One cannot fail to notice the Palais des Papes in Avignon, a bulky but impressive and enormous piece of Gothic architecture. The popes did not spend long in Avignon overall, at most 100 years if one counts the anti-Popes, but they left an enormous legacy of architecture, influence and food and wine production.
Wining and dining Popes in Avignon
One cannot fail to notice the Palais des Papes in Avignon; it dominates the city, a bulky, unwieldy but undoubtedly impressive and enormous piece of Gothic architecture. But why did the Popes move to Avignon anyway? Hasn't Rome always been their home and base? The answer lies in the complex political dynamics of the early middle ages, and in particular the relationship between the Northern European figure of the emperor with whom secular power was seen to reside, and the Popes, with whom religious power - and with it the power to make and break kings and emperors - was said to reside.
509 years before Pope Clement V moved into his new Palace on the banks of the Rhone, in the year 800 AD, Charlemagne had been crowned emperor by Pope Leo III. The coronation had set up the framework for the relationship between the papacy and the power of the northern European emperors - the first would lend authority while the second would protect. Charlemagne saw it as a 'translatio-imperii', a way in which the old Roman Empire lived on through him.
But it was never an easy relationship and both sides struggled for primacy; did the Pope make the emperor, or was the Pope merely the instrument that God used to anoint the emperor who held the real power? If we now leap back to the 13th century, we find the French King, Philip IV, attempting to assert imperial power by taxing and judging the clergy despite the best efforts of Boniface VIII. When Boniface issued a bull asserting the primacy of the pope over kings, Philip first accused him of a number of crimes and then had his mercenaries travel to southern Italy to arrest and hold the pope in his family palace in Anagni, a small town south of Rome. Pope Boniface was badly treated during his 3 day captivity and never recovered, dying shortly afterwards. A new Pope, Benedict IX, lasted only nine months before being poisoned and after his death, the next Pope, Clement V, moved the curia to Avignon.
The city itself was probably chosen as it was close to the French kingdom yet still on papal territory; in addition it had a history of being a strong and independent city, and easily fortifiable.There were a number of effects that followed this move; it obviously represented an enormous shift of political weight from the old capital of the Roman empire to a relatively unknown town on the river Rhone - it also meant that all the countryside surrounding Avignon was set to work to provide buildings, food and wine for the developing Papal presence. Much of this increase in importance and in production had happy results that remain for us today.
The Papal Palace itself is enormous and I think the largest gothic building around. It was built in various stages and is not what I'd called beautiful. A visit is fantastic and worth several visits, there is always more to see. But it is, from the outside, quite large and brutish. I prefer the mannered late renaissance facade of the Papal mint, built in the 17th century - just turn around from gazing at the Palace and you will see it behind you.
To the east of Avignon, the beautifully wide valley of the Luberon was also set to work producing food and wine and the villages grew in beauty and influence. Cabrieres d'Avignon, Gordes, Oppede les Vieux, Isles sur la Sorgue, Vaucluse are beautiful villages with buildings made of the honey coloured local stone, set on hills clad in vineyards and olive trees rising above valleys purple with the local lavender fields. This landscape might well look very different had Clement V not abandoned a Rome rift with internal conflict and violence to make a new papal base on the little river town of Avignon all those years ago.
Cabrieres d'Avignon is a particular favourite of mine - beautiful enough to lift the soul, yet hidden enough to not have the crowds of Gordes or of Vaucluse, there is a holiday villa with a pool on the edge of the village I return to again and again. We cycle through the Cedar woods with my son Ben, we walk into the village for morning croissants and then again for afternoon aperos. Exploring the area is wonderful but even more so knowing that when done we return to our cool stone house and pool to relax and chat. Everywhere you walk will have seen feet from history walk before - from peasants working the fields to the roving bands of mercenaries that formed into 'companies' of bandits during pauses in the Hundred Years war, to monks and clerics walking between the monasteries and church possessions - and this feeling of connection with history runs through your spine when you gaze out over the landscape.