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Avignon and Papal Castles

Posted on June 24, 2008 by Holly Hayes
Part of: The Great European Road Trip

So, I'm finally getting around to our days out around Avignon last week. They were fun days so I don't want to pass them by without posting a few photos and memories.

Last Wednesday we took a day trip to Avignon, only 25 minutes down the freeway from Orange. Since we knew it would be best in the evening light, we dawdled a little and explored a couple nearby villages on the way.

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Our first stop was Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which is best known for its very expensive wine. The little village was full of wine cellars and tasting rooms and such, and the surrounding countryside was covered in pretty vineyards. But not being in the market for expensive wine, we were mainly interested in the ruined castle at the top of the hill, which was the summer palace of the Avignon popes.

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From 1305 to 1376, the popes were based in Avignon instead of Rome, mainly for political and security reasons. The popes and cardinals were very powerful and wealthy at the time, and they left behind an impressive castle in Avignon and a smaller one here in Chateauneuf. Encyclopedia Britannica has a very nice summary of the Avignon papacy if you want more background.

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Next we stopped at Villeneuve-les-Avignon, a village just across the Rhone River from Avignon. At the top of its hill is a very large and well-fortified castle, which surrounds an abbey and a little chapel. The abbey was originally founded in the 6th century but the castle was built later to protect the Kingdom of France from its neighbor, the Holy Roman Empire (i.e. Germany). You can see Avignon clearly across the river, and it would be an excellent viewpoint for photos in the evening.

We scored an awesome parking spot close to the castle gates, which we couldn't believe was available. Inside the walls, most everything requires payment to visit. That's not so terrible in itself, but it does mean it has limited opening hours. And unfortunately we arrived outside of them - like so many stores and museums in France, it was closed from 12-2pm. Happily, though, we found the gate open! So we wandered around the castle grounds all by ourselves, which was pretty fun.

We weren't able to see everything this way - a locked door kept us out of the stairs to the ramparts and the abbey and chapel were locked as well. But at least we got to see some of it and enjoy the views through the arrow slits in the walls. We would have paid at any time if someone had showed up, but the place was deserted up to and beyond the scheduled reopening time.

Avignon itself was big and fun. We started our visit along the river to take some photos of the medieval bridge and cityscape, then headed inside the walls to visit the palace itself. Good photography was difficult because the summer sunlight was very harsh and the stone is very light-colored, but we did our best. I've only had time to upload a few photos so far:

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Avignon cityscape from river

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The medieval Pont St-Benezet

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Palais de Papes