Jul 2, 2012

Palais des papes (Palace of the Popes)

Okay guys, it's time for my second entry: Palace of the Popes (Palais des Papes)! If you skipped history classes, you are surely confused now: when and why did the pope move to Avignon? Isn't he in Vatican or at least Italy? And why does he have a palace?

     Initially, Avignon was not part of the Papal Territory in France. But the Holy See was in possession of the Comtat Venaissin, the land stretching from the outskirts of Avignon to Carpentras and Vaison la Romaine. Its previous ruler, Alphonse, Count of Toulouse, had died in 1271 without heirs on his return from the 8th Crusade and left the Comtat Venaissin to the Holy See. It became Papal Territory in 1274. Avignon and parts of the Provence were ruled by the d'Anjou family (related to the French crown).However, the relationship between the Papacy and France changed considerably during the 13th century. The dispute with the German emperors was finally settled with French support in favor of the popes in 1268. But already in 1294 open conflict broke out between Pope Boniface VIII and King Philip IV of France. Pope Boniface VIII wanted to be recognized also as the supreme wordly power, which was rejected by Philip IV, who even incarcerated the pope for a while.

So, it's a consequence of human greed. Much like the rest of human history it seems. At least I always get that impression. So Philip levied taxes on the French clergy of one half their annual income, which caused an uproar within the Roman Catholic Church and the papacy, prompting Pope Boniface VIII to issue the Bull Clerisos laicos, forbidding the transference of any church property to the French Crown and prompting a drawn-out diplomatic battle with the king. In order to condemn the pope, Philip convoked an assembly of bishops, nobles and grand bourgeois of Paris who helped him to emerge victorious. After having sent his agent William Nogaret to arrest the Pope, French archbishop Bertrand de Goth was elected pope as Clement V. To avoid the resentment of Rome, he moved the official seat of the papacy to France. Him and the next six popes residing in Avignon, who were all French btw, closely cooperated with the French crown. The Holy See became part of the power struggle between European rulers and in the end it lost most of its direct political power.

As for the palace thing, well popes have had palaces too, mostly in Rome. In fact, the current papal residence is Apostolic Palace in Vatican.

However, Clement (elected in 1305) didn't immediately movie didn't start his papacy in Avignon: the first 4 years were spent in Poitiers. Another thing, he didn't movie to Palais des Papes. Why? Because it wasn't even built then. To be precise, the construction of the bishop's palace began some 50 years before his arrival, but Clement was settled in the Dominican monastery. It was Benedict XII who was the most serious about his architectural plans. The construction didn't take long, less than 30 years, finishing in 1364. The Palace was built in two principal phases with two distinct segments, known as the Palais Vieux (Old Palace) and Palais Neuf (New Palace). By the time of its completion, it occupied an area of 11,000 m² (2.6 acres). The building was enormously expensive, consuming much of the papacy's income during its construction.

                                                                    The popes of Avignon

   Top row: Clement V, John XXII, Benedict XII, Clement VI. Bottom row: Innocent VI, Urban V, Gregory XI, Clement VII                                            - the first antipope. A long story, I'm not going to write about it here :)

 The Palais Vieux was constructed by the architect Pierre Poisson of Mirepoix at the instruction of Benedict XII. The austere Benedict had the original episcopal palace razed and replaced with a much larger building centred on a cloister, heavily fortified against attackers. Its four wings are flanked with high towers.

 Under Popes Clement VI, Inocent VI and Urban V, the building was expanded to form what is now known as the Palais Neuf. An architect, Jean de Louvres, was commissioned by Clement VI to build a new tower and adjoining buildings, including a 52 m long Grand Chapel (you'll see it one the pics) to serve as the location for papal acts of worship. Two more towers were built under Innocent VI. Urban V completed the main courtyard with further buildings enclosing it. The interior of the building was sumptuously decorated with frescos, tapestries, paintings, sculptures and wooden ceilings. The architectural style is simple and I'd say classic.

It should be pointed out that the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca spent much of his early life in Avignon, where his family moved to follow Pope Clement V.

