A Day Trip to Avignon and the Pont du Gard

A view of Avignon from the Pont d’Avignon. August 24, 2019.

A view of Avignon from the Pont d’Avignon. August 24, 2019.

When looking at maps to plan our vacation in Provence, I spied Avignon not too far from the Luberon region—a potential location for our second part of the trip (we spent the first part in the Bouches-du-Rhône). A quick drive-time calculation indicated that we could easily make the day trip to Avignon from a base in Ménerbes, which made the Luberon a lot more attractive as a place to stay. (Avignon lies just across the regional border in a different part of Provence called Vaucluse.)

Avignon may come up as a big, graphical question mark in the minds of most people—at least, I get this impression when I’ve enthusiastically talked about the city—yet for anyone who geeks out about late medieval and early Renaissance history, Avignon makes for a mecca. And I am one of these people.

As people who know me moderately will remember, I’d envisioned a career path in what academia called “intellectual history” during my tenure. I’ve even earned graduate degrees toward this purpose—all focused on the years between 1350 and 1550 in predominantly northern Italy, yet with tendrils out into the Netherlands and, yes, Avignon. (After all, the medieval papacy had a contentious base there for about forty years.)

Yet until this trip, despite years of advanced study that included many mentions of Avignon and a paper on Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), who spent many years in the city, I’d never visited it.

Part of me had trouble truly internalizing that I’d finally arrived in Avignon, even after several hours and multiple tourist-site tours. It finally landed when I saw Petrarch’s name on a laminated card in a museum and then his name again on a school we spied on our drive out of town that late afternoon.

The City of Avignon: Impressions

By the time we’d mapped out plans for our five-day stay in the Luberon, we’d missed the opportunity for an English-language walking tour of Avignon. English-language tours take place only once or twice a week and provide a general overview of the city.

I found this near miss especially disappointing after reading in the guidebooks that the city’s tourist office has several tours on a variety of interesting historical and cultural topics throughout the day. (They do, yet they conduct them in French.)

Sure, I went into Avignon with more historical knowledge than many people might. Yet I find nothing brings a place to me like walking it with someone who has in-person knowledge pointing out the things to know and to see and providing a little local color. I recommend planning your visit to Avignon around the availability of a tour in your native language, if you can.

We spent most of our time in Avignon—we had only the bulk of one day—in the main tourist sites. However, our walk to lunch and through the old town to find good-looking pastries (we struck out—we needed inside intelligence on where to look, methinks) revealed a beautiful city very much in the know about its attractiveness to tourists while still very much a city of mainly locals living daily lives that include chic shops, art galleries, and stylish and tasty restaurants. (We ate at the inside terrace at Restaurant L’Essential, which we truly enjoyed as a yummy respite from the tourist crush at the Palais des Papes, our stop immediately prior to lunch.)

Avignon and the areas around Avignon sound amazing—and demand more than an eight-hour visit to the city. Avignon houses a vibrant culture filled with drama and dance—including a performing-arts festival in July—and several tiny neighborhoods layered with history. We have so many places to go before we return to Avignon, yet I’ll gladly visit again if we have the opportunity. (And—just maybe—by that time my French will have grown strong enough for me to get something out of a guided tour in the language.)

The Palais des Papes for Catholic Splendor

Where to start a brief narrative about such a complex site?

The Catholic Church built the Palais des Papes in Avignon in a shockingly speedy thirty or so years, beginning in the 1330s. The history of Avignon in the Catholic Church has filled volumes; I commit folly by trying to summarize it in two sentences, but here goes: The Catholic Church had a seat in Avignon from the early 1300s until the French Revolution, with its most active period in the city taking place between 1309 and 1377. During the Catholic Church’s most Avignon-centric era, some popes made it the seat of the Church and other popes claimed it as their “official” papal seat while concurrent popes (oh yes, for a good forty years, the world had two popes claiming true legitimacy) staked their “official” seats in Rome. You can imagine the drama.

You’ll find the Palais des Papes immense, