And now for the Palace of the Popes, the reason we spent a night in a budget hotel in Avignon North, which as far as I can tell is basically just a giant retail park (containing an outlet of the hilariously named but revolting looking cafeteria-style restaurant chain Flunch (we were not desperate enough to eat there, but intrigued by the name, I read some of the Tripadvisor reviews of the Paris branch, which made me laugh until I cried)). I wish I could say that all those Renaissance history classes I took as an undergrad were finally paying off, but to be totally honest, I’ve forgotten most of what I learned (the Renaissance isn’t my favourite, so I wasn’t paying much attention anyway). I did have a vague recollection of the Schism of 1378 (which I had always thought of as the Great Schism, but apparently that term is more commonly applied to when the Orthodox Church split from Roman Catholicism), and the resulting anti-popes, but as I learned at the palace, Avignon wasn’t only home to two anti-popes – it was home to seven legitimate popes as well (though the “legitimacy” of medieval popes is always questionable at best anyway, since they didn’t tend to get the title based on merit). The building was originally constructed as a bishops’ palace, but after Clement V was elected pope, he refused to go to Rome, and moved the papacy to Avignon instead (he was a real piece of crap, by the way. He decided that Venetians should be sold into slavery because the Church was at war with Venice (considering they were Christian, this was shitty even by the standards of the time since white Christians were normally the only people exempt from slavery) in addition to executing a bunch of the Knights Templar and members of other fringe groups). So the palace was subsequently enlarged into what is now the largest Gothic palace in Europe, and apparently having the papacy contained beneath one giant roof really helped to consolidate the powers of the church (not that that was a good thing).
Nowadays, it is just a massive tourist attraction (one of the busiest in France), so we tried to get there as early as possible to avoid both crowds and sun (hence the grim stay in Avignon North. Staying in Avignon proper was really expensive). We were perturbed when driving into town to see a huge line for one of the parking lots, but we persevered and found signs to one with loads of spaces that was much closer to the palace. Turns out the one with all the queues was the free parking lot, whereas you had to pay for the one we found, but quite frankly, I think it was worth the 8 euros to avoid the hassle of queues and shuttle buses. Although there were already tour groups gathering outside the palace when we arrived, I think we were still early enough to avoid most of the crowds, since we were able to just walk right in and buy tickets (we had been warned that there might be large queues, but you can order online to avoid this). As there were also no modesty standards in place, since the palace is no longer a religious institution, it was already a much pleasanter experience than the Vatican (though I think I would probably have met the standards without trying, given that my sun survival technique that day was to cover as much flesh as possible without sweating to death).
Admission to the Palais des Popes was €12, but we opted for the combined ticket, which included Pont Saint-Benezet (of which more later) and was €14.50. Every ticket includes use of the “histopad;” basically an iPad with headphones that acted as an audio guide/interactive element that guided us around the building. It was actually quite useful thanks to its inclusion of a moving map, because the palace is big and kind of confusing. Each room contained a black box in the middle that you were meant to scan with your histopad in order to see the room as it would have looked back in the 14th century and open the audio commentary. There was also a treasure hunt game on the histopads where you had to find a hidden coin in each room, and this was probably my favourite part.
Even though I’m normally not keen on audio guides and the like, I did enjoy the histopads because they provided loads of information in English, the games were fun, and I also think they helped move traffic along because you only had to scan the boxes for a couple of seconds and then walk away with all the information you needed in your hands, rather than standing in front of an object label and blocking everyone’s view. There is a part of me that feels it somewhat detracted from the experience of actually being in the palace, because I spent most of the time staring at the histopad rather than actually looking at my surroundings, but most of the rooms were pretty blah, so it wasn’t as big of a deal as it may have been somewhere else. My only real beef with it was that I seemed to walk faster than it was intending me to, and sometimes I would unintentionally walk outside the zone of one of the rooms whilst the audio guide was still talking, which completely cut off the audio, and walking back into the room didn’t bring it back, so some way of at least being able to replay things you’d missed would be nice (maybe there was, but I couldn’t find it if so).
