palais des papes smallThe Popes' Palace, is the star attraction in Avignon, a monumental structure which briefly transformed a sleepy provincial town into a glittering centre of European power.

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The Palais des Papes occupies a commanding position on the Rocher des Doms. This raised rocky outcrop on the northern edge of the walled city has been landscaped into a popular public gardens.

It looms up next to the Petit Palais and La Cathédrale Notre Dame des Doms and overlooks the Pont d'Avignon and the Rhône river. Most of Avignon's major sites are clustered here.

Visible from afar, the Palais des Papes boasts 15,000 square metres / 160,000 square feet of floor space, the equivalent of four large cathedrals. It's the biggest Gothic palace in Europe. Yet, astonishingly, it was completed in under 20 years.

This is a guide to the palace's main areas. Click here to read about the "secret tour" of the Avignon Popes' private quarters, which are normally closed to the public but which you can visit with an English-speaking guide at certain times of the year.

News for the Palais des Papes in Avignonuniversal prayer ndary lo avignon smallCurrently in the Palais des Papes (and some of Avignon's key museums): a fabulous retrospective of modern African sculpture. Don't miss it! It's included in the price of admission.

THE VISIT

Open 365 days a year, the palace is one of the ten most popular monuments in France. Click here to visit the website for the Palais des Papes.

Insider tip for the Palais des Papes in AvignonIt is cheaper to buy a pass to both the Palais des Papes and the Pont d'Avignon - you can buy one in advance which will also allow you to skip the (sometimes very long) lines.

Thumbnail map of the Palais des Papes, AvignonIf you are planning some extensive sightseeing, you might consider the "Avignon Passion" pass. Pick it up on your first visit to a local monument and you will get discounts of between 10% and 50% to subsequent attractions, both in Avignon itself and in neighbouring Villeneuve lès Avignon, just across the river.

The card is valid for 15 days and can apply to up to five persons. More details from the Avignon Tourist Office.

The open-access areas take in over 20 rooms, mainly, though not entirely, in the Palais Vieux (Old Palace). The "secret tour" of the Palais des Papes is based in the Palais Neuf (New Palace) and weaves in and out of the public areas in that wing. Click on the map of the Palais des Papes to enlarge the image.

Pope's bedchamber, Palais des Papes, AvignonThere is a recommended circuit, which is clearly signposted, though if you are not taking a guided tour you are free to wander through the public rooms at will.

The rooms in the Palais Vieux are huge, high-ceilinged, severe and somewhat forbidding. In the Palais Neuf, they are more colourful and intimate. In both wings they are unfurnished.

Some rooms have been restored, such as the superbly tiled and painted Pope's bedchamber, pictured. In them, you can more easily imagine the pomp and extravagance of the Avignon Papacy. Others are faint shadows of the glory that must have been

News for the Palais des PapesBut now there is fantastic news: a new device called the HistoPad is now available at the Palais des Papes - and it's included in the price of admission.

This brilliant interactive digital tablet uses augmented reality to conjure up history. You point it at an area, look at the screen and – hey presto! – you see what that very same space looked like centuries ago. See below for just how much difference that makes.

histopad avignonThe images are in 3D, and you can rotate them through 360 degrees or zoom in to the smallest detail. The technology is hugely impressive.

The HistoPad has already been a hit at several other French châteaux and museums and you can read more about it and see a demonstration here.

As well as allowing you to be a guest at the Popes' banqueting table, the HistoPad fills you in with historical detail and background.

It can be personalised too: there are versions in a number of different languages, as well as for visitors with disabilities. Kids get sent on a fun treasure hunt.

The public areas of the Palais des Papes are easier to walk around than those on the Secret Tour, but they still involve a lot of stairs and uneven surfaces and are likely to be difficult for anyone with restricted mobility. Wear flat, comfortable shoes.

Seating is sparse and, when we visited recently, few attendants were in evidence. So a visit can be quite hard work!

