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Avignon, France: Off the Beaten Path at The Pope’s Palace

This guest post is by Mandy Kilinskis.

Every year, over 4.2 million people flock to Vatican City. Some go for the religious devotion, some go for the unique and stunning architecture, and some go for the deeply historical value.

If I asked you what other places in the world have the same criteria, you’d probably tell me Jerusalem, Mecca, or even the Taj Mahal. And I’ll counter with this: Nestled in the Provence region of France, in the town of Avignon, there is a monument that meets all of those criteria and stands as a true testament to French history.

This place is the Pope’s Palace.

Photo via Flickr

Known as Le Palais des Papes to the French, many people don’t even know of its existence. However, for the same reasons as the Vatican, it’s more than worth your time.

Fun fact: The popes have lived outside of Rome! In the early years of the 14th century, there was a whole lot of violence in Rome. When the next pope was elected (Clement V, a Frenchman), he basically said, “You know, I’m cool with staying in France.” Nobody really blamed him.

But a pope (and the six French popes that followed) can’t just live in a tiny castle somewhere. He needs a palace. So the papacy decided to build themselves one in Avignon, France. Over the next twenty years, they constructed a huge palace. The palace itself consists of two smaller palaces smashed together.

So for travelers seeking religious connections to their destinations, this is a must-see. While 4.2 million annually can brag that they have been to the Vatican, less than a million people worldwide can brag that they visited the other home of the popes.

Avignon hosted the papacy for almost seventy years, and not surprisingly, the city grew up around the palace. Most of the papal treasury went directly to the build.

Settled snugly just after the main Rue de la République, the Pope’s Palace suddenly emerges into the Avignon skyline: a jarring but immediately pleasing addition to the calm downtown feel.

Fun fact for architecture nerds: While the façade (shown above) does look more Romanesque and less Gothic, the Popes’ Palace is still considered the largest Gothic palace in all of Europe. Inside, the handful of chapels and dozens of doorways are adorned with statues and bent arches.

The popes’ life in Avignon didn’t last forever. When 1376 hit, Rome was stable and they thought that the French monarchy influenced the papacy too much. After a schism and a few scuffles, the papacy moved back to the Vatican. The Popes’ Palace, still owned by the Vatican but completely uncared for, started to fall into disarray.

I’m happy to report that the Pope’s Palace is back to good health these days. And actually, a lot of that has to do with the French Revolution. After revolutionaries sacked the place and executed a lot of their enemies, they reclaimed the land for France.

In true Revolution fashion, the revolutionaries tore through the sacred palace and either smashed or lopped off the heads of all the religious statues.

Even though it would be nice to see the Pope’s Palace at the height of its finery, it’s hard to find a monument in France that better represents the change of the country. The French are known for recycling buildings for new uses: The Louvre used to be a palace and The Musée d’Orsay was once a train station. The Pope’s Palace is no different.

While it was once the command center of Catholicism, it morphed into an outlet for revolutionaries to express their discontent. Once they executed their fair share of enemies, Napoleon came through and seized the building. He turned it into a military barracks and prison.

Finally back in the hands of the government, the site is now an UNESCO World Heritage Site and in a steady state of repair. Catching the palace during its transition period is actually a treat. While murals in the Chapelle St-Jean and the Pope’s personal chambers have been restored, many still wait dormant. The broken arches over the doors to the Great Chapel sport headless statues. Just down the hall in the Parement Chamber, you can see two distinct rows of arches that mark where Napoleon efficiently split the room into three floors of barracks. These features create a unique juxtaposition of how the palace was, to how time and man have left their mark on it.

Both times that I visited the Pope’s Palace, my groups practically had the place to ourselves. Yes, this had a lot to do with the fact that we went in December, but with the exception of Avignon’s summer theater festival, it’s a low-traffic historical site. You can feel free to take your time winding through the 20+ rooms open to the public without feeling rushed to read a sign and run to the next plaque.

