When you drive into the center of Avignon, the Palais des Papes (or Papal Palace) is the first thing you see. And boy, is it a sight. Towering over the main square and all the surrounding streets, it’s everything you expect from a medieval castle: half fortress, half extravagant political residence.
Back in the days when the holiest office in the world was an opulent soap opera as often as it was spiritual, the Papacy left Rome and, finally, settled in Avignon. The result? The city became the beautiful, rich place that we unexpectedly got to explore.
The history of the Papal Palace
Rome was antiquity’s Los Angeles with a classic Italian twist: full of egos, cosmopolitan backstabbers, and rival families always out for blood. Since the power of the Papacy often came into conflict with many of these families, it’s no wonder that many Popes took their leave of their traditional home for large portions of their rule. Because of its proximity to Church territory in France, and Avignon’s rule by a faithfully Catholic king, Avignon made a perfect place to call home.
Boyfriend Perspective: I hope they had popcorn for all that drama. I mean have SEEN “The Borgias”?
Nearly a century’s worth of Popes made their mark on Avignon. Construction of the palace began in 1355, and with it, the city grew in population and prestige. This is also when the Pont St. Bénézet began to be refurbished for the first time.
The palace was the site of growth and wealth, but also became a target for revolutionaries in the 1700s. In the years following, much of the art and beauty of the palace’s interior was destroyed due to the palace’s use as a barracks and prison.
In the early 1900s, the place became a museum, as was restored to as much of its former glory as possible.
Now, it welcomes so many visitors that it’s considered one of the top 10 monuments and museums in France.
Boyfriend Perspective: From posterity to utility to touristy, oh how the mighty have fallen. “Excuse me sir, your ticket!”
^^ this guy, right now!
You can get audio guides for this tour, just as you can for the Pont St. Bénézet, but most of the exhibits also have a copious amount of text, so you won’t miss anything if you don’t fork over the extra couple Euros.
Currently, the palace is a mix of pieces from antiquity, and modern art installations. It can be a little jarring to go from classic marble busts to vague metal sculpture – particularly if you’re not a rabid modern art fan – so just keep that in mind. It’s also worth noting that the courtyard has been transformed with stadium seating and a stage, and that plays are often put on (taking advantage of the acoustics). We didn’t get to partake, but happily would have.
There are three particularly stunning places in this palace.
– The chapels whose Giovannetti frescoes are still mostly intact – and still vibrant and stunning. They’re the kind of pre-Renaissance art you expect from Catholic opulence. Note that pictures aren’t allowed in these chapels.
– The restored tiled floors and frescoed walls of the Pope’s bedroom. They’re brilliantly colorful, and absolutely breathtaking. Photography also isn’t allowed here.
– The grand audience hall. It’s not particularly beautiful in an artistic sense, but the sheer scale of the room, and the height and loveliness of the vaulted ceilings will take your breath away. Photos DEFINITELY allowed and encouraged here 🙂
Things to note
BRING YOUR WALKING SHOES. Seriously, this is a HUGE amount of ground to cover and you will be very, very tired after the fact.
Also, when you exit the palace, there’s a wonderful patisserie nearby that we stumbled upon – whether you go for the wine, the bread, or just the cat in a French flag-themed box, make sure you enjoy 🙂
Boyfriend Perspective: This cafe was awesome – had this ‘run by grandma and kids’ feel to it. They had a solid recommendation for a chilled white wine for such a warm day!
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Also published on Medium.