Avignon Introduction Walking Tour, Avignon

Avignon Introduction Walking Tour (Self Guided), Avignon

The thing about a wall around a city is to keep unwanted visitors out. But the massive walls encircling Avignon tend to keep visitors in. And the visitors don't mind it. Is this a mystery? Not when one considers what is inside the walls of Avignon. And forget driving. Park the car and walk.

First encounter is the Popes' Palace. This awesome mountain of a palace was built in the 1300s. It was the work of two popes, the tight-fisted Benedict II and the spend-thrift Clement VI. They created the largest Gothic edifice of its kind in all Europe.

Close to the Palace is is the Avignon Cathedral. On top of its bell tower a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary watches over the town. Across the Palace Square dragons and eagles guard the Hotel des Monnaies, formerly the mint of the city.

See the Little Palace Museum, a cardinal's residence turned into a museum housing a fine collection of Italian primitives. Need a break from sightseeing? Go up to the Doms Rock Gardens, a park above the city with a pond featuring Venus and her swans. Have a snack and enjoy the panoramic views.

The Clock Square is at the exact center of the city. Here the Republic Street divides the city. Walk to the Avignon Market Halls, a covered market with a living green facade. There are more museums, churches, palaces, and above all there is the Bridge St Benezet also known as Le Pont d'Avignon of the song of the same name.

Avignon is for all seasons, including its own "fifth season." The sights, the events, the life of Avignon never stop moving behind the ancient walls.
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Avignon Introduction Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Avignon Introduction Walking Tour
Guide Location: France » Avignon (See other walking tours in Avignon)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 12
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.0 Km or 1.9 Miles
Author: irenes
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Place du Palais (Palace Square)
  • Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes)
  • Notre Dame des Doms (Avignon Cathedral)
  • Musée du Petit Palais (Little Palace Museum)
  • Rocher des Doms Gardens (Doms Rock Gardens)
  • Pont Saint-Bénézet (St. Benezet Bridge)
  • Place de l'Horloge (Clock Square)
  • Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall)
  • Rue de la Republique (Republic Street)
  • St. Peter's Basilica
  • Les Halles d'Avignon (Avignon Market Halls)
  • La Rue des Teinturiers (Dyers Street)
Place du Palais (Palace Square)

1) Place du Palais (Palace Square)

Pope Benedict XIII felt nervous. The year was 1404 and already his palatial residence in Avignon had been attacked once. He was afraid his palace would be besieged again. "They'll be back." Neighboring houses pressed against the Papal chateau on every side. He had to clear a defensive zone around the palace. What to do?

No problem. He pulled down all the houses around him and made a few of the ancient streets disappear. The result was an open area sloping downward from the palace where enemies would be exposed to defensive fire and missiles, a "glacis." The wreckage of the razed houses remained in place until 1603.

By 1618 the houses were cleared and the space was graced by a grove of mulberry trees. The trees lined an avenue leading to the palace. The square was already the largest square in Avignon.

The Palace Square was not only good for defense, it proved to be very handy for executions as well. Heads rolled during the Old Regime. They rolled even faster from the guillotine during the Terror of the Revolution.

The Square is bounded by distinguished buildings and monuments. Among these are: the Bank of France; the Currency Hotel; Petit Palais Museum; Notre-Dame des Doms Cathedral and of course the Palace of the Popes.

Under the square is a parking garage. In the square itself one may catch a small train to tour the area.
Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes)

2) Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) (must see)

The Palace of the Popes has got to be one of the largest, if not the largest, medieval Gothic structures in Europe. It served well as a fortress, palace, and papal residence throughout the 14th century, during the Catholic schism and the "Babylonian Captivity" of the Papacy. Six papal conclaves and seven Popes were maintained in the palace.

The palace is actually two buildings joined together. There is the old palace of Benedict II, firmly ensconced on the rock of the Doms, and the new palace of Clement VI. Clement was known to be the biggest spendthrift of the Popes of Avignon. The palace is probably the best example of International Gothic style.

The designs were made by Pierre Person and Jean de Louvres, two of France's best architects of the time. The ornamentation is beyond lavish and produced by two students from the Siena School, Simone Martini and Matteo Giovanetti. The papal library housed in the palace held over 2,000 volumes. It was a big draw for scholars and humanists.

The palace was huge enough to affect the organization of the church of the time. Services were centralized and the size of the administrative staff exploded. The number of people employed including lay people exceeded 1500 by 1316. In spite of this, the Avignon papacy and administration became irrelevant when operations returned to Rome.

