Avignon: The Diva of Provence

Ester Laushway (April 2004)

By nature, Avignon is a drama queen. Poised theatrically above the Rhône River, which lies at its feet like a doting admirer, it shows off the chiselled outlines of its grandiose papal palace and the 3.5 miles of stone ramparts with the supreme self-assurance of a leading lady who has held the spotlight for a very long time.

Avignon first took centre-stage in 1309, when the Popes, deciding to flee the constant strife among Rome’s great families, chose it as their official residence. It was an honour that lasted through seven popes, for an entire century, until the Holy See returned definitively to Rome in 1417.

To house their ecclesiastical lordships in the grand manner befitting their high office, a vast palace-fortress was built, which is one of the Gothic masterpieces of the world.

It stands next to the often damaged and patched together 12th century cathedral, Notre-Dame-des-Doms, noteworthy for the eye-catching, gilded Virgin atop the bell tower and the flamboyant Gothic tomb of Pope Jean XXII, now occupied by a bishop’s remains, since the late pope went missing during the French Revolution.

The Popes’ Palace started out as an austere citadel, built by Pope Benoît XII, a former Cistercian monk, who despised luxury. The popes who followed him had no such qualms. Each one enlarged, embellished, and made sure that their opulent residence reflected what they were: the most powerful princes of their time.

Pillaged during the French Revolution, turned into military barracks in the 19th century, the papal palace was stripped down to its walls, and even pieces of those, decorated with valuable frescoes, were cut out and sold. In 1906, the Palais des Papes finally came under the protection of the French government and restoration has been underway ever since.

The event that made Avignon come into its dramatic own again, after a long ‘resting’ period, took place in 1947, outside the palace itself, in the Cours d’Honneur – the great courtyard. A young theatre troupe from Paris, with an unknown actress called Jeanne Moreau in their midst, was invited to come and perform there, as part of a contemporary art exhibition being organized in the palace.

Its director, Jean Vilar, decided to stage three new plays, without a penny of subsidy. To help him in his Mission Improbable, he called on the army. A temporary stage was built, supported by oil drums, garden chairs were collected from all over town, the actors brought 25 projectors down from Paris with them and the Avignon Theatre Festival was born. Vilar had no money for sets, so did not build any, focusing instead on lights, sound and costumes, which he asked painters to design. They painted the costume motifs directly onto plain, inexpensive cotton cloth, creating, for example, an intricate suit of chain mail with their brushes.

Today, those costumes are museum pieces and the festival is the main event of Avignon’s cultural calendar. It attracts actors, directors and audiences from all over the world, has sprouted an “off” festival with hundreds of fringe productions and events, invades every available inch of space in the summer – and some 400 projectors now light up the main stage in the papal courtyard. (Last year, when stage technicians went on strike all over France, the festival was cancelled for the first time in its history).

Like a lot of divas, Avignon knows how to play to the balcony and is at her spectacular best when viewed from a distance. The best location from which to admire Avignon in all her glory is on the opposite bank of the Rhône, from the small, picturesque town of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. In the 14th century, this is where the cardinals built fifteen magnificent residences, and from here, in the late afternoon, when the setting sun gilds the sculptured outlines of the City of the Popes, nothing can upstage its majestic beauty.

What to see beside the Pope’s Palace

A View of the Bridge
The St-Bénézet Bridge, on which everyone is dancing in the famous French children’s’ song, now only has four of its original 22 arches. Built across the Rhône in the 12th century, it was damaged so often by floods that repairs were abandoned in the 17th century. Broken, it has become Avignon’s landmark, symbolizing the town’s close, stormy relationship with the mighty Rhone.

River Cruises
Year-round, a variety of cruise-ships and boats of all sizes, with or without meals and/or entertainment included, offer Rhône cruises. From Avignon, round-trip destinations include Arles, capital of the Camargue region, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the wine capital of the southern Rhône valley.

The Popes’ Palace Tasting Room
Visiting the huge papal palace is thirsty business. A welcome addition inside its great walls is the “Bouteillerie” – a room where you can taste and buy a selection of thirty top quality wines from the Côte du Rhône region. The name of the tasting room evokes the bouteillerie of the 14th century, which had the task of choosing, buying, and storing the wines served at the frequent banquets and feasts held at the palace.

Angladon Museum
Seventy years after the death of Paris couturier and art collector Jacques Doucet, his fabulous collection is now on view in Avignon. Rare canvases by masters such as Degas, Picasso, and Modigliani - and the only Van Gogh in Provence – occupy the wood-paneled walls of a lavish 18th century mansion, once belonging to his great-nephew, who inherited the bulk of Doucet’s treasures.

Copyright © 2008 Anglo-American Group of Provence