Avignon

On Sunday, the 13th of July, the school went to Avignon. I enjoyed visiting here as well, because it’s still an enclosed city. I really thought this was cool, and I wonder why more haven’t survived.

The first thing you can see upon arrival is the12th century Pont <bridge> Saint Benezet. This bridge is really pretty great, because it’s built across a point where the river merges, and essentially controlled all trade in the area. There’s an island in the center, but until modern technologies allowed for a damn to be built, it was uninhabitable due to constant flooding of the river.

This bridge also led directly in front of the Cathedral de Notre Dame des Doms, which is one of the oldest churches in France. This meant that all patrons of the bridge not only had to pay a tax, but walk by the church as well. It is said that the bridge was built here partially so that the church would protect it from the many floods. Sadly, this bridge was largely destroyed by the floods of 1668. One of the remaining tiers bears the tiny Chapel Saint Nicolas.

There is a famous song about this bridge, taught in French elementary schools:

Sur le Pont d’Avignon,
l’on y danse,
l’on y danse.

Sur le Pont d’Avignon,
l’on y danse tout en rond.

Avignon is dominated primarily by the Palais des Papes <Palace of the Popes>. In the late 12th/ early 13th centuries, Philippe IV of France was excommunicated by the then current Pope. He wasn’t so thrilled by this, and made penance by travelling to Rome. He also built Avignon as a present to the church.The building was originally the summer house for the pope, but confronted with the factional strife in Rome, and Philippe IVs offerings, Pope Clement V moved the papal court to Avignon in 1309. The architecture is rather militaristic in general, but the design was a vital part of its survival.

Seven official Popes reigned in Avignon until 1376, despite Urban V attempting the move in 1367. There were two Anti-Popes after the move, and, finally, Anti-Pope Benedict XIII was forced to flee in 1403. Few of the popes or Anti-popes here were known for their sanctity. Clement V was prescribed powdered emeralds as a cure for indigestion, and consequently died. According to Clement VI, the best way to honor God is through luxury.

Today the Palais des Papes is empty of the original luxurious trappings from 14th century court life, but it does serve as something of a museum. You can see some of the remaining sculptures and paintings built into the architecture. And the building itself is a wonder to visit. If you climb to the top, you can see all the views around it.

The Cathedral de Notre Dame des Doms is magnificent. Looking up at it from its base is awing and nearly impossible at mid-day due to the sun. Before the main entrance is a giant cross. Once you enter, you are surrounded by art. Most of it is Italian art, due to the Pope having come from Rome. I really enjoy the effect of the light coming through minimal windows into the old stone churches.

That particular weekend was the first of the three-week theater festival in Avignon. According to a few of my friends, it is the biggest in Europe, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the biggest all around, but I’m not sure about theater festivals. This is definitely a sight to see in the South of France. The streets are practically littered with fliers for daily shows. And the streets are crowded with performers either performing, or advertising their performances. I liked the actors with the masks, though the guys walking around in pink angel wings and diapers were also rather amusing.

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