For Travel Writers' Tales
Massive weathered ramparts still encircle Avignon. Fondly nicknamed the Paris of southern France, dynamic summer drama, music and dance festivals maintain her claim to fame as a city of high European culture. Yet, the legacies of popes and angels excite history buffs like my husband and me.
Leaving Place de l'Horloge in the heart of old town, we admire city hall's medieval clock tower and ornate opera house before continuing into the huge nearby square. Here, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-des-Dom's golden Virgin Mary soars above elaborate angelic marble statuary; interior artworks include Pope John XXII's carved mausoleum, a 14th century masterpiece. Europe's largest gothic palace awaits us next door.
Entering the Palais des Papes through mighty portals, we wind through hallways with vaulted ceilings, huge treasury rooms and an immense kitchen tower. Illustrated exhibits explain how Avignon became the influential capital of Christianity between 1309 and 1377. Then, this vast fortified palace protected and pampered seven consecutive popes until the papacy officially returned to Rome.
A maze of bare rooms reflects sumptuous living. Original enameled tiles floor the meditation alcove; lively frescoes of hunting scenes surround a pope's bedchamber; compelling paintings of Christ remain in a small chapel. From dining hall windows we picture once-extensive vegetable gardens and papal menagerie filling arched courtyards below. Sweeping views from the ramparts include Le Petit Palais, a restored archbishop's palace across the square featuring superb Renaissance Italian art.
Threading our way down cobbled streets to other shaded plazas we discover venerable cathedrals displaying further resplendent artistry and refurbished mansions serving as fine art museums. Lingering in open-air bistros we sample buttery croissants thick with local cheeses and sip pungent lattes, while contemplating the extravagances of those bygone days.
Avignon's most celebrated monument spanned the mighty Rhone River. First introduced to St. Benezet's Bridge (aka Pont d'Avignon) when my high school French class belted out Sur le Pont d'Avignon at graduation, I later taught this popular children's song to my own French classes, without ever considering its momentous history, as we all merrily sang, "Sur le pont d'Avignon, l'on y danse, l'on y danse!"
Humming that same lilting melody, we circle round and round, dancing on the fabled bridge…and with audio guides pressed against our ears, become fully acquainted with this UNESCO-listed icon.
Just then the audio-voice notes, "Too narrow for group dancing, it's unlikely that people actually danced upon this structure…but folk dancing was popular in gardens on Ile de la Barthelasse below, an island dividing the Rhone into two wide channels. Originally the song said "Sous le pont," under, not "sur le pont," on the bridge…" Whirling onward undeterred, we gaze out on Avignon from the very spot where King Louis XIV gushed, "It's the most beautiful place in all my kingdom," fully appreciating his passion for this city.
We pause at the two-story chapel precariously perched on this first of four surviving arches. Above, tiny 13th century Chapelle Saint Nicholas, devoted patron saint of Rhone bargemen; below, 12th century Chapelle Saint Benezet honouring the shepherd-saint inspired by holy voices to build 'le pont' at Avignon. According to legend, heavenly angels guided the young shepherd to Avignon. Though his proposal first provoked ridicule, he convinced wealthy supporters of the 'divine will' by lifting a huge boulder and heaving it down at the designated site. Sadly, Benezet never witnessed this miraculous project's completion in 1185.
Originally 947 meters long, four meters wide with 22 wooden arches, this strategically placed bridge attracted travelers and merchants from far and wide during the Middle Ages. Being the sole bridge between Lyon and the Mediterranean, both Avignon and the church prospered greatly from heavy tolls and taxes on merchandise.
Reaching the furthest span we survey Villeneuve-les-Avignon on the opposite riverbank, at one time a glittering sister-city of cardinals. This charming medieval village boasts marvelous 14th century structures of its own...
At mid-span the narrator intones, "Constant repairs became extremely costly…" The Order of Pontiff Brothers founded by Benezet maintained, restored and rebuilt the bridge continuously over its lifetime. Despite frequent replacements, rickety wooden sections became perilous; reconstructed in stone during the 13th century, even those arches collapsed and by the 17th century most had washed completely away. Permanently destroyed by 1668's catastrophic floods, no further repairs were made. Now tamed by upstream hydroelectric dams, it's difficult visualizing the raging waters that regularly wrecked the bridge…
Climbing steep steps to Rocher-de-Dom gardens above the Popes' Palace, we later review Avignon's past glory while watching visitors stream along the angel-inspired bridge…like in bygone days.
WHEN YOU GO:
(1) Beautiful Avignon, nicknamed the Paris of southern France: Overview with UNESCO-listed bridge.
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