So ask yourself: Do you want to head to Vatican City* and fight through thousands of people to get a glance at a fresco? Or do you want to visit an equally historic and religious monument that actually lets you breathe, too?

*For the record, I don’t have anything against Vatican City. I’ve been there and it’s lovely. I just think that Avignon deserves some love, too.

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Mandy Kilinskis works as a content developer for Quality Logo Products, Inc. and regularly contributes to their promo blog. Traveling is one of her biggest loves and she diligently saves her pennies to do as much of it as she possibly can. One of her lifelong goals is to see a Wonder of the World.

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11 Responses to Avignon, France: Off the Beaten Path at The Pope’s Palace

  1. Joseph Giorgi September 13, 2011 at 1:50 pm #

    I love the historical framing of your review, as well as your breakdown of how history affected the Popes' Palace itself. Really helps put everything into perspective. The Palace is definitely a must-see.

    Also, I wasn't aware that popes had lived anywhere but in Rome throughout history. Very interesting tidbit!

  2. Jenna Markowski September 13, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    This is a very interesting post! I had no idea that the Pope ever lived outside of Rome — you learn something new every day!

    I've never been anywhere outside of the U.S., but from what you described it sounds like the Pope's Palace would be an ideal tourist destination. I'm especially interested in the contrast of restored murals, beheaded statues, and military barracks. That would be so cool to see!

  3. Serenity Morris September 13, 2011 at 3:00 pm #

    Wonderful Post!!!! I am dying to go to this little corner of the world!!!

  4. Packed Suitcase September 13, 2011 at 3:07 pm #

    @Joseph @Jenna I think it's fascinating that so many Popes opted to live at this palace rather than in Rome. I had no idea until I read Mandy's post!

  5. Packed Suitcase September 13, 2011 at 3:10 pm #

    @Serenity @Jenna I'd love to visit this hidden gem as well. I'm shocked more people haven't made a pilgrimage there!

  6. Mandy Kilinskis September 13, 2011 at 3:18 pm #

    @All I didn't know that the popes lived outside of Rome until I visited Avignon on a class trip in college!

    @Joseph Thanks, Joe! The palace has a heck of a history, but understanding that makes the whole palace esasier to understand, too.

    @Jenna The theme of “built for religion, destroyed by the Revolution, and changed by Napoleon” is one that repeats a lot in French history. However, it's cool to actually see all of it together in one place!

    @Serenity Avignon is a great city and one that I would totally recommend as a base for an exploration of Provence!

  7. Bret Bonnet September 13, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

    Very interesting.

    I've always wondered, in this day and age when the separation of church and state is continually under a microscope, had any of these great historical religious sites been located here in the US, had Congress, regardless of the party in control at the time, been able to get funding approved for similar restoration projects as what France currently has underway.

    It's moments like this that I'm actually glad the “mother-land” for most religious is located OUTSIDE of the United States – out of fear that they’d never get the attention and respect as they deserve, not for or against one religion or another, but for all of humanity to observe and appreciate.

  8. Jill Tooley September 13, 2011 at 4:40 pm #

    Beautiful post, Mandy! Sadly, I've never traveled outside of the US, but it's one of my goals to do so before I'm too old to enjoy it. This is definitely a place I'd add to my list! Thanks for letting us in on this little secret. 😀

  9. mary jane cryan September 13, 2011 at 9:20 pm #

    The Papal Palace in Viterbo (80 kms north of Rome) housed 5 popes and is where the first conclave was held -before the Avignon period- in the 1200s.
    More info on http://www.elegantetruria.com and my blog 50yearsinItaly.blogspot.com

  10. amy swanson September 14, 2011 at 7:06 pm #

    Wow, it sounds like such a nice place to visit Mandy! I'd love to it visit some day as well. Thanks for the awesome insight! 🙂

  11. Jana September 15, 2011 at 9:23 pm #

    France has never been on my “visit before I die” list, but the beauty of these pictures might change my mind! I don't know anything about architecture other than when it's beautiful, and this definitely fits the criteria.

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