21 October 2013


On Thursday the 3rd of October we had secured to mooring rings on Quai de la Ligne in Avignon. In three days we had come just over 240 kilometres from Lyon through swiftly flowing current and busy commercial traffic and we needed a break.

Late on Friday morning, after a sleep-in and a leisurely breakfast, we walked through the wall at Port de la Ligne and into the old city. We wound our way through a maze of streets, many just barely wide enough for small cars and others too narrow even for that. We were headed for Les Halles, the covered market.

Inside we found a huge selection of stalls, offering the full range of fresh items that would be found in a huge supermarket.

There are fruit and vegetable stalls.

One has a great selection of specialty mushrooms: chanterelles, cèpes, trompettes, morilles, pied de mouton, girolles and so on.

There are several fishmongers along the side of the hall.

There is a stall with a vast selection of fresh and dried herbs, nuts, legumes, dried fruit, candied fruit, salts and peppers. Next along from it is one of the many cheese vendors.

And, of course, there are the mandatory bakers and wine shops. We chose some fish and some produce, including a selection of wild mushrooms for the evening’s dinner.

After we had dropped-off our purchases onboard Zonder Zorg, we headed back through the old city. We found the local offices of Banque de France, the national financial authority sited appropriately next to le Palais des Papes, the fourteenth century seat of the Catholic Church.

In the thirteenth century, the papal court was itinerant, rarely staying in Rome and residing in several cities in its states. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, bitter disagreements between King Philip the Fair of France and Pope Boniface VIII culminated in 1303 with an attack against the Pope in his palace at Anagni. In 1305 the archbishop of Bordeaux was elected pope as Clément V. He remained in France, primarily to adjudicate the fate of the Knights Templar, whom the King of France, being in deep financial debt to them, had capriciously accused of heresy. In 1309, still with no fixed address, the Pope stayed in Avignon and in Comtat Venaissin. He systematically promoted French bishops to cardinal, and by the time of his death in 1314, he had created a small French majority in the Sacred College, ending the Italian domination. The next six popes elected were consequently French and they chose Avignon as their permanent seat and built the Palais des Papes. 

Avignon was the property of Charles II of Anjou, Count of Provence, King of Naples and Sicily and therefore vassal of the Pope, to whom he offered support. Avignon was also next to Comtat Venaissin, a Church possession since the late thirteenth century. This was a peaceful and stable territory at the confluence of the Rhône and Durance rivers and close to the Kingdom of France, to which it was linked by Pont Saint-Bénezet, the famous Pont d’Avignon. Lying at the crossroads of major land and water routes, Avignon was ideally located in the heart of Christian Europe.

For two years after the death of Pope Clément V, the College deliberated on choosing the next pope. Finally, after intense negotiations, in 1316 they chose the seventy-two year old Jean XXII, intending him as a transitional pope in view of his advanced age. He lived for another eighteen years and transformed Avignon into the capitol of Christendom. During his reign, the Curia increased from 200 to 500 and an additional 1000 lay officials were working in its support.

We paid our admission and entered the huge complex of buildings. The construction of the palace had been the largest building project in the Christian world in the fourteenth century. Work was begun in 1335 under Pope Benoît XII, and by the time of his death in 1342, the Old Palace had been built.

Huge additions, called the New Palace, were begun under his successor, Clément VI. Construction paused for a four year break because of the Great Plague of 1348. It was then mostly completed in 1352. It was then and is still now the largest Gothic palace in Europe.

The construction accounted for approximately one quarter of the annual expenditure of the Pontifical treasury and involved monthly salaries for a workforce of 850. Locally quarried limestone was used and its purchase and transport accounted for sixty-five percent of the cost. Reinforcing the vast complex are ten tons of iron embedded in the masonry in an innovative technique. In the complex are 15,000 square metres of floor space.

Inside the first courtyard, le Cours d’Honneur, we saw continuing excavation of the grounds, with seemingly the same temporary scaffolding I had seen on a previous visit in the mid-80s. Either there is some serious archeological work being done, or this thirty year dig is simply an example of the speed of French public works.

We strolled around the huge courtyard getting a feeling of the scale of the place and marvelling at how well preserved much of it is after two-thirds of a millennium. It has survived not only time, but also the ravages of political and religious wars, revolution and the confiscation and destruction of Church properties.

The architecture is rather bland and slab-sided, typical of the Gothic style, but there are some very pleasing features.

