel de Ville, while relatively young – constructed in 1846 – contains a bell tower from the 14th century. The House of King René from the 15th century is also worth seeking out for its architectural and historical values.

Some of the most intriguing elements in Avignon are the walls which encircled the town. A superb example of medieval fortifications, the massive limestone walls are topped by battlements, guarded by 39 formidable towers and several gateways, three from the 14th century.

By John Pekich  producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA

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