France: Stopover in Avignon with the famous bridge and the Pope Palace

13th of November 2016. Our days in Hospitalet de l’Infant are over. We pack, throw our last postcards into the yellow mailbox and leave for France. Not without forgetting to switch off the water of  our friends’ apartment – which means we have to return one more time to close the apartment properly.

We have decided to travel through the Rhone valley, to stop two nights in Avignon and spend a day here. The famous bridge – le Pont d’Avignon – and the Pope Palace are worth a visit, and we look forward to strolling through the city inside the intact defensive town walls.

We decide to make it easy for us and book a room in the IBIS hotel right in front of the city wall. Here we can also park our car.


At the Place de l’Horloge we have dinner in a small restaurant across the Theatre and the Townhall. It is clear and cold in Avignon – the mistral wind is blowing down from the mountains.



Le Pont d’Avignon – ending in the middle of the river

The next morning we start our visit with THE bridge, le Pont d’Avignon.


I am utterly disappointed: The bridge is not finished, it ends in the middle of the Rhone river! Well, in the museum I learn that this was not really a bridge, but a toll station built in the 12th century to tax salt and agricultural products traveling by boat. This is the legend: A shepherd had a vision that told him to build this bridge. The people of Avignon laughed at him and asked him to throw a piece of rock into the water. He did so. This was a miracle that convinced the people to build the bridge. At that time, there were large sandbanks. They disappeared in the 15th century, as the water level rose, resulting in the bridge to end in the middle of the river. All this is well explained in the museum attached to the bridge.

This is another view of the bridge with the chapel St. Nikolas.


We all know the song related with the bridge: “Sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse, sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse tout au rond.” We learnt this song in kindergarden, long before we knew French. Not understanding the words, we created Swiss German versions – the one  of Ursula’s sister went: “Sur le pont d’Avignon, oni Dasse, oni Dasse…” (with “oni Dasse” she took a phonetic representation for “on y danse”. It means “without cups” in Swiss German…).


The song already existed around 1500. The words then were: “Sur le pont d’Avignon, on y passe, et repasse.” In 1843 the words went like this: “Sur le pont d’Avignon, tout le monde y danse, danse,…, tout le monde y danse en rond.”


The Pope Palace

On the rock above the Rhone river, the Pope Palace was built in the 14th century. Yes, a palace for the Pope, not in Rome, but in Avignon. Six popes resided here from 1309 to 1377.


The first pope was Clément the V. In all seven popes resided in Avignon until 1377. They were the “real” popes, as there was no other pope in Rome.


In 1378 the catholic church was divided (schisma of the Occident). One pope resided in Rome and a second pope in Avignon. Two such alternative popes reigned in Avignon. Then matters were settled at the council of Constance in 1417. From now there was just one pope governing the reunified occidental catholic church, and this one pope was in Rome.  The former Pope Palace was used by high officials of the church. In the days of Napoleon, the palace became a military casern. In the 20th century it was renovated and is now a UNESCO world heritage. This is all explained in the museum of the Pope Palace.

All the popes of Avignon embellished their palace. This is the view of the second courtyard.


There was a safe built into the ground of one of the back offices – the tiles looked like the other tiles on the ground. Nevertheless the safe was robbed twice. I would have thought that this safe is safe, but presumably someone betrayed the secret.


The main church is now a museum.


The Swiss Guard seems to have protected the pope already in the 14th century.



Musée du Petit Palais

From the Pope Palace, we can see the Musée du Petit Palais which is our next destination.


The Musée du Petit Palais hosts an exhibition about the evolution of sacral painting in Northern Italy from around 1300 to 1500. It is based on the collection of Marquis Campana (1808-1880).

This is a fragment of a Crucifix painted by the School of Berlingheri in the middle of the 13th century.  Christ seems to be far away and solemn.


A long series of paintings culminates with “Maria and the Child” by Sandro Botticelli from around 1500. Life and love is in the face of Maria. This is Renaissance.



Rounding off the day

To round off the day, we visit the park “Rocher des Doms” behind the Pope Palace enjoying the view of the Rhone river and the fields.


After an apéro in the Café d’Opéra, we stroll through the small streets of Avignon and visit the dyers’ street lined up along the creek (teinturiers).


In November, it is already night around six pm. We have dinner in the friendly restaurant La Fontaine. We get ready to travel back to Switzerland with a small detour to the vineyards of Southern Côte du Rhone, just north of Avignon.


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