I’d heard of the Palais des Papes in the Provencal town of Avignon. I’d seen photos and even knew a little bit of history though not much. But it hadn’t at all prepared me for seeing it in person. The sheer overwhelming size of this towering palace in which Popes once lived is mind boggling. And as for the history of this mighty Gothic castle – it’s nothing short of miraculous.
Why did the Popes live in France?
It’s a good question – just why did the leader of the Catholic church up sticks from Rome and move to France? In the 14th century the politics of Europe were edgy to say the least. History is a little sketchy on the exact reasons but there had been disagreements between the King of France and previous Popes and it’s thought likely that perhaps Rome wasn’t as safe a place as it could be for a French Pope and at the same time, please the French king.
In 1309 Pope Clement V established a Papal residence in Avignon making this French city the capital of the Christian world. Successive Popes elaborated and extended the building until it became the soaring, majestic palace we see today with a maze of rooms and chapels and courtyards. The fourth Pope, Clement VI bought the city of Avignon from the Countess of Provence. Cardinals built grand palatial mansions around the Popes Palace and the old city of Avignon became to all intents and purposes an enclosed city much like the Vatican in Rome.
Seven official Popes lived here until the court was moved back to Rome in 1376. Two “anti-popes” continued living and attempting to rule the Catholic church from Avignon for a further 39 years until finally being made to give up. The Palace then became a residence of the legates of Rome but without investment it became quite dilapidated.
Palais des Papes today
For a while, incredibly, the Palace became a prison as well as barracks for French soldiers. After the French Revolution, this magnificent building was turned into quarters for the army. Inevitably parts of the building were destroyed. The stunning floor tiles that can be seen in just a few of the rooms were pulled up and chucked out of the windows. Some of the frescoes were covered over, mezzanine floors were installed. Damage was caused but strangely, the presence of the army saved it from being pulled down. And, amazingly, some rooms were untouched. The Palace retained enough of its original features that when in the early 1900s it’s magnificence was recognised and opened to the public, there was enough left to impress and to restore.
It is the biggest Gothic palace in the world covering a whopping 15000 square metres.
What to see at the Palais des Papes
Nowadays the UNESCO listed Palace hosts art exhibitions in many of its rooms including the kitchen which is big enough that it once roasted up to 50 oxen, the smoke and immense heat being drawn up its huge chimney.
Some rooms are intact with brightly coloured ceilings gilded and bright with precious lapis lazuli and gold There are beautiful frescoes – the intact Pope’s bedroom is stunning, and in the rooms where the floor tiles are still in place – there’s sublime wow factor. To stand at the Indulgence Window as Popes once did to give blessings to the faithful is quite a strange experience, I could imagine the people below and the Pope waving his arm over them under a typically blue Avignon sky.
If you’re there in the summer a fabulous son et Lumière takes place in the grand courtyard (in English and French) – it’s something you’ll never forget as the walls of the palace are painted with light in a magical presentation.
Also in the summer, the internationally famous Festival of Avignon takes place, with shows in the Palais des Papes as well as throughout the town.
You can take a backstage visit of the Palais des Papes with a guided tour at weekends (via the tourist office) and see private chambers, bathrooms, wardrobes, terraces, chapels and gardens which aren’t open to tourists as a matter of course.
If you go to Avignon, you can’t not visit this amazing historic palace – you won’t be disappointed…
For the son et Lumiere show, les Luminessences d’Avigon, and the Festival of Avignon book in advance online or via the tourist office.
Avignon train station can be reached from Paris in around 2 hours 30 minutes and there are loads of trains daily. You can go direct by Eurostar from London in summer months.