We headed inside, following the clearly laid-out tour route and on our handheld audio guides listening to commentary about what we were seeing.

In the lower kitchen we saw across the entire end of the large room a fireplace, in which food was cooked. 

Set in one end of it was a much smaller domed oven, reminiscent of the ones we had seen in the sixteenth century Monestario Santa Catalina in Arequipa, Peru on our wanderings there.

On the second floor of la Tour du Pape, the Pope’s Tower, is le Trésor Bas, the Lower Treasury. There we saw stones in the floor lifted to reveal hidden vaults. These vaults, one in each corner of the room, were discovered as recently as the mid-1980s. According to documents, the vaults would have held Church archives transferred from Rome to Avignon by Pope Benoît XII. Also concealed below the stones in ironclad chests with multiple locks, would have been gold and silverware and sacks of gold and silver coins. Only the Pope, the Chamberlain and the Treasurer could enter the heavily guarded treasury.

On display nearby were examples of silver coins struck by eight of the Avignon popes: Clément V, Jean XXII, Clément VI, Innocent VI, Urbain V, Grégoire XI, Clément VII and Benoît XIII. Only one of the Avignon popes did not strike any coins; Benoît XII considered that his predecessor had issued sufficient.

The coins on display were gros d’argent and demi-gros d’argent, which translates to bigs of silver and half bigs of silver. This gros d’argent was issued by Clément VI.

Recent restoration work has uncovered original painted ceilings and upper walls from the fourteenth century. The high room apparently had dropped ceilings installed over the centuries, likely to make the room easier to heat.

The tour led out into the gardens behind la Tour du Pape. In these gardens the popes had a menagerie of exotic birds and animals and plantations of imported trees.

The animals and trees are gone, but from the space we could look up at the Pope’s Tower in the Old Palace, completed by 1342.

Along to the right is the New Palace, which was completed in 1352. We walked along the base of its walls and went back inside to continue the tour.

We climbed a long circular staircase. This was part of the new kitchen tower built in 1342 by Clément VI, which featured several stories for storing and preserving provisions.

At the top of the tower is the Upper Kitchen. This has an eighteen metre high pyramidal chimney above its centre. Beneath the chimney was the hearth surrounded by a large rectangular structure with several levels of spits, on which large quantities of food could be simultaneously cooked.

Dishes were then taken directly along to the Grand Tinel for final preparation in the Dressoir. The Grand Tinel was the papal banqueting hall. Its interior had been decorated with frescoes in 1345 by Matteo Giovannetti. The Pope held sumptuous receptions there, sitting separately along the south wall on a cathedra that was bedecked with multicoloured fabrics and surmounted by a canopy. He dined off priceless crockery, gold and silverware and looked out over the guests seated at tables around the walls.

In 1413 the Grand Tinel was gutted by fire and for a long time it was known as the burnt room. Its roofs and terraces were rebuilt between 1414 to 1419. From the Grand Tinel we made our way up onto roof edge walk, from where we looked across Cour Benoît XII to the bell tower on Palais Vieux.

From another portion of the roof edge walks we had a fine view across the courtyard of the tower of the Old Palace.

Back inside we looked at displays of some of the original hand-painted floor tiles. These had been found during excavations and restorations both here in the Palais des Papes and also at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Pope’s new castle about fifteen kilometres north of Avignon.

Further along we came to a room that had been richly decorated with frescoes depicting outdoor scenes. Most impressive to me is the wall with a hunting scene featuring a falconer with his two dogs. Photography is forbidden in the room and the room is guarded. I went on to the next room and set-up my camera to shoot inconspicuously in front of the guards. Back in the room, I managed to get a few acceptable shots. 

Another frescoed wall that impressed me depicts a scene of people using various nets and lines to catch fish in a pool. The colours are still vibrant after more than six hundred and fifty years.

The colours on the painted ceiling are also bright, so I suspect that it and the walls must have been protected behind covers of some sort as the palace went through a number of uses after Benoît XIII, the last Avignon pope left the palace in 1403.

The next room had displays of sculptures and statuary. On one wall is a fine relief of Christ carrying the cross.

Looked at obliquely, its high relief is fully realised.

In the room are also statues of dead popes and other memorial works.

We entered the fifty-two metre long Grand Chapel, which at the time of our visit was spoiled by an exhibition of horribly garish modern attempts at art. Even with the distraction, we were able to appreciate the scale and grandeur of the vast room. 