Today the palace is a historical and architectural landmark. It has over 650,000 visitors a year, making it one of the top ten such attractions in France. It houses a convention center and a research center and serves as a library for the archives of the department of Vaucluse.

The place has over 160,000 square feet of floor space. It has twelve strong crenelated towers and walls and arches designed to withstand heavy siege bombardment. The study of Clement VI has celebrated frescoes showing deer hunting scenes. It is popularly known as the "Deer Room." Clement was not known for hunting.

The Palace regularly hosts art exhibitions. The works of Matisse, Braque, Picasso, and Mondrian have been shown there and also single exhibitions of Miguel Barcelo and Stefan Szczesny.

Why You Should Visit:
If you miss the palace you miss the heart and history of Avignon.
Notre Dame des Doms (Avignon Cathedral)

3) Notre Dame des Doms (Avignon Cathedral)

Nestling with the Palace of the Popes on the Palace Square is the seat of the Archbishop of Avignon, Avignon Cathedral, or the Cathedrale Notre-Dame des Doms. Even next to the Palace, the most imposing Gothic building in europe, the great church holds its own.

After being closed for refurbishing for two years, the Cathedral, locally known as La Metropole, reopened in 2016. It has been a rebirth. The once dark, grimy interior is clean and filled with light. Sculptures, paintings and other treasures are now in plain view.

It is believed the Cathedral is not the first church to occupy this spot. It is thought a basilica preceded it only to be destroyed by Saracen raiders in 731.

Cathedrale Notre-Dame des Doms was built and consecrated in 1111. There are different theories about the origin of the name of the church. It might be derived from domus episcopal, meaning "Bishop's house", or Rocher des Doms after the enormous rock that rears above the cathedral.

The style might be an architectural stew of mostly provencal Romanesque, mixed with Greek, Roman, Gothic and Baroque elements. Some inner chapels were added in the 14th century, during the time of John XXII, second Pope of Avignon. The donated bells are a 35-strong carillon.

The cathedral has a great octagonal dome, and a marble papal throne from the 12th century. In the chapel of John XXII, there is collection of reliquaries and vestments.

Service are held each morning.
Musée du Petit Palais (Little Palace Museum)

4) Musée du Petit Palais (Little Palace Museum) (must see)

Do not skip on by the Little Palace Museum. "Little" is a part of the name, but there is much more than a little to be seen inside. This is one of the best collections of medieval art in Europe.

The Little Palace museum was at first a bishop's palace in the 14th and 15th centuries. It was originally intended for Cardinal Berenger Fredoli in 1320. Pope Benoit used it as his administrative center.

The palace is home to a formidable collection of frescoes, sculptures and Italian religious paintings from the 13th to the 16th centuries. Works include paintings of Botticelli, Carpaccio and Giovani di Paolo. The museum has Botticelli's Virgin and Child and some Renaissance art of the Avignon school.

During the French Revolution the palace was nationalized and sold off. It became a secondary school and then a technical school. It was listed as a historic monument in 1910. The building opened as a museum in 1976.
Image Courtesy of Jean michel brochet.
Rocher des Doms Gardens (Doms Rock Gardens)

5) Rocher des Doms Gardens (Doms Rock Gardens) (must see)

An oasis above the overheated crowds in palace of the Popes square, on the top of Doms Rock, are the shady gardens of Doms Rock Gardens.

There are great views of the Rhone River and all of the Rhone plain. From the overlook platform one can see the St Benezet Bridge and Fort St-Andre.

The park is a green space of 95,000 square feet. There is a large carp pond with resident geese. In the center of the pond is a stage of Venus with swans. Venus is nude. She had to be moved from another park in 1894. There is a cafe by the pond. One can have a drink and watch Venus with her swans.

Doms Rock Gardens is an island of limestone standing 100 feet above the Rhone plain. It became a fortified oppidum and a citadel for the Roman settlement. The citadel was eventually replaced by a chateau and in the 14th century the Palace of the Popes appeared.

Doms Rock Gardens can be reached via stairway from Avignon Cathedral or by way of St Anne's steps. However, there is also a small train that will carry one to the garden gates.
Pont Saint-Bénézet (St. Benezet Bridge)

6) Pont Saint-Bénézet (St. Benezet Bridge) (must see)

The song goes... "On the bridge of Avignon
Everyone is dancing
On the bridge of Avignon
Everyone dances in a ring"

But, actually they danced below the bridge, not on it. Over the years, they worked their way up, the handsome men, the lovely women, the soldiers, the babies, the good friends, the musicians...so the song says, around and around. What does it mean?

