Standing in the courtyard in front of the Palace of the Popes in Avignon (Palais des Papes), it’s not hard to sense the power and influence that this building was meant to symbolize for the Catholic church. Its grand and imposing architecture spans 15,000 square meters and stands 50 meters high. Soaring into the blue Avignon sky, one wonders if its meant to give the impression that it’s reaching for heaven.
When Pope Clement V was elected to the papacy in 1309, Rome was a hotbed of turmoil, rival clans, riots and uprisings. For his safety and peace of mind, the new French Pope chose to move the seat of the papacy. The town of Avignon was purchased by Pope Clement V from Queen Joan I of Naples and Clement went on to build himself a magnificent palace. The installation of the pope and his court sparked a rapid and significant increase in population. With an estimated population of 40,000 inhabitants, Avignon was one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in Europe. Avignon continued to served as the home of six successive popes until 1376.
Construction on the palace continued for almost 20 years and consists of two principal phases with two distinct buildings, known as the “Old Palace” and the “New Palace”. As you stroll through the 20+ open rooms of the palace, the audio guides and multimedia displays help to tell the story of the palace and recreate the grand interiors that were adorned with frescos, tapestries, and painted ceilings. Some of the paintings still survive. In its day, the palace was lavish and no expense was spared. Unfortunately, today, the palace is almost devoid of any furnishings or decorations. Although, you can’t help but wish that it was still fully intact, it’s worth a visit nonetheless.
As we toured the palace, it was incredible to imagine what daily life must have been like for the inhabitants and the townsfolk. We loved seeing the kitchen, where a cooking fire was located in the center of the room just under the huge stone funnel-like ceiling that allowed the smoke to escape through a hole in the top. The palace also had a treasury where valuables and money (minted on-site) were kept in a stone vault in the floor. The stone window-seats let you imagine how people made the most of daylight to work and study before there were electric lights. You also couldn’t help but notice how cold it was inside. The huge open fireplaces couldn’t have made much impact unless you were standing directly in front of them. The hard stone floors and thin-soled shoes must have made for some very cold and achey bones.