Everyone Dances in Avignon:
There are those places you drive through or pass through on the train that you always intend to visit one day. Avignon, for me, falls firmly into that category. I’ve visited Provence and the South of France on many occasions and always been charmed by the ambience and architecture of this historic French city when I’ve been passing through. Up to now though, I haven’t had the chance to explore.
Thanks to an invitation to visit Hotel Benvengudo in Les Baux de Provence, we were just a short drive away and our hosts generously arranged a trip with guided tour and then lunch in the City Centre. A great chance to wander around Avignon, though sadly as it turned out, not to dance on the bridge…
Although the history of Avignon goes back to prehistoric periods, it is for a unique time in the history of the Christian Church, when, in 1309, Pope Clement V made Avignon the Pontifical residence. It was his successor, John XXII who elevated the city to make it the capital of Christianity and transformed his former home as Bishop of the diocese to the Palace of Popes. Then, in 1348, Clement VI bought the town for 80,000 florins.
In all, seven popes and two antipopes (figures a little like the leader of the opposition) were based in Avignon and during that period, the city became a hub for creativity, focussed on Le Palais des Papes.
During the Napoleonic Wars the building was converted into an Army barracks and the beautiful Chapel had extra floors and windows installed to accommodate soldiers stationed there. It must have made a strange military base
Thankfully, the building was vacated in 1906 and a careful programme of renovation started almost immediately.
Now the Unesco-listed Gothic style building is open to the public. You can walk through the halls, chapels and terraces and into the private apartments, beautifully decorated with frescoes by Simone Martini and Matteo Giovanetti of the Siena School. Photography in the rooms with the most important frescos is not permitted, but I caught this shot from the screen guide provided outside
And, this one which is by Jean-Marc Rosier licenced under creative commons on Wikipedia gives a better idea of the scale and detail of the Giovanetti frescos in the Chapelle de Saint Martial
Although the Pontifical residency returned to Rome, the City of Avignon continued to flourish and grew in importance as a commercial centre. It was home to one of the first foreign exchange markets – with agents of the great Italian banking houses acting as financial intermediaries and money changers. At the time, the City had a large Italian population since all the papal bankers were Italians.
Avignon is a wonderful place to explore, full of stunning buildings, winding streets and passageways.
There’s a charming and authentic food market where you may just be tempted as I was to stock up on tapenade and conserves. And, when you tire of wandering, there are some excellent restaurants. We enjoyed lunch outside at Le Moutardier du Pape, on the opposite side of the main square to Le Palais des Papes.
Over a glass of wine, and a dish of Sea Bream with artichokes, I reflected that my own fascination with Avignon probably originated with that little nursery rhyme. It may just have been the first French I ever heard. The famous Pont d’Avignon where everyone is supposed to dance was built in the 12th century, but damaged on a regular basis both by wars and by a turbulant Rhone which flooded the lower parts of Avignon on a regular basis. Legend has it that the bridge was built by Benezet, a young shepherd from the Ardeche who heard a voice from heaven commanding him to build the bridge. Challenged by the bishop, he loaded a huge stone onto his shoulder and tossed it into the river, starting the construction of what is the oldest structure on the Rhone river.
Sadly the Pont d’Avignon or Pont St-Benezet was damaged on such a regular basis and by the 17th Century it was abandoned. Now, if you walk up through Rocher des Dom Gardens you can look out over the Rhone at the half-bridge. It’s up to you whether you choose to focus on the legend of St Benezet or simply get a bad case of earworm while you imagine everyone dancing…
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Disclaimer: We were guests of Hotel Benvengudo for this trip to Provence and Avignon. All content is editorially given.
Quartier de l’Arcoule (D78F)
13520 Les Baux de Provence
+33 (0)4 90 54 32 54