From there we went up and out onto another set of roof edge walks. This one, above la Cour d’Honneur offered a great view across the courtyard to la Tour du Pape. 

We went back inside and down to the huge reception hall, which is at ground level, beneath the Grand Chapel.

There are still vestiges of frescoes on the walls, but most had been destroyed by subsequent users after the popes had left. In one arch there remains a bright fresco depicting a series of saints. Under this arch, visitors and delegations were received, and its surface had been painted to mark the place.

From the 1403, when the past pope left, until the Revolution in 1789, legates and then vice-legates governed Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin on behalf of the Pope. They altered and redecorated apartments in the palace, destroying certain elements. In 1791 the people of Avignon expelled the Pope’s last representative in Avignon and Comtat Venaissin became a part of France. Palais des Papes remained vacant for almost two decades, and then from 1810 to 1906 it served as military barracks and as a prison. 

As we walked back to Zonder Zorg for a very belated lunch, we were amazed that the palace has survived as well as it has.

After our lunch, in the late afternoon we walked along the riverfront to Pont Saint Bénezet, le Pont d’Avignon of history, fable and song. The fable goes that bridge was the inspiration of a young shepherd named Bénezet who came from Burzet, a hamlet in Ardeche. In 1177 he arrived in Avignon as an adolescent, claiming he had been told by God to build a bridge across the Rhône. The young teen was a leader of men; his words stirred crowds and he encouraged the people of the town to build the bridge. He organised fund raising and travelled broadly collecting alms and donations.

The bridge, which was completed in 1185, was an extraordinary undertaking for the time. It spanned 915 metres with twenty-two arches and in doing so, it crossed the fastest and most powerful river in France. The course of the Rhône at Avignon has been constantly changing, with bars and islands appearing and disappearing. The spring thaws bring catastrophic flooding. Huge bridge-destroying trees are washed downriver in spates and after storms.

All that remains of the bridge today is four arches with a chapel in the pillar between the second and third arches. It has a long history  of political and environmental destructions and subsequent rebuilding. In 1226 the King of France in a bitter dispute destroyed all but two arches of the bridge, from the French end all the way to the Bénezet Chapel, all that he claimed belonged to him. It was likely quickly rebuilt, since the records show that people of Avignon were officially rebuked by the Pope in 1237 for having done the work despite Royal prohibitions. In the fourteenth century, the Avignon Popes strongly supported the maintenance of the bridge. Finally, at the end of the seventeenth century, the repeated reconstruction of the bridge was abandoned.

We put our passes from Palais des Papes into the turnstile slot and were allowed in. A bridge led across from the Avignon ramparts to the toll tower.

The construction of the ramparts of Avignon had been begun by Pope Innocent VI in 1355 to strengthen defences and they remain well preserved today. Over four kilometres around, they enclose an area that made Avignon at the time the second largest town after Paris. At the toll gate, fees were collected for use of the bridge, the amount depending on whether it was foot traffic, horse and rider, hand cart, wagon or herd of livestock.

Our fees had already been collected, so we continued through the toll tower and across the drawbridge onto the bridge. At the third pillar we descended a flight of stone steps on its side and arrived at the chapel. 

Across from the simple stone chapel is a balcony on top of the downstream buttress of the pillar. These triangular buttresses had been built on both the upstream and downstream sides of the pillar cribbings to break the river’s current. Research has determined that the method of bridge construction was to prepare a stone casing on a large wooden raft, float it into position and begin overloading the casing until it sank. Under the weight of the masonry, the wood remained on the bottom.

Looking back along the bridge to Avignon, we see Palais des Papes just inside the ramparts beyond the end of the bridge. The popes there ran through the process of canonising the teenaged Bénezet for his miraculous bridge. In 1965, during restoration work, Compagnie Nationale du Rhône discovered wooden planks and beams beneath the four remaining cribbings. Their thickness varied from 20 centimetres to 1 metre 10 and the wood was carbon-dated between 290 and 530 AD. Across the river at the Villeneuve end of the bridge, the cribbings include fir beams dating between the ninth and eleventh centuries. There were bridges here before the young Bénezet came to town and the fable of Saint Bénezet has a few more holes in it.

As we strolled back in along the bridge, looking upstream at Zonder Zorg, we pondered what we had seen and learned during this very full day in Avignon.

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