Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Papal Visit

We’ve visited the Vatican, been blessed by the pope (along with tens of thousands of others). Today we’re off to the other city of popes: Avignon, 100 kilometres northeast of Montpellier.

It takes just an hour to get to Avignon and we head for the Papal Palace. The story of how Avignon became the home of the popes is a politically complex one, too complex to describe here. But in the early 14th century, Pope Clement V (a Frenchman) moved his residence from Rome to Avignon. He and the next 6 popes lived and worked there, a period of 69 years. The pope bought Avignon in 1348 and it remained a papal possession until 1791, becoming part of France during the revolution. After the popes left, the palace suffered centuries of deterioration and destruction, including periods as an army barracks and stables. The French government declared it a national museum in 1906, and it has been undergoing restoration ever since.

The Papal Palace itself is an austere Gothic structure that sits in a large square, built on a rocky outcropping overlooking the Rhone River. Inside, the museum has done an admirable job of bringing the life of the papal court back to life: the politics and plotting, the lavish banquets, the private papal important then, all gone now. After a while, you can almost hear whispers of intrigue along the corridors. The immense banquet hall is particularly impressive, as is the huge fireplace and chimney in the neighbouring kitchen. Standing on the papal balcony, where new popes were crowned and where the popes would bless the pilgrims below, all I can think is, “Sic transit gloria …fame is fleeting.” Worth a visit.

From the Palais des Papes, it’s a short walk to Pont Saint-Bénezet, the Pont d’Avignon made famous in song:
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

Built across the Rhone River in the 12th century, the bridge no longer spans the river; the constant flow of the forceful current, with frequent flooding, led to various arches collapsing over the centuries. Its strategic importance (as the link between papal Avignon and France) is long gone, but the romance of the bridge is still strong, thanks to the song, Sur le pont d’Avignon.

Back to a restaurant on the Place des Papes, facing the Palace, for lunch of volaille and a half-litre of local, inky Carignan, fruity thanks to carbonic maceration. After lunch, we stroll leisurely through the twisting streets of Vieux Avignon, taking in the architecture and the afternoon rhythm of the city before returning to Montpellier.

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