Sunday, 15 June 2008


When I was visiting Nimes I thought I may as well pop into Avignon on the way back to Paris. I really love that name, Avignon, it's like something out of King Arthur. Avignon is famous, at least among French people and British school children, from the song "Sur le pont d'Avignon" which means "On the bridge of Avignon". It's just a children's song about dancing on the bridge in a ring, though actually the original version of the song was "Sous le pont d'Avignon" which means "Under the bridge of Avignon" but the words got corrupted over the years. Now I had never heard of this song before, it wasn't until I mentioned to someone here that I was going to go to Avignon and they started singing the song, which was slightly strange at the time, having never heard it before.

I suppose the other reason Avignon may be famous was that it was home to the Pope for a while, or rather Popes as they were there for almost 70 years, enough for 7 popes. I never knew the Roman Catholic empire was home to such intrigue, I thought they were meant to be pillars of holiness and all that, but it sounds like at this time they all went a bit crazy. What happened was that the King of France at the time, Philip the Fair, started to get a bit too big for his boots and was questioning the power of the popes over less spiritual matters. Good on Philip you might think, standing up for his rights, but I think the real reason he started to go after the Church was he wanted to get his hands on some of that glorious money they had, in order to fund his many wars.

He had already gone after the Jews in France for their money, as does everyone throughout history, and wanted to have a go at the Templars and was starting to turn his sights on the massive wealth of the church. The pope before Clement V, Boniface VIII, could stand up to Philip and was actually getting ready to excommunicate him, when Philip sent a delegation to meet with Pope Boniface and they arrested him on charges of heresy. This pope was freed 3 days later, but at 68 years of age he couldn't handle the stress and he soon died. King Philip stepped in once again and forced the election of Clement V who was then tied to Philip, but the Italians in the Church weren't too happy about that and so started to make things tough for this French pope. Rather than standing up to them, Clement V fled to Avignon where he then went about doing Philip's bidding and electing hundreds of French cardinals. Now as the cardinals are the ones who elect the popes, there was quite a string of French popes after Clement V, who were also tied to the French kings at the time. The Popes eventually returned to Rome in 1378 under Gregory XI who was getting a bit worried about all the unrest in Rome. The peace didn't last long though, after his death the cardinals went to elect a new pope but an Italian mob broke into the chamber and demanded that they choose an Italian Pope. So they elected Urban VI, but this Pope turned out to be too much of a Christian for the cardinals, demanding that they refuse gifts from kings and condemning them for their luxurious lives. The cardinals didn't take too kindly to this and so moved back to Avignon where they then elected another Pope and named Urban VI (the Roman Pope) the Antichrist, cool, even better though, the Avignon popes of this time are known as the anti-popes.

This made it pretty tough on the normal people as there were now 2 popes running around who had both been legitimately elected, all because the cardinals were greedy. This was the Western Schism which lasted nearly 40 years, where it then got real messy, before some major political manoeuvring was required to get the two popes to combine as one. It was kind of like electron-positrons (anti-electrons), which annihilate each other upon impact. When the pope and the anti-pope met they were both stripped of papacy and another person was elected and the matter finally came to an end.

I'm looking forward to visiting the Vatican in a few weeks time, I'm going on a tour and I plan to ask the guide about all this sordid business. There was also a kind of recent pope who only lasted for 33 days before he mysteriously died, the conspiracy theory is that he was poisoned by corrupt cardinals. Adding to the suspicion is that he was very quickly embalmed and no autopsy was allowed to be performed. I guess that's what power will do to people, even those supposedly sent by God. So that's a small part of the messy history of the Popes and Avignon, but now onto my visit.

The first two photos above are of the Palais des Papes, which was built in the 14th century as a massive fortified palace for the papal court. This place was massive and even though it was empty now the sheer size of the rooms gave you some idea of the insane amount of wealth these popes had. I love how it is just what you imagine a castle to be too with the square ramparts and everything, a bit austere from the outside but the popes aren't there to make people feel welcome.

Above is a photo of the ramparts, these are about 4.5kms long and were built between 1359 and 1370, I guess those Avignon Popes were really scared of the Italians attacking, or maybe the French Kings were more likely. You can also see the Palais des Papes in the distance.

In one of the churches near the Palais they had a replica Shroud of Turin on display. I don't know where the real one is, probably locked in some coffer in the Vatican away from those ungodly scientists and all their tests and measurements and proof and facts.

A view of the Rhone river and the famous Pont St-Benezet (the bridge of the song). This was built between 1177 and 1185 to link Avignon with the town you can see on the other side of the river. It used to be 900 m long but has been rebuilt and repaired numerous times as floods constantly damaged it over the years. In the end it was reduced to the 4 arches that are currently standing, after the other 18 spans were washed away for good in the mid-1600's. The story goes that this bridge was originally built because Benedict, a pastor from Ardeche, a tiny town 150kms north of Avignon, was apparently told in 3 separate visions that he must get the Rhone spanned at any cost. I guess Avignon has had a long history with crazy religious people.

Another bridge picture.

Avignon is only about 40kms north-east of Nimes and as the weather was nice this day I could actually see Mount Ventoux off in the distance.

The Rhone river, looking particularly inviting, with the Avignon bridge and just a few of the hundreds of paddlers out on the water that day. It looked like the current was particularly strong here with all the paddlers struggling against the river heading towards the bridge and then flying back down to the hire place.

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