Drinks vending machines are dotted around and there is a small cafeteria (up another steep flight of stairs). It closes at the end of the afternoon, sometimes well before the Palais itself. In high summer it's prudent to bring your own bottle of water.

All the Avignon Popes were great wine-lovers and did much to promote viticulture: not for nothing is one of the region's best-known wines called Châteauneuf du Pape. Click here to read more about the relationship between wine and the Avignon Popes.

News for the Palais des Papes in AvignonRenovation work is complete on the magnificent Chapelle Saint Martial (Saint Martial Chapel), which had been closed to the public for ten years. Pictured: a detail from one of the frescos.

After his election to the papacy in 1342, Clement VI decided to refurbish the chapel and commissioned his favourite painter, Matteo Giovannetti, to decorate the walls and ceilings with frescos depicting scenes from Saint Martial's life. They were created between 1344 and 1346.

saint martial chapel avignonConsidered as the 13th apostle, Saint Martial was dispatched by Saint Peter to convert the south of Gaul.

Clement VI hoped the chapel would suggest parallels between him and the Avignon Popes and help confirm their legitimacy.

These precious frescos are vulnerable to humidity, and so you have to peer at the chapel through a glass window and can't really get to see it up close.

But the good news is that they are now on permanent view to the public, as well as the other frescos in the Consisitory Hall and Saint Jean Chapel of the Palais des Papes.

Apart from the HistoPad, the Palais des Papes offers a range of visits to help bring the old stones alive. You can view the current guided tours of the Palais des Papes and book tickets here. Click here for to read about special events at the Palais des Papes throughout the year.

 

THE AVIGNON POPES

The Avignon Papacy lasted from 1309 to 1376, when seven Popes based their court there. They were Clement V (1305–1314), John XXII (1316–1334), Benedict XII (1334–1342), Clement VI (1342–1352), Innocent VI (1352–1362), Urban V (1362–1370) and Gregory XI (1370–1378). But why did they leave Rome in the first place?

Queen Joanna of NaplesThe story begins with a long-running conflict between the Vatican and the Kings of France. When a Frenchman, Bertrand de Got, who later gave his name to berlingot candies), was elected Pope Clement V, he moved to Avignon.

The reason: the city was not part of France at the time, and the new Pope avoided getting caught in the crossfire!

Clement V firmed up the French connection by appointing nine of his French allies as cardinals. Since they would elect the next Pope, it was a virtual guarantee that the papacy would remain French.

And so it proved. His six successors, all of them French, continued the tradition. By the end of the Avignon Papacy, 111 of the new 134 cardinals created were French as well.

These links to the papacy were cemented after an extraordinary episode in the life of Joanna, Queen of Naples (1327-82), whose realm included Avignon.

Joanna, pictured above, was accused in 1345 of her husband's murder. Some whispered that he was strangled with a golden rope woven by her own fair hand.

But she escaped prosecution - and secured papal approval for her swift remarriage - by signing over Avignon to the Holy See in 1348 for 80000 florins.

Read more about Queen Joanna in Joanna: The Notorious Queen of Naples, Jerusalem and Sicily by Nancy Goldstone.

The Avignon Papacy was controversial. Within the mighty walls of the Palais, cabals, corruption, excess and spiritual compromise reigned.

The Palais des Papes, viewed from a distanceSome of the Popes were virtuous men, of course. And the Great Chapel and Library, with its 2000 books, the largest in Europe at the time, attracted brilliant musicians and scholars.

Still, back in Rome the papacy was contemptuously referred to as the "Babylon Captivity".

The Popes remained in Avignon until 1377, when Gregory XI was persuaded to move back to the Vatican. He died there the following year and riots in Rome ensured that an Italian, Urban VI, succeeded him.

The troubles didn't end there. Following a further dispute known as the Western Schism, two unofficial anti-popes, Clement VII, followed by Benedict XIII, appeared again in Avignon. Soon even more anti-popes were setting up shop elsewhere in France.

