Last Monday, our second-last day in Montpellier before going to Turin, we finally went to Avignon. It had pretty much been our whole reason for going to Occitanie, but what with one thing a whole month had gone by without our getting there. The days were so sweltering that it was a struggle just to squelch along to the épicerie, let alone set off on a complicated excursion.
Our friend Karim was staying with us and since we’d mentioned our intention to visit Avignon, he took the trip firmly in hand by roustinig us out of bed at an early hour and cheerily herding us to the train station, where we boarded the 8.15 for Avignon.
There’s still a heatwave on but the mornings before 10 are almost bearable, and the French trains are air-conditioned and absurdly comfortable so it was a nice trip. The train zoomed past a pleasing landscape of vineyards, rivers lined with willows and poplars, sunflower fields, little orchards and towns like Nîmes, where you could glimpse cathedral spires and pretty town squares.
From the central train station in Avignon, you simply cross the road and pass through a gate in the huge old ramparts and you’re already in the old town. We actually took a more circuitous route, not knowing which station we’d arrived at, but once we found the main gate, we walked up the main street and soon found the tourist info office. We got a couple of town maps and then set out in search of caffeine.
We found a café, not a moment too soon, sat down and enjoyed some coffee and viennoiserie (which is, weirdly enough, the French name for French pastries). As we sipped and delectated, we noticed there was a big old former-Jesuit church right next to us. It seemed to be no longer in active duty but was now the Musée Lapidaire—the Museum of Stoneworking.
We looked in the door, the ticket-seller waved us in for free and we spent about half an hour admiring a decent collection of Greek and Roman funerary art excavated in the area. I was pretty surprised to see red-figure vases but John said anywhere warm, flat and fertile would have been prime real estate for the Greeks. On the statues there were impressive details illustrating draped vestments, armor and hair with exquisite naturalness. I particularly liked the marble cinerary urns which had rustic figures and animals carved on them: a darling piglet and a weird-looking hare.
And there was also this intriguing boating scene:
We only had three-and-a-half hours total to spend in Avignon, though, so we couldn’t linger. We headed up the same main street, through the Place de l’Horloge, which was full of ‘non-stop’ outdoor restaurants. It was a pleasant, leafy space where street performers were already attracting crowds—two pretty red-head girls dressed in medieval dresses harmonized some medieval folk tune, and a golden-robed mime posed in extremely slow-motion.
After climbing up a steep cobblestone alley, we turned a corner to see to the most enormous Gothic building in Europe, the Palais des Papes, a looming stone giant and long-lived remnant of the Avignon papacy, more than six centuries old.
A man played a jaunty Gallic tune on the steps, which only served to emphasize the contrast between holy and mundane realms. The massive, unearthly solemnity of that building would have had a more appropriate soundtrack in a deafening undersea rumbling or an eerie planetary screeching, not the obscene jollity of this whiskery, red-cheeked busker.
We climbed up the entrance steps, already filmed with sweat. Karim kindly queued in line to pay for the tickets and we admired the colorful fresco fragments and stubby stone capitals carved to look like saints and demons.
From there we entered another high-ceilinged chamber where we received our audio-visual tablet guides and headsets. The first screen displayed a map of the palace’s ground-floor plan and a red dotted line suggested our route. This took us through the courtyard, which was completely cluttered and full with the construction of a temporary amphitheater for summer theatrical performances. However, I did manage to get this shot of the window where the Pope would have appeared for ceremonies where he blessed admiring crowds below:
The arrow sent us to the Consistory Hall, where the Pope convened meetings with cardinals, received important visitors and granted public audiences. Here we were invited to activate the ‘time portal’—a conceit where you match a circle on your tablet screen with a circle on a black wooden box. When the two circles lock into place, the date on your tablet rewinds from 2018 before settling on some date in the 14th century. The tablet then provides you with a panoramic 360-degree view of how the room might have looked when the palace was in use—you can control the point of view by physically aiming the viewer all around the room. This was a great way to get a sense of where people, especially the Pope, might have sat, how they would have dressed, and how they used the room. We were able to visualize the décor—gorgeous frescos, brightly painted ceilings, gaudy tapestries colorful floor tiles, elaborate glass windows and golden ornaments.
In the feast room, the Grand Tinel (adapted from the Latin room for ‘barrel’) there were other vivid touches such as fires burning in the fireplace, on tables laid with rich cutlery, candelabra and sumptuous dishes of roast suckling pig, grilled fish, pies, fruit and various other things. You could see it used to be beautifully decorated but a great fire in 1413 ruined the frescos and was known for a long time as ‘the burnt room’.
Apart from the imaginative aid of the tablet, there were other physical points of interest, particularly the frescos by Matteo Giovannetti, the Papal Painter. I looked in awe at the St. John Chapel, which depicted various St. Johns , and the Saint-Martial Chapel. Saint Martial was sent by St. Peter to spread the gospel to the Limousin region, where Pope Clement VI was born. and at the Papal study, which was beautified by a rich, dark forest scene in which beautiful medieval youths find ingenious ways to trap and hunt various innocent animals. This falconer is particularly striking.
The heat was really getting to us at this point, and when we went into the ‘high kitchen’ and I looked at the tablet image of a vast fiery pit grilling meat, I thought I was going to pass out. It was quite a small room in terms of floor space, but its entire ceiling was a 15-foot high chimney, tapering to a kind of steeple with a little hole to let the smoke out.
Near the end of the show, in the Grand Chapel, we wandered through an exhibition titled ‘Mirabilis’—a collection of valuable items collected throughout the last few centuries by rich local eccentrics. The collection included a carved narwhal horn, an anorak made of seal innards, a painted wooden pieta from the fifteenth century and a painting of Napoleon visiting flood victims in Provence.
As we reached the back of the chapel, the audioguide started playing some Ars Nova, a musical style that reflected a musical flourishing in the 14th century. You can hear an example here.
From there it was into the new room of the chamberlain (the pope’s right-hand man) and here I saw portraits of all nine Avignon popes. They were done in the nineteenth century and somehow the artist had managed to make it look as if they were all related to one another.
By this time it was getting close to our departure time, with half an hour to replenish fluids before we died of the heat.
All in all it was an excellent place to visit, even at the risk of sweat rash.