                      The western part of the palace (including the highest tower) isn't open for visitors at the moment :(

So I visited Palace of the Popes this May while spending a week and a half in lovely Provence. Unfortunately, I only spent a few hours in Avignon (still enough to get a sense of the old town) because I also wanted to visit Antique Theatre in Orange on the same day. And yes, it was absolutely worth it- what a magnificent structure! Because of my limited stay, I was constantly rushing to have as much time for sightseeing as possible. I wanted to leave my luggage somewhere, and although there were many signs on the train station pointing to the place where it was possible, the guys told that I cannot do it without further explanation. Damn! So me and my luggage with wheels made a grand entrance to the old town (whose fortification walls are very well-preserved, btw). At least it was more lively and crowded, so I didn't feel like a complete idiot by making a lot of noise in quiet towns during the time of siesta.

                                                                                 The facade of the palace with the gates

On my way to become a fully-equipped tourist, I stopped by in the tourist office to take the map and headed straight to the Palace. After walking out of a very small street, I arrived on a square. Confused why it's suddenly crowded there, I am looking right, looking left, what's the deal? Then I finally look up and the Palace is right in front of me :) It wasn't as imposing as I thought it would be. I imagined it to be even taller, although it is definitely big. You get the best impression of its vastness when you climb on of the towers. So I enter the place, buy the combined ticket for the Palace + Pont d'Avignon and just before I start my tour, a guy approaches and asks:

-Would you like a tour of the palace?
- Is it for free? (Yeah, sometimes my tongue is faster than my brain. I think I blushed little in that moment).
- Yes.
- Great! So how much does it take to do the whole tour?
- 3 hours.
- 3 hours?! (I felt a few stares on my back). Well, I would gladly take this tour, but unfortunately I just have 3 hours in the whole Avignon. I'm sorry.
- No problem. Enjoy your visit!

And I did. I started with the main courtyard, which belongs to the Old Palace. There are restoration works on the ground, but I managed to spot an old water well under the coverings.

                                                                             Court d'honneur (honor) aka the main courtyard

Then I entered the palace itself. First of all, I have to say that there is some info in a few rooms, but everything is in French. So unfortunately I had no clue what was the purpose of some rooms. Additionally, a lot of rooms are empty, so don't expect to be blown away.

The next room (I think) was The Consistory Hall. It was actually destroyed by the fire in 1413. This might be a reason why the fresco from the pic is not completely restored... Important people were received in this room and meetings were gathered. It is also here that canonizations were examined and proclaimed. The Hall is filled with few artifacts and brief info about the room.

                                                                       Fresco in the Consistory Hall

                                                                              The Grand Tinel Hall

The Grand Tinel Hall served for dining. Unfortunately, it also destroyed by fire in 1413. According to the manuscripts, Clement VI requested the blue fabric studded with gold stars to cover the vault, thus creating a celestial arch. I can only imagine how beautiful that looked! The wood-paneled ceiling you see today was made in the seventies and creates a nice atmosphere.

                         Chest from the Parement Chamber. I wonder what they kept inside? Some clothes I guess...

                   It's a poor picture, but these are actually coins: I guess they are here to mark the treasury.
                                                                  Supposedly a lot of money was kept underground.

The Parement Chamber is another big, yet rather empty room. Just a few chests and tapestries here. The term "parement" refers to those tapestries that decorated the walls and seating. The Pope and the cardinals held secret consistories here. Important figures were given audiences too.

                                                     You can find quite a few plans of the palace inside

The Pope's Chamber is arguably the most interesting room in the palace. Unfortunately, it is forbidden to take pictures here.Completely covered in paintings (mostly simple decorative elements, though), it is a rare testimony of palace's once wealth. Again, the room is almost empty with a few furniture pieces which apparently did not belong to the palace while it was in function. This was pope's private residence, the bedroom to be more precise.

Chamber very similar to the Pope's Chamber is the Stag Room. Completely covered in paintings (this time there are more paintings than decorative elements), with frescoes depicting hunting and fishing. I am not really sure why was hunting such popular motif in castles, palaces, etc. Okay, it was fun and exciting, so I guess it's something like having dozens of posters in your room, but then again I never understood those who tainted their rooms with sooooo many posters. Anyway, the chamber was apparently Clement VI's study room. However, the frescoes you see today date mostly from the 18th century when the room was remodeled. Beneath a narrow strip of sky, an entire forest is painted on the walls with different motifs, such as this...