The rooms themselves are big, but not terribly impressive without the furnishings shown on the histopad, though a few do still have interesting painted walls or stone carvings. There were a handful of objects to look at in most rooms, but it seems like most of what was here is probably now in the hands of the Vatican, because the scale of the building itself was the most impressive part. To be honest, I kind of preferred this to the over-the-top opulence of the Vatican, since all that ostentation just made me resent the Church even more. The route took us all around and through the palace, and right up onto the roof (which was windy and hot simultaneously). We had to keep crisscrossing across the courtyard in the process, and I was surprised to see that it was filled with a stage and seats, apparently for some sort of music festival. While in theory I think it’s nice that these buildings are still put to some sort of practical use, in practice, the seats and scaffolding ruined the appearance of the courtyard (we would find this to be an issue in other sites in France as well), and I hate music festivals, so I don’t even feel like they were ruining the ambience for a good reason.
In the end, my favourite room was the one that featured treasured artefacts from local museums – there was some awesome stuff in here, from taxidermied animals and memento mori paintings, to that amazing set of doors painted with medieval monsters (they look like the sort of delightful creatures you sometimes find in marginalia). Other than that, as I’ve said, there wasn’t a tonne to look at, so it was probably good we had the histopads, because I can imagine this would have been a rather boring experience before they existed. I’ll give it 3/5, mainly because I feel like they did put some effort into trying to make it a positive visitor experience whilst working with the limitations of the inside of the palace in its present meh state (it’s impressive from the outside though!).
After we finished with the palace (and its multilevel gift shop), we headed over to Pont Saint-Benezet. This is a bridge across the Rhone (well, partly across the Rhone now), which its website bills as “the most famous bridge in the world;” surely one of the most egregious examples of hyperbole I’ve ever seen. Really, more famous than the Golden Gate Bridge? Or Tower Bridge? Or London Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge, the Charles Bridge in Prague or one of the other famous bridges around the world that I at least know by name? I had literally never heard of this bridge before we decided to go to Avignon, so I’m not sure what they’re talking about. Perhaps it’s more famous in Francophone countries because of the song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” which I had also never heard of before visiting (and wasn’t terribly impressed with once I did listen to it. It is very repetitive and gets annoyingly stuck in your head).
At any rate, we turned up and were given a new set of audio guides, though these were the old-fashioned ones where you had to manually enter in each number and then hold it up to your ear whilst your arm fell asleep from holding it there, so it really paled in comparison to the wonders of the histopad. I ended up not really using the audio guide (it was way too long-winded) and just walking around the bridge, which, as you may have guessed, was built by Saint Benezet – according to legend he was a young shepherd who heard voices telling him to build a bridge (a sort of 12th century Field of Dreams I guess), but in reality he was probably just a local merchant. It was fairly useless as far as bridges go, since it was too narrow to admit carts, so could only be used by pedestrians and people on horseback, and thus wasn’t really suitable for the transport of goods. It only had that limited functionality until the 17th century, when a flood washed chunks of it away (Benezet’s body used to be kept in a chapel on the bridge, but apparently its alleged power to work miracles couldn’t prevent the flood, and it was moved to a safer location. Kind of a shame, as it would have been way more interesting with relics to look at). Today it only goes about halfway across the Rhone, which was a little unsettling. It’s a nice enough looking bridge (or half bridge) I guess, but I wish we hadn’t spent the extra €2.50 to see it and just bought some pain au chocolat with that money (not that we could have in Avignon, because once again, boulangeries were nigh on impossible to find, and only one of them was open (and didn’t sell pastries). We’d have probably had better luck with Flunch. Why have I been so misled about the prevalence of bakeries in France?), especially because it was so hot by that time I was desperate to get off the bridge and into shade. I can only give it 1.5/5, because I thought a bridge that doesn’t even span a river is “pont-less” (get it?), and the audio guides were pretty lame. If your time in Avignon is limited, I recommend skipping this and just going to the Palais des Papes, which at least offers some degree of entertainment and shade!