Home to the papacy for more than a century, Avignon City is crowned by the monumental Palais des Papes. If ever Pope Benedict XVI finds life in the Vatican too stressful, then France’s own Cité des Papes awaits him. His Holiness’s peace and quiet may, however, be disturbed by the Festival d’Avignon in July, during which the city becomes France’s performing arts capital. The festival attracts visitors from around the world for three weeks of theatre and music, ranging from grand classical productions to the fringe shows on every street corner.
The terraced gardens of the Rocher des Doms, perched above the Rhône, is where Avignon started and it’s a good place to begin any visit. With its gleaming virgin on top of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-des-Doms, it is an imposing sight, as are its 2.5 miles of beautifully preserved ramparts, crenellated in the 19th century by ubiquitous ‘improver’ Viollet-le-Duc. Just outside the ramparts stands the city’s other top tourist attraction, the pont of nursery-rhyme fame – a bridge on which nobody ever dances, save perhaps the odd misguided tourist. Only four arches of the original 22 remain, together with a tiny Romanesque chapel, but the 12th-century Pont St-Bénezet still exerts fascination.
On the southern side of the walled city is the power statement that is Palais des Papes, home to the papacy for over 60 years after Clement V fled a troubled Rome in 1306. The popes remained in residence in this Vatican-owned region of the Comtat Venaissin until 1370, when Gregory XI went back to Rome. There followed a 40-year schism with both Avignon and Rome electing rival popes, until all sides agreed on the election in Rome of Martin V. However, the region remained papal territory until it was finally returned to France at the end of the 18th century. Both the 14th-century wing of the papal palace and the later Gothic additions reflect in their austere stones the importance of its role in history. Alongside the palace is the Musée du Petit Palais , which houses one of the finest collections of religious art in France.