The song and the bridge are wrapped in mystery. The bridge referred to in the song, Le Pont d'Avignon is actually Pont St Benezet. St Benezet (1165-1184) was an illiterate shepherd who became the patron saint of bridge builders, and this is how he did it.

In 1177 he told the bishop he had had a vision wherein he was told to build a stone bridge across the Rhone. The bridge was to be at a point where the force of the river was greatest. The bishop, not wanting to defy Heaven, approved the project and work began. Benezet's holy mission was confirmed by no less than 18 miracles of healing.

The stone bridge that replaced Benezet's damaged bridge in 1234 had 22 arches and 21 piers and was 980 yards long. The arches were low and were liable to collapse when the river ran too high. Only one chapel, St Nicholas Chapel, and four arches remain of the bridge. The bridge was listed as a Historical Monument in 1840.
Place de l'Horloge (Clock Square)

7) Place de l'Horloge (Clock Square) (must see)

Place Pierre-Vauboin is more well known as Clock Square. The buildings around the square form the shape of a half-moon. The half-moon shape was for military defensive reasons. The crescent minimized the chance of ambush.

At its center is the monumental clock which gives the square its name. The clock was started by the then mayor of Lyon, Edouard Herriot in April 1908. The square is possibly the busiest in Avignon. Cafes and restaurants are frequently overflowing. Street artists emerge with their easels around the square.

Patisseries and boulangeries crowd against each other. Cobble stone streets and alleys lead off the Place to Gothic churches, synagogues, bistros, galleries and night clubs.

The Roman forum of Avenio was located where the Clock Square is today. During the 12th and 13th centuries it was known as the Square of the Butchers. This was the place where butchers set up shop on market days. It was partially occupied by the convent of Saint-Laurent, the oldest convent in the city.

At various times work was initiated to expand the Square. Finally in the 18th century the square was enlarged on all sides. The renovations favored symmetrical facades. During the Terror of the Revolution, the guillotine was installed for a few months before being moved to the Palace Square.

The memories here are bittersweet. Today it is one more pleasant place to be.
Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall)

8) Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall)

The handsome Town Hall of Avignon sits next to the Opera Theatre d'Avignon on the Clock Square, the most important square of the city.

In 1447 the councils of Avignon bought the Gothic Library of Albane from the Benedictines of Saint Laurent and tried to make it into a public building. They changed the tower into a belfry but no further significant progress was made until the 19th century. At that time the Regional Council provided the city with a genuine city hall.

Joseph-Auguste Joffry made the designs. To perk up the facade he added a balcony and corinthian columns and peristyle columns.

The hall is quite handsome from the outside with flags, columns and shaded trees. Although it is an inviting sight, entry is only by guided tours. Security is tight. There are beautiful painted ceilings in the upper rooms. On the ground floor are memorials for soldiers that have died in the wars of France.
Rue de la Republique (Republic Street)

9) Rue de la Republique (Republic Street)

Formerly known as Bonaparte Square, Republic Street was created in 1867. It is home to the Avignon Lapidary Museum, formerly the church of the Jesuit Colege (Lycée Chapel). On the way to the Clock Square are the old Hautpoul barracks, changed into an administrative center. There is a fountain crowned with a bust of Frederic Mistral.

The street is nearly 1,300 feet long. It begins at the Clock Square and ends at the Court Jean Jaures. On the Republic Street, you will find shops, restaurants and cafes.

Nearby the Click Square on the Republic Street was the Hotel de la Marine, the residence of James Suart, knight of St George and pretender to the throne of England. He was renting for 800 old French gold coins per annum. He was followed by various English and Scottish nobles. Presumably this drove up rents in the neighborhood.
St. Peter's Basilica

10) St. Peter's Basilica

In the very center of town, near the Aubanel printing museum, on the cobbled Saint Pierre Square, is St Peter's Basilica. Built in 1385 with a donation of the Cardinal Pierre de Pres. The Basilica is immediately behind the Palace of the Popes. Among all the fascinating buildings in the city, St peter's is a real stand-out.

Here is a perfect example of flamboyant Provencal Gothic architecture. There are six side chapels added in the 15th and 16th centuries. The building's foundation dates back to the seventh century. An Octagonal bell tower surmounts the church. The original renaissance walnut doors are 13 feet high with carvings by Antoine Volard.

