Avignon’s Palais des Papes
It’s hard to believe that popes once lived here. That thought ran through my mind as we made our way through the nearly dilapidated door that led us behind the walls of Palais des Papes, one of the key places of interest that lures travelers like us to Avignon.
My disbelief wasn’t incited by the palace’s opulence; there aren’t any significant vestiges of rococo adornments, lavish furniture, or over-the-top works of art left from the palace’s glory days when it housed the popes.
It’s just that Palais des Papes is overwhelmingly massive, and once inside the palace’s walls, when looking upward, you can’t help but feel small.
Taking up nearly 120,000 square feet, Palais des Papes is Europe’s largest Gothic palace, and its immensity is accented by its towering, impenetrable walls. Palais des Papes is comprised of two distinct sections, Palais Vieux (Old Palace) and Palais Neuf (New Palace), the former of which was heavily fortified to protect the structure from attack.
Although the bishops of Avignon once lived on the site, Pope Clement V made a home for himself at Palais des Papes after escaping the violence in Rome that erupted upon his election in 1305. For nearly 70 years from 1309 to 1377, a period often referred to as the Avignon Papacy, Pope Clement V and his successors called Palais des Papes home.
Under the direction of Pope Clement VI, the palace was expanded to form what’s now known as the New Palace which includes the Grand Chapel where the popes worshiped. I was instantly drawn to this large, nearly empty room because of its high ceilings and beautiful arches.
Once the political climate in Rome cooled down, the popes decided that the papacy should be seated where St. Peter is buried, prompting their return to Rome in 1377. Thereafter, the palace underwent hard times as it was occupied by antipapal rebels for several years despite remaining under papal control.
Palais des Papes’ physical condition worsened when it underwent a five year siege in 1398 and again when it was seized during the French Revolution and subsequently used as a military garrison and prison.
Restorations didn’t start until 1906 when Palais des Papes was vacated and converted to a national museum.
These days, Palais des Papes is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s one of the most visited attractions in France. The palace’s courtyard serves as a performance venue for the Festival d’Avignon each July, and the palace is also the home base for the International Centre of Congress which hosts several events each year.
While one could while away an entire afternoon people watching and shooting the breeze outside of Palais des Papes, visitors to Avignon would be remiss if they didn’t venture inside the palace’s walls for a closer look at where the popes once called home.
Tickets start from €11/person; tours start from €24.50/person. Visit the palace’s booking page for more details.