Today, we journeyed to Avignon to walk in the footsteps of popes during The Great Schism of the 14th century at the papal palace there. The Great Schism which lasted between 1378 to 1417 occurred when the King of France, who did not like the reigning Italian Pope, elected his own instead (or rather his French cardinals did)and ensconced him in a papal palace at Avignon. This so-called antipope, Robert of Geneva, took the name of Pope Clement VII.
The 15,000 sq meter palace had been originally built for Pope John XXII, a successor to Pope Clement V who had fled Rome to remove himself from papal court politics and set up court in Venaissin. But Pope John XXII did not think Venaissin was a suitable location for the Throne of St. Peter and moved the papal court to Avignon. So, including the later period of The Great Schism, seven popes had ruled the Church from Avignon in total.
We had not gotten a very early start so it was almost noon before we got to Avignon. We parked the car five levels down in an underground parking garage and apparently there was no elevator so I trudged up ten flights of stairs to get back to street level. Needless to say I was out of breath and half exhausted before we had even begun the day!
The first thing you notice about Avignon is the fortified walls that encompass the heart of the city. They are a wonderful example of the classic architecture you associate with European castles - formidable watch towers, crenelations along the top of the wall and arrow slits for crossbowmen to use to repel beseigers. We walked along the walls down to the Pont d'Avignon, the famous bridge that is the focus of the famous folk song, then entered the walled city through a gateway near the bridge.
Although the French typically eat lunch a little later in the day, our English and American stomachs told us it was time to replenish our energy so we found a little cafe that was reasonably priced and offered crepes and other light fare. I was a little apprehensive remembering my rather disappointing meal the day before but I noticed one of their specials was quiche Lorraine, a classic French dish, and ordered it. The waitress was very friendly and very attentive and when our food arrived I took my first bite and was rewarded by a perfectly prepared quiche with a delicate flavor that practically melted in your mouth. My friends ordered a bottle of rose cider (about 2% alcohol content) that I sampled and found quite good too. For dessert I ordered a sweet crepe filled with sliced bananas and a caramel sauce accompanied by a dollop of chantilly cream that was also delicious. So, the lunch I had today definitely more than made up for the less than pleasant experience I had yesterday.
We entered the courtyard in front of the papal palace and, despite all of the other tourists milling around, I managed to get several nice panoramas of the structure. Then we entered the building and I photographed the beautiful vaulted ceilings. I was particularly fascinated by the little figures carved at the base of the ribbing coming down from the arches. They were quite whimsical rather than the scarier gargoyles you often find sitting on ramparts of gothic structures. As I wandered from room to room I was a little disappointed, though, that little of the papal decoration remained - apparently victims of the French Revolution.
What few frescoes remained were in poor condition due to fires that had raged through the palace at different times when the palace had served a military purpose in later years. At least the colorful leaves and birds that embellished the walls of the pope's bed chamber were in tact although I found them a bit crude compared to the delicate garden scenes of the 1st century Roman empress Livia's villa I had seen at the Palazzo Massimo in Rome.
Likewise the frescoes in The Deer Room depicting hunting scenes were more stylized than realistic. It's as if the fresco painters of the 14th century painted like children apprentices compared to the masters of the Roman Empire.
However, the sculptures in the North Sacristy were quite beautiful and at least gave me a taste of papal elegance that I had seen in abundance at St. Peter's basilica in Vatican City.
Walking back to the car park I photographed a lady playing French tunes on her accordion and stopped at a shop and bought a couple of placemats depicting colorful scenes of the French countryside. There are wonderful churches and museums in Avignon that I would love to explore but my companions do not enjoy that type of photography and grow quickly bored. So, since I wasn't in my own car, I had to leave Avignon far sooner than I would have liked. Maybe one day I can return and stay in Avignon for several days as there is so much to enjoy here.
We left Avignon and drove over to see the Pont du Gard, the remains of a Roman bridge and aqueduct. It was quite spectacular and I took quiite a few images of it as well as several panoramas. A light breeze was blowing and we enjoyed an ice cream cone as we strolled around the park.
Tomorrow we had planned to go to Arles but Richard was really tired after driving home since we kept getting turned around and finding ourselves heading back toward the Pont du Gard instead of southwest to our cottage. We didn't get home until almost 9 p.m. and ate a quick supper of hamburgers cooked in the oven and deliciously sweet local tomatoes we bought at a local market.