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The Other Rome: Adventures in and around Avignon

Garry Shaw goes in search of the popes in Provence and finds a ruined chateau, a world heritage listed historic centre in the town of Avignon, and has a little dance on the famous Pont Saint-Benezet to celebrate

Panoramic view of old town and Papal palace in Avignon, France (Image: Andrii Gorulko)

Sur le Pont d'Avignon, l'on y danse, l'on y danse, sur le Pont d'Avignon l'on y danse tous en rond’ goes the French children's song, composed in the 19th century, but based on a much older tradition of songs about the Provençal city's famous bridge. Seemingly known by every French-speaking person on earth, the lyrics translate as, ‘On the Bridge of Avignon, we dance there, we dance there, on the Bridge of Avignon, we dance there all in a circle.’ Much to my embarrassment, until planning my trip to Avignon, I hadn't heard of this song, but for my Francophone friends, it was a completely different story: to them, I'd be embarking on a pilgrimage. ‘First see the papal palace,’ they said (popes? in Avignon? I thought, keeping quiet about my ignorance). ‘And then go stand on the bridge, sing the song and dance in a circle. It's what you're supposed to do there.’ Well, I figured, if it's what you're supposed to do. Why not?

A short time later, I was driving through the Provençal countryside towards Avignon. Endless vineyards passed by, their fields lined with vines in tidy rows, following the curves of the hills. Tempting advertisements for wine tasting and tours also whizzed by, offered by almost every domaine along the road. Vines have been cultivated in this region since antiquity, with both sides of the River Rhône famous for its produce; the local soil, filled with large round stones, is said to be perfect for wine growing: the stones absorb heat during the day, and release it during the evening. Though wanting to sample the patrimoine of the passing domaines, I resisted stopping until one famous name caught my attention: Châteauneuf-du-Pape, just over 10 km north of Avignon, a village known for its fine red wines, but also for its long history.

The Pope's new castle

Situated on top of a hill, there's been a fortified village at Châteauneuf-du-Pape for around a thousand years. The village church, Our Lady of the Assumption, still retains parts of its 11th-century core. As I wandered the winding narrow streets, a group of tourists on bikes – mainly retirees – flew by, unfazed by the uneven slopes. Other people, less active, sat outside the village's numerous wine bars and restaurants. Their glasses were half-filled and glowing red in the intense Provençal sunlight. From there, I climbed to the top of the hill, passing houses, thin and tall, built of rough, yellow blocks. Each window was covered with a wooden shutter, many painted bright blue. At the peak was the imposing ruin of a castle.

Built in 1317, but in ruins by the 15th century (and part blown-up during the Second World War), all that remains of Châteauneuf-du-Pape's castle is an imposing three-storey wall, and beside it, a further two-storey wall running along the hilltop. Long, thin windows and doorways punctured the stonework across its levels. A row of evenly-spaced square holes allowed me to imagine the second storey's vanished wooden flooring. Standing beside the castle, I looked out across the vineyards, over the salmon-coloured roof tiles of the village houses and towards the distant mountains. They faded blue in the atmospheric haze. I could see why Pope John XXII wanted to build his castle here. But could the region's famous beauty have been his only reason?

Sadly not. The actual reason why a pope – the Bishop of Rome let's not forget – ended up building a castle in France is far more political: in the late 13th century, relations between King Philip IV of France and Pope Boniface VIII were – to put it mildly – strained. Philip IV had removed the clergy from any role in legal matters, and to raise funds for his military campaigns, he'd started taxing the church (a big no-no). This angered Pope Boniface, who among other things, issued a Papal Bull declaring the pope above all secular powers (i.e. pesky French kings). The feud continued in one form or another until Boniface's death in 1303.

The Palace of the Popes (Image: Jean-Marc Rosier,, CC BY-SA 3.0)

After all this drama, the bishops hoped to elect a pope who would be less aggressive towards France. Their first choice, Pope Benedict XI, died within a year, leaving them to elect Pope Clement V in 1305, a man born in the Kingdom of France, and so less likely to cause trouble. In 1309, the papal court moved to Avignon. With instability in Rome, the move was expected to be temporary. It lasted nearly 70 years. A result of this ‘Babylonian captivity’ – as the phase became known – was that the Kingdom of France and the papal court become increasingly close; indeed, Clement V appointed nine French cardinals, making it almost certain that his own successor would be French. He was right – that's tactical divine inspiration for you.

Avignon was probably founded in the 6th century BC by the Phocaeans – Greeks from the city of Phocaea in western Anatolia, the same group that had also founded nearby Marseille. Afterwards, it passed into Roman hands (in fact, there's still some Roman remains visible around the city), and in 1303 it became a university town. It might have remained a small, yet pleasant centre of learning on the banks of the Rhône, if not for the period of papal occupancy; it was over these tumultuous decades that the city was transformed into ‘the other Rome.’ It never looked back.

But – you may well ask – if Avignon was so unimportant, why did Clement decide to move there? The pope, like any medieval monarch, owned various states in Europe; his territories were primarily in Italy, but he also held land along the River Rhône, known as the Comtat Venaissin. This had been awarded to the papacy in 1229 at the end of the Albigensian Crusade. Avignon lay just outside this county, but was better located than the towns within its borders: the Bridge of Avignon provided easy access into the Kingdom of France, across the river, and was well-located for communication. Both Rome and London were within two weeks travelling time. Paris could be reached in just five days. The pope's non-ownership of the city didn't matter either: Avignon belonged to Charles II, duke of Anjou, a papal vassal (and also King of Naples and Count of Provence), so, he wasn't going to cause Clement any trouble. Now that the Pope had chosen a new home for himself (and Christendom), he just needed a place to live.


This article is from the Summer 2016 issue of Timeless Travels magazine.

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