The final day of our cruise had arrived, and the ship was busy with people coming and going as passengers disembarked and were ferried to the stations or the airports depending on the next leg of their journey. For us, we were catching a train to Nimes, and because our departure time wasn’t until 11:00 am, it gave me an opportunity to go back and visit Avignon briefly.
Of course, this being a Sunday, nothing was open apart from churches and the odd café. It certainly was a change from earlier in the week when the narrow streets had been wall to wall people.
I got my bearings and made my way up the hill to the main attraction – the Palace of the Popes. It too was closed, but being deserted, it made it quite easy for me to get plenty of good photos without hoards of tourists around.
If you’re like me, and don’t know a lot about the history of Catholicism, then you too might be surprised to learn that for a period of 67 years (1309-1376), the papacy ruled from Avignon rather than Rome, after Pope Clement V decided to move the seat of supreme power of the Holy Roman Empire there for reasons of politics and safety. In fact, when Pope Gregory XI (the last French Pope) moved the papacy back to Rome in 1376, his death less than two years later triggered a schism within the church that saw an Italian Pope elected in Rome, while French Popes (or “Antipopes”) still continued to rule in Avignon. This continued until the death of Antipope Benedict XIII in 1423, after which his appointed successor abdicated in favour of the Pope in Rome and the church was reunited under the one papacy.
Given the turmoil of the years of the Avignon papacy, it’s not surprising that the Palace of the Popes (the Palais des Papes) was a veritable fortress, built on a natural rock outcrop with walls 17-18 feet thick.
Although the Palais remained under papal control for over 350 years afterwards, it gradually deteriorated despite a restoration in 1516. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789 it was already in a bad state and it was seized and sacked by revolutionary forces. The Palais was subsequently taken over by the Napoleonic French state for use as a military barracks and prison. Today it is a museum.
After walking around the Palais and admiring the commanding views it offered of the surrounding Rhône Valley, I made my way back to the centre of town, past the commanding Hôtel de Ville and back down to the river.
After heading back down through the city gates, I headed to the right, following the wall around to an original drawbridge with a gate connecting on to the Pont Saint-Bénézet bridge, otherwise known as the Pont d’Avignon. I say famous, because apparently everyone else in the world except me has heard the French song about this bridge – which is probably a good thing – because whenever you mention the bridge people immediately start singing the song, all the while complaining about how annoying the song is. In fact so famous, and so annoying is the song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” that even the Wiggles have covered it. I kid you not.
Construction of the stone bridge that replaced an earlier wooden one began in 1234 and consisted of 22 arches and 21 piers that spanned the entire floodplain of the Rhône. For centuries, arches would collapse during times of flood and needed to be rebuilt, until the time of the 17th century when the costs of rebuilding outweighed the usefulness of the bridge. Today there are only four arches remaining.
The morning was starting to heat up again after some overnight rain, and with our departure time fast approaching I retraced my steps back along the quay and returned to the SS Catherine for the final time.