The election of Martin V in 1417 finally put an end to the proliferating pontiffs. But the Catholic Church would never be the same again.

You can see portraits of Avignon's seven official Popes and two anti-popes in the Palais des Papes, though these were painted in 1839-40 by Henri Serrur and are fanciful rather than accurate.

On closer inspection you notice that, despite a few minor tweaks to the hair or some ageing up or down, the same model has posed for all of them.

THE BUILDING OF THE PALAIS DES PAPES

Hugely expensive, the Palais des Papes consumed much of the papal income. Fortunately this was handsome, thanks to numerous church levies and taxes.

Palais Vieux, Palais des Papes, CloisterIt was built in two main stages and consists of two distinct wings, the austere Palais Vieux (Old Palace) and the more luxurious Palais Neuf (New Palace). Despite their names, only a couple of decades separate their construction.

Avignon's first Pope, Clement V, had contented himself with living in the city's Dominican monastery and his successor, John XXII, refurbished the existing episcopal palace for his quarters.

But in 1335 Benedict XII decided he wanted his very own papal residence and had the episcopal palace razed to make way for it.

Designed by the architect Pierre Poisson of Mirepoix, Benedict's Palais Vieux is an imposing structure centred on a cloister, pictured above, with four towers at each corner.

As its controversial status must have dictated, it seems more like a fortress than a spiritual centre, and its forbidding austerity reflects Benedict's own Spartan character.

In 1343 Clement VI, pictured, decided that the Palais Vieux was too cramped for his needs and commissioned Jean de Louvres to build the Palais Neuf. Within a year, two new towers were up.

Pope Clement VIClement VI was more of a bon vivant than Benedict and the new wing was lavishly decorated with tapestries, paintings, sculptures, carved wooden ceilings and frescos.

All this work emptied the papal coffers. But the next Popes, Innocent VI and Urban V, still managed to scrape together enough to add even more improvements. The Palais Neuf was finally completed in 1363.

The Palais des Papes remained under papal control for over 350 years after the Popes had moved back to Rome, and continued to be used as a residence for visiting legates, But it gradually deteriorated, and was comprehensively sacked and looted during the French Revolution (1789-99).

Reverting to France in 1791, it became a military barracks and prison and during this time much of the interior decoration was destroyed.

It became a national museum in 1906 and is still under restoration. It was classified, along with the historic centre of Avignon, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

OTHER EVENTS AT THE PALAIS DES PAPES

Festival d'Avignon, Cours d'Honneur, Palais des PapesThe most important and famous event in the Palais des Papes is the annual Festival d'Avignon.

First launched in 1947, it takes place each summer in July all over the city. But the most prestigious venue is the majestic Cours d'Honneur (Court of Honour, pictured). The Palais des Papes also regularly stages major art exhibitions.

Every other year (in even-numbered years) in May, the Palais des Papes hosts Alterarosa, a festival devoted to the rose.

Alterarosa Palais des Papes Avignon 2013Thousands of rose bushes bloom in a pop-up garden in the cloisters, accompanied by stalls, demonstrations, tours and lectures.

New varieties are also unveiled under the auspices of the French Society of Roses. In 2016 restaurants and shops devised rose-themed meals and events too.

Website for Alterarosa. The name, by the way, refers to "altera Roma", or "another Rome", an old name for Avignon.

Avignon has introduced a new late-summer attraction aimed at families: Luminessences, an open-air 3D son et lumière spectacle. Held in the Cours d'Honneur, this 35-minute show looks at the stormy history of the Avignon Popes.

luminessences avignonIt also explores the central role of the Palais in later times as the venue for the Festival d'Avignon and other arts. Some of the performances are in English.

Click here to read our review of the show. Photograph © G Quittard for Luminessences. Website for Luminessences.

Click here to read about Invisible Bridges, Gianfranco Iannuzzi's son et lumière installation at the Palais des Papes in 2010-2011.

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