La Grande Chapelle is the room I've entered 5 or 6 times. The museum worker who was standing there must have though I am some kind of lunatic LOL... The truth is, I was certain I skipped one room at some point and wanted to find it, but I couldn't. Somehow, I would always end up in La Grande Chapelle :) When I went to the official site of the palace, I realized I missed South Sacristy :( Wikipedia also suggests that there are two more chapels with beautiful ceiling paintings, but I guess the are being renovated or something. I couldn't have missed them!

                                      The single nave is 52 metres long, 15 metres wide and 20 metres tall.

Below the chapel is the North Sacristy, where the Pope changed his vestments during ceremonies held in the Great Chapel. Today it contains few sculptures and tomb replicas of religious and political personas, such as...

                            A scary sculpture of Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor

                                           Lous II, Duke of Bourbon, with his wife Anne Dauphine d'Auvergne

After some climbing, including the Great Staircase of Honor, I ended up at the top, where the views are stunning.

                                                              The square in front of the palace

                                      Notice the bell tower of Notre Dame des Doms in the background

               Le Petit Palais (a lot of museum collection originates from Palais des Papes, so make sure to pay a visit there!)


There are also two rooms reserved for commerce: you can buy high-quality wines from the Rhone valley in the first, while the second one is reserved for your typical souvenirs, like this one...


LOL! I mean seriously?! I really believe such places should have some standards, especially if a souvenir shop is inside the building. It kinda cheapens the whole experience for me. It's like someone saying to me: We're so glad you gave us your money- now spend some more! After all, money is all we care about!

However, most of other souvenirs are nice and there were some nice books and guides about Provence and Avignon I couldn't find anywhere else. They were pricey (20E I think). I was certain I'd find them somewhere else, but I didn't. Yeah, they have those cheap-looking, dated guides you could find on every corner too :)

                                                                Selection of the Rhone valley wines

Final conclusion: Palais des Papes was absolutely worth my time, but not enough to regret my decision of visiting Antique Theatre in Orange instead of spending 3 hours in the Palace. Half an hour should be enough to visit the largest Gothic palace in the Europe and UNESCO World Heritage site. It is well-preserved, obviously very spacious, but around half of the complex is not open to visitors, so naturally I was a little disappointed. Especially because I couldn't climb the highest tower :( I found out later that those rooms house a large convention centre and the archives of the départment of Vaucluse.

                                       Palais des papes through the eyes and brush of Paul Signac

How to reach Palais des Papes: No big deal here. The old city of Avignon is rather small and is completely fortified, so it's hard to get lost. I'd say you have to walk15 minutes from the main gate (very, very close to bus and train stations) to reach the palace. Just go north (at least I think it's north!) or pick up the map. But you'll see plenty of signs pointing to the palace, so don't worry. Or just act like a sheep in the flock, i.e. follow the other tourists :)

Visitor info:

The Popes' Palace is open every day of the year.
The last tickets are sold one hour before closing time.

a) Opening hours:
- from March 1st to March 14th: 9 am-6:30 pm
- from March 15th to June 30th: 9am-7pm
- from July 1st to July 31st: 9am-8pm
- from August 1st to August 31st.: 9am-9pm
- from September 1st to September 15th: 9am-8pm
- from September 16th to November 1st: 9am-7pm
- from November 2nd to February 28th: 9:30am-5:45pm
- December 25th + January 1st: 10:30am-5:45pm 

b) Admission:

 Adults 10.5, reduced 8.5, school children 5€. Children under 8 free of charge.

Combined ticket Palais des Papes + Pont d'Avignon:

 Adults 13, reduced 10, school children 6.5€.

Guided tours are also possible. 

c) Contact:

E-mail: information@ot-avignon.fr
Tel. +33(0)4 32 74 32 74 - Avignon tourist office
       +33(0)4 90 27 50 50 - Guided tours/Free tour with audioguide

d) What to do nearby: The bridge, the cathedral, Rocher des Doms gardens... Avignon has few interesting museums: already mentioned Petit Palais, Musee Calvet, Musee Lapidaire, etc. If you cross the Rhone, you'll find yourself in Villeneuve-les-Avignon. Check out fort Saint André and Carthusian monastery of the Val-de-Bénédiction.

e) Multimedia:

"La prophétie d'Avignon" (2007), TV mini-series- some scenes were filmed in the palace

                                                                                                           Aerial view

 Okay, this post is quite long... I hope it's good :) I'll check it once more, just in case...

My next report will be Chateau d'Uzes, followed by the great castles of Ludwig II of Bavaria! I hope someone is looking forward to it!

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