One of the most important lessons I learned on this particular trip was not to judge a city by its first impression. Despite all of the historic hype given to the once Papal city of Avignon, it was not an immediate favorite of mine. For some reason, my first impression just lacked that wow factor. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention when I first entered the enclosed city center or maybe it was the massive crowds swarming around the street performers that made me feel like I was in Times Square again (anyone who, like me, lives in NYC avoids Times Square as much as humanly possible.) The reasons why I felt put off stopped mattering after just a short time in the city as the different views and attractions quickly changed my opinion.
The first thing that anyone will notice as they step off the train in Avignon is the fact that the entire city center is enclosed by medieval ramparts. While the walls and towers of the medieval city are not quite as tall and imposing as somewhere like Carcassonne, the area covered is absolutely massive. I spent almost an entire day inside those walls and there was still more I could have seen just in that area of Avignon alone. It’s funny, actually, I think I was in too much of a hurry to check in to my hotel to realize that the whole city center was enclosed. My opinion of Avignon changed as soon as I realized not only the fact that the medieval walls still stood but also just how much area lay within the enclosure. I think walled cities are so cool, the history becomes all the more palpable when you start being able to picture what a city may have looked like all those years ago.
Speaking of history, the city of Avignon itself has had numerous different inhabitants since prehistory. In antiquity, the city was the capital of the Celtic tribe called the Cavares as well as an important trading post near the Greek colony of Massalia (later, Marseille.) During the Roman era, the city fell under Roman rule and became part of the province of Gallia Narbonensis. During the period of barbaric invasions, Avignon was sacked by the Goths and Burgundians but ultimately fell into the hands of the Merovingians. For a brief period, the city of Avignon and the surrounding area were occupied by the Saracens but were quickly retaken by the Franks and held definitively. One of the coolest bits of history is that in the 1300s, the papacy moved from Rome to Avignon and the Palais des Papes, beginning what is known as the Avignon Papacy. It was during this time that the plague landed in Marseille and made its way up the river to Avignon. The area was held by the Papal States until the 18th century when it was reincorporated as part of the Kingdom of France. I wanted to see just what made the city so contested over the years. To know that so much had happened inside these walls gave the city so much importance for me to see. The more I imagined the historical happenings in Avignon, the more awe-inspiring the city became. The city center, Palais des Papes, and the famous Pont d’Avignon are also UNESCO World Heritage sites making them even more important to see.
The dynamic history of this area brought about the construction of two different castles, one in Avignon city center called the Palais des Papes, and one across the river in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon called Fort Saint-André. I didn’t get to visit Fort Saint-André, but I did visit the Palais des Papes which was high on my list of castles I wanted to see. This was by far one of my favorites. The idea that the Popes lived there for about a century was so cool. There are about 25 rooms open to visit via either a self-guided or audio guided tour. The audioguide was free through tablets that take you from room to room and give you tons of information on the history and purpose of each. In a handful of these rooms there are little podiums with a symbol on them that when you scan them, the tablet shows you in 3D what the room would have looked in the 14th century. Within the castle, there are a couple of gift shops that sell bottles of Chateauneuf-de-Pape (one of my favorites!) and different tea mixtures named after the popes who once lived there. The whole experience lasts about two hours and is definitely worth a visit. The importance of this castle in the Middle Ages made it so interesting to visit, especially because unlike many other castles I visited, the castle wasn’t filled with a random art exhibit (I like art exhibits, but would rather see historic artifacts when visiting a museum inside a castle). There was one room filled with art but most of the others contained artifacts specific to the Popes and this particular castle. There’s also a cafe on the top of the palace but I didn’t get to visit that because it was closed for renovations.
From the castle, it’s just a short walk to the park called the Rocher des Doms where one can take in the panoramic views of the Rhône. I know I’ve probably said so many times by now but the Rhône is such a beautiful river. The water is a pretty color, it’s almost like a perfect mixture of the green of the trees with the vibrant blue of the sky above. Any of the cities along the river (I visited Arles, Tarascon, and Avignon) share similar views of the gorgeous water. The park in Avignon is perched on top of a hill giving visitors a great view of the ramparts, river, and the Pont d’Avignon below as well as the Fort Saint-André on a hill in the distance. I stayed in this park for quite a while taking in the views. Despite being in the city center, the Rocher des Doms is actually quite peaceful and a great place to spend some time relaxing. In the morning when I woke up I walked along the walls and down by the river where I got to visit the famous bridge. I highly suggest doing this early in the morning because it quickly becomes crowded with tourists. I managed to get there just early enough to be by myself for a bit. As I was headed down the stairs off of the bridge at least three tour groups were headed up. How’s that for good timing?
One of the more interesting things about the time of year I visited Avignon was that it was right in the middle of the Avignon Festival Off, a giant festival of over 1000 pieces of theatre, dance, and cinema that takes place all over the city center during the better part of the month of July. If you’re in Avignon in July, it’s impossible to miss. The city was as crowded as Times Square in places where people gathered around the street performers. I was kind of annoyed at first because weaving my way through crowds is not my ideal way to see a new place but once I got the landmarks and monuments I wanted to see out of the way, I started to stop here and there to watch. That night I had dinner at a restaurant in the plaza in front of the Palais and got to watch and listen to a handful of performers as I ate. During the festival, booklets are handed out that give all of the practical information on the pieces being performed. The festival is very bohemian and is a really cool experience due to the vast variety of types of performance. I highly recommend visiting Avignon at this time because it is an amazing way to experience the arts in France.
Needless to say, my opinion of Avignon was very much changed by the time I boarded a train to leave. The more I think back on my visit, the more I want to spend more time there. This is one of the many examples of cities that when I stepped off the train, I wasn’t immediately impressed but which grew on me more and more as I explored it. I can’t wait to go back!