Avignon's Architectural Jewels, Avignon

Avignon's Architectural Jewels (Self Guided), Avignon

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 headquarters of the Catholic Church, apart from Rome, Avignon has long placed itself on record as the City of the Popes. Resulting from such an exceptional historic episode as the move of the Holy See from Rome for almost a century was Avignon's major role in the development and diffusion of a particular form of culture throughout a vast region of Europe.

Indeed, the 70-year span of the Avignon Papacy created incredible buildings unlike any other on the continent, making the city a truly unique place – a medieval center of arts, learning, and architecture. Despite its relatively small size, Avignon has no shortage of outstanding sights, such as:

Pont Saint-Bénézet – aka the Avignon Bridge, or rather what's left of the stone overpass that once bridged the Rhône, from 1234 to 1633, until collapsing when the river ran too high; listed as a Historical Monument since 1840.

Palais des Papes – The Palace of the Popes, an austere-looking fortress and outstanding piece of Gothic architecture dominating the city.

Opéra Théâtre – the most gracious of the buildings erected in Avignon in the 19th century.

Eglise Saint-Agricol – the Church of St Agricola, the oldest place of worship in Avignon still in place; built in the early 1300s.

To explore these and other architectural jewels of historic Avignon, take this self-guided walking tour and enjoy yourself.
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Avignon's Architectural Jewels Map

Guide Name: Avignon's Architectural Jewels
Guide Location: France » Avignon (See other walking tours in Avignon)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 7
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.4 Km or 1.5 Miles
Author: irenes
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Pont Saint-Bénézet (St. Benezet Bridge)
  • Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes)
  • Opéra Théâtre (Opera Theatre)
  • Eglise Saint-Agricol (Church of St. Agricola)
  • Les Halles d'Avignon (Avignon Market Halls)
  • Eglise Saint Didier (St. Didier Church)
  • Remparts d'Avignon (Walls of Avignon)
Pont Saint-Bénézet (St. Benezet Bridge)

1) 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.
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.
Opéra Théâtre (Opera Theatre)

3) Opéra Théâtre (Opera Theatre)

The Opéra Théâtre of Avignon is one of the city’s top attractions. The venue has been in operation for almost two centuries, since 1847, replacing the original Greco-Roman-style opera house, built on the site in 1824–1825, and destroyed by fire on 26 January 1846.

The current theatre was constructed from 1846 to 1847, designed by two architects from the neighboring town of Nimes, Léon Feuchère and Théodore Charpentier. Upon completion, the new building was praised as the most gracious of the buildings erected in Avignon in the 19th century, and its façade as of a very sure and elegant taste, with the sculptural decoration free from heaviness or triviality.

Initially, the façade carried two statues, of Molière and Pierre Corneille, created by Jean-Louis Brian and his older brother Joseph. Unfortunately, the material chosen for those statues turned out to be not quite weather proof, and so they had to be retired to the Town Hall whilst being replaced with identical copies. The medallions on the façade feature bas-relief busts of King René and Petrarch made by the sculptor Jean-Baptiste-Jules Klagmann.

In 2020, the Avignon Opéra House underwent renovation.
Eglise Saint-Agricol (Church of St. Agricola)

4) Eglise Saint-Agricol (Church of St. Agricola)

After Notre Dame des Doms, the Collegiate Church of St Agricola is the oldest standing place of worship in Avignon. It was built in the early 1300s in the Fustiers quarter, on the site of an older temple constructed sometime between 660 and 700 by Saint Agricola, known as the protector of crops. It is probably for this reason that most Avignonnais hold this place dear to their hearts, as this seventh-century bishop is also one of the patron saints of the city, whose relics are kept in the church named in his honour.

The abbey of St Agricola appears in texts from the late 11th century. As for the three-story church, it was erected in 1321, and was elevated to the rank of a collegiate church by Pope John XXII. In 1322, a chapter of canons was instituted here.

Being the only 14th-century church with side aisles, over the following decades it had seen much modification. Initially, in the late 15th century, it had the vaults rebuilt (in 1485), followed by the bay and nave enlargement, and then the facade augmented with statues by Ferrier Bernard. Finally, in 1537, it had the bell tower started, to be completed only in 1746 when two more floors had been added.

After the French Revolution, the church was restored in its status in 1802 by the bishop, who then consecrated it as a cathedral, pending the rehabilitation of the Notre-Dame des Doms Cathedral in Avignon.

The current Gothic-style building has been listed as a historic monument since 1980. In 2012, it was restored.

Among the many things to be seen here are the ancient tombs, epitaphs and inscriptions, as well as the paintings by Simon de Châlons, Grève and Nicolas Mignard.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Les Halles d'Avignon (Avignon Market Halls)

5) 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.
Eglise Saint Didier (St. Didier Church)

6) Eglise Saint Didier (St. Didier Church)

The collegiate church of Saint-Didier is a Gothic church built in the mid-14th century. The first text to mention it, however, dates back to 1008, when a donation was made by the Bishop of Avignon Rostaing Abbey Montmajour. It was Cardinal Bertrand de Deaux who willed this church be built on his estate after he died.

Inaugurated on September 20, 1359, Eglise Saint Didier is considered the most characteristic of Gothic Avignon architecture. Two pictures by Simon de Chalons entitled The Flagellation and The Descent of the Holy Spirit are preserved here. Also remarkable is the cross commissioned in 1478 by King Rene to Francesco Laurana that adorns the altar. This bas-relief is regarded as one of the earliest existing Renaissance works in France.
Remparts d'Avignon (Walls of Avignon)

7) Remparts d'Avignon (Walls of Avignon)

The Walls of Avignon (French: Les Remparts d'Avignon) are a series of defensive stone walls that surround the city of Avignon in the south of France. They were originally built in the 14th century during the Avignon papacy and have been continually rebuilt and repaired throughout their subsequent history.

The walls replaced an earlier double set of defensive walls that had been completed in the first two decades of the 13th century. During the Albigensian Crusade the town sided with the Count of Toulouse, Raymond VII but in 1226, after a three-month siege by Louis VIII of France, Avignon capitulated and was forced to dismantle the walls and fill in the moats. Beginning in around 1231, the defences were rebuilt. Although these early walls have not survived, their path is preserved in the street plan of the city.

In 1309 Pope Clement V moved to Avignon and under the papacy the town expanded outside the limits of the earlier city walls. From the 1350s during the Hundred Years' War the town became vulnerable to pillage by marauding bands of mercenaries and in 1357 under Innocent VI, the fifth Avignon pope, work began on the construction of new set of city walls to enclose the expanded town. The walls took nearly 20 years to complete.

The walls stretch for 4.3 km (2.7 mi) and enclose an area of 150 ha (370 acres). There were originally twelve gates controlling access to the city but this number was reduced to seven when the fortifications were modified between 1481 and 1487. There are now 15 vehicular entrances and 11 pedestrian entrances.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.

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 Introduction Walking Tour

Avignon Introduction Walking Tour

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....  view more

Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.0 Km or 1.9 Miles