For many, the first thing that springs to mind when thinking of Avignon in Provence is the well-known French children’s song about dancing on a bridge in the city: “sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse“. But did you know that the 12th century bridge is UNESCO listed? And it’s not the only UNESCO-listed site in this medieval city…
The UNESCO-listed sites of Avignon
Palais des Papes and the Place du Palais
From 1309 to 1377 Avignon was the seat of seven successive Catholic Popes beginning with Clement V, a Frenchman. Unrest in Rome and politics played a part in the decision to move papal power to Provence. Of course the Popes had to have somewhere suitable to live. The monumental Palais des Papes, the Popes’ Palace, was built between 1335 to 1352 and over the years there were more modifications.
Jean Froissart, a 14th century chronicler and writer who visited Avignon, described it as “the most beautiful and strongest house in the world.” It housed Europe’s largest library at the time. And it wasn’t cheap to build, costing 400,000 Livres (the French currency at the time). That’s a whopping six times what Pope Clement VI spent when he bought the city of Avignon from Johanna, Countess of Provence, in 1348. The city was only reclaimed by France in 1793.
Set in the immense Place du Palais, the palace is as big as five cathedrals. It has an eye-popping 15,000 m² of floor space (three times the size of the White House in Washington DC). In fact, it is the biggest Gothic palace in the world.
The popes of Avignon
When the Papal court was moved back to Rome, dissident cardinals in Avignon “elected” two more Popes to reign in France, This actiion split the church for 39 years, but in the end Rome was the victor. The Popes Palace in Avignon became a residence for visiting dignitaries and fell into disrepair. During the French Revolution it became a prison. Then was turned into a barracks for Napoleon’s soldiers. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the magnificence of the building was once again recognised. It became a public museum in 1906.
Twenty-five rooms in the palace are open to visitors including the former Indulgence Window. From here the Pope gave blessings to the crowds below. You can visit the grand formal rooms which held banquets and ceremonies, the Treasury, the private chapels and apartments with priceless frescoes.
The palace is surrounded by other monuments including the former residence of Bishops, known as the Petit Palais. It’s not actually that petit and covers an impressive 3000 m² with two inner courtyards. It was rebuilt in the 15th century on the site of a former palace built to house Archbishop Julien de la Rovère. He later became Pope Jules II. It’s now a museum with an extensive collection of artworks of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance including works by Botticelli and Carpaccio.
Notre-Dame des Doms Cathedral
Next to the Palais des Papes is the Cathedral of Notre Dame des Doms. It was built in 1150 in the Provençal Romanesque style and predates the Papal complex. Gothic style chapels were added between the 14th and 17th centuries. Atop the cathedral’s bell tower, a 20-foot gilded statue of the Virgin Mary presides over the surroundings.
Rocher des Doms Gardens
A short walk from the cathedral you’ll find the Rocher des Doms park. From its peak you have panoramic views of the Rhone river. It’s a beautiful park, centred around a pond which is home to swans and other waterfowl, and offers a green refuge from the summer heat to tourists and locals alike.
Clos de la Vigne
Within the Rocher des Doms park the Clos de la Vigne is the only AOC intramural vineyard in France on a UNESCO World Heritage site. The small parcel of vines features 12 grape varieties for red and white wines. Grapes are harvested by hand, and in 2021 the first bottles of matured wine were auctioned for charity. The vineyard overlooks the river Rhone and the famous Saint-Bénézet bridge, the town’s emblem and yet another UNESCO listed monument in Avignon…
Saint-Bénézet bridge – the Pont d’Avignon
The building of the bridge of Avignon was begun in 1175 after a 10 year-old shepherd from the Ardèche named Bénézet (which means ‘Little Benoit’) claimed to have been told by God to build a bridge along the waterfront in Avignon. Legend has it that, after walking to Avignon, accompanied by an angel disguised as a pilgrim, he was challenged by the Bishop’s provost to carry an impossibly large block of stone to the water’s edge. It was so large, it was said that thirty strong men couldn’t move it.
The tale goes that aided by angels bathed in golden light, he hoisted the stone onto his shoulder Then he laid it as the foundation stone for the Bridge. Overcome by this miraculous feat, benefactors supplied sufficient funds. It took ten years to complete the bridge. Bénézet’s feat was declared a miracle, though he died without seeing it completed, he died in 1184. Pilgrims flocked to see the bridge whose fame spread far and wide. And the shepherd became the patron saint of bridge builders.
Louis XIV the last walker on the bridge
Originally almost a kilometre long, the bridge had 22 arches. It was built at a point of the river where the force of water was so strong, even Roman engineers were deterred from building there. Today, only four arches remain, the bridge having been poorly maintained, reconstructed several times and finally swept away by floods. It collapsed in the 17th century and it’s said that King Louis XIV was one of the last people to walk across it.
On the bridge the little stone Chapel of Saint-Bénézet where the saint was originally buried, was rebuilt in 1414 after the “War of the Catalonians”. The Saint’s remains are now in the nearby 14th century Gothic church of Saint-Didier, built during the time of the Popes in Avignon.
The ramparts of Avignon
The old city of Avignon is encircled by ramparts. They are 4.3km long and were built to protect the city from the assaults by gangs of marauding mercenaries. Work began in 1355 during the Papacy of Pope Innocent VI. It was completed in 1370 under the reign of Pope Urban V. The entrance of the Avignon Bridge provides access onto the ramparts, and to the Rocher des Doms Gardens. The views over the city and the Rhône River are breath-taking.
“Very few medieval cities in Provence have intact ramparts today. They were sometimes demolished by kings to weaken the power of the local community. For instance Louis XIV ordered the demolition of Orange’s fortifications in 1660, which makes Avignon’s ramparts all the most special. And sometimes they were just taken by the locals to use for building materials.” says Emily Durand of Your Private Provence.
But don’t go thinking Avignon is a museum town. It’s a vibrant city with lots of beautiful squares where you can sit and watch the world go by at superb bars and restaurants. There are more than a dozen museums and year-round festivals. You’ll find fabulous markets (don’t miss Les Halles). And it’s the perfect place to wander with picturesque streets lined with magnificent architectural gems.
Recommended tour: Heritage sites and lavender tour