Contemporary Avignon is a relatively small city with a population of about 100,000. It’s situated not too far from the French Cote d’Azur, within a convenient distance from Marseille. The earliest inhabitants of the area were Celtic tribes. It became a prominent trade centre in the times of the Roman Empire; however, soon afterwards Barbarians and Franks ravaged it and burnt it to the ground. Over the following centuries, it changed hands many times, and was annexed by various kingdoms.
To the visitors who crowd in to see it today, Avignon is primarily the famed City of the Popes. The city was a papal estate in the period between 1348 and 1791, after which it was ceded to France as a result of the French Revolution. From March 9, 1309 until January 13, 1377, Avignon served as the seat of the head of the Catholic Church instead of Rome, becoming home to seven Popes. Several decades later, during the the Great Schism in the Catholic Church, it was also the residence of the two antipopes, Clement VII and Benedict XIII.
The Popes bequeathed to Avignon one of its best known landmarks today, the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes). It’s one of Europe’s largest Medieval Gothic buildings, erected between 1335 and 1364 in two phases which produced the Old Palace and the New Palace. During the French Revolution, the palace witnessed horrible massacres and was later seized by Napoleon and converted into a prison and military residence.
Paradoxically, however, this new adaptation of the luxurious residence is precisely what saved the building from further destruction. Recognised as a major national treasure, tt was turned into a state museum in 1906. In 1995, together with the St. Benezet Bridge, the Petit Palais, and the Cathedral of Notre Dames des Domes, the Palace was listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
Other major attractions of the City of the Popes include the St. Benezet Bridge, or the Pont d'Avignon, which used to span the Rhone River but finally gave in during numerous floods. Attempts to repair it were given up in 1668, so only four arches of the original construction survive to this day. The charming bridge brings back the feeling of old times and has been immortalised in the famous song 'Sur le Pont d'Avignon'.
In addition to visiting the famous sights, you shouldn’t miss a chance to take a stroll along one of the charming streets in Avignon's pedestrian area – along Joseph Vernet, rue de Teinturiers, or rue Carreterie. There, you’ll be able to enjoy the genuine local spirit as well as do some souvenir shopping for traditional ceramics, pottery or other handicraft products. If you have more time, be sure to take a boat trip on the Rhone.
A culturally versatile city, Avignon boasts a rich calendar of cultural events. The city hosts various festivals, with the world-famous Avignon Theater Festival being the chief attraction of the summer season. It’s usually held between July 10 and August 2 in the Palace of the Popes and attracts an audience of about 120,000, who arrive to see marvellous performances of classical and modern works, as well as numerous readings, conferences and debates.