The interior of the basilica does not disappoint. It has a multitude of painted vaults, gilded balconies for the choir, renaissance paintings, and a stone altar with an altar piece by Umberto Boccioni. The original vestments and hat of Cardinal de Pres hang in a glass covered cabinet on the wall. They carry their age very well.

The basilica is an operating church. There is no fee to enter, but visits should be avoided during services and private ceremonies. Organ concerts are held often. There is generally an atmosphere of serenity and calm within.
Les Halles d'Avignon (Avignon Market Halls)

11) Les Halles d'Avignon (Avignon Market Halls) (must see)

The great covered market of Avignon originated in the late 19th century. In the 1970s however this unique market and the center of town itself were threatened by the rise of enormous shopping malls. Called "grandes surfaces" by the french, they encircled the town and threatened to encroach on the heart of the old city.

But Avignon Market Halls not go the way of their namesake in Paris, Les Halles Central. The Paris Market Halls morphed into a gigantic underground mall while Avignon stayed true to its beginnings as a food market. But there were improvements. The most notable change was the covering of the bare facade with a vast living plant wall.

The plant wall was created by Patrick Blanc. Patrick is also responsible for a like installation at the Museem of Arts in Paris.

The market has around forty vendors selling food and wine. It opens at 6 am. The produce is local and traditional. There are fruit and vegetable stalls, French bread is of course available. There is a wine bar and 32 sit-down restaurants. There are cheese stalls, and patisseries.

The market is open Tuesday to Sunday and closed on Monday.
La Rue des Teinturiers (Dyers Street)

12) La Rue des Teinturiers (Dyers Street) (must see)

Down by the River Sorgue there is a canal, the Vaucluse channel. The channel leads water from the river through the city walls to the street of the Dyers of Avignon. From the 14th to the 19th century this street was a very busy place. There was intense textile manufacturing activity.

Twenty-three water wheels provided the power to wash, rinse and dye silk and other fabrics. The street gained the sobriquet "Street of the Wheels." Today there are only four wheels left and they are not operating.

On the the eastern end of the street of the Dyers there is the very strange Maison du IV de Chiffre ("House of digit four"). It is one Avignon's oldest remaining buildings made in the Gothic style. Built in 1493, it is noted for its crenelated cornice with two watchtowers and drainpipes in the shape of gargoyles.

The figure "IV" is carved into the facade between the ground floor windows. It has a heart impaled with a dart and the crosses of St Andrew and Lorraine. The meaning is a mystery although it is used on seals, playing cards and musical instruments. The building houses local associations and is sometimes used as a theatre.

On the same side of the street is Number 14, the house of Jean-Henri Fabre. Fabre was a naturalist whose work on insects inspired Darwin. At number 8 is the Chapel of the Grey Penitents. On the doorway is a painting of two hooded figures praying. The penitents were sincere. Nothing ominous is meant by the hooded robes.

The Grey Penitents were founded by King Louis VIII, who came to pray after the siege of Avignon. Number 8 is only open for religious services. Inside there is a 17th century paneled ceiling, a chapel in a hexagonal chamber and paintings by Pierre Parrocel and Nicolas Mignard.

Each year in November the members of the Grey order celebrate the parting of the Waters. These are not of the Red Sea, but of the ever rambunctious Rhone. On the 30th of November, 1433, the Rhone burst its banks but the waters parted in the nave of the church so the holy sacrament could stay high and dry.

Where the street crosses the rue des Lices, one comes upon the Convent of the Cordeliers, a 13th century Franciscan convent. Only a bell tower and a chapel are left. Laura de Noves, the unrequited love and muse of the poet Francesco Petrarch is supposed to be buried here.

Why You Should Visit:
One may discover the secret of the house of IV or even the sting place of Laura Noves.

Take enough time to follow the entire street, if possible. There's a lot here.

Walking Tours in Avignon, France

Create Your Own Walk in Avignon

Create Your Own Walk in Avignon

Creating your own self-guided walk in Avignon is easy and fun. Choose the city attractions that you want to see and a walk route map will be created just for you. You can even set your hotel as the start point of the walk.
Avignon's Architectural Jewels

Avignon's Architectural Jewels

Centuries of history in Avignon are well seen in the stones of some of France’s best preserved architectural monuments. The city's architecture may well not be as diverse as elsewhere in the country, but it is really difficult to find another place whose history is just as complicated and dynamic as Avignon's.

Being one of only two cities on earth that can claim to be the...  view more

Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.4 Km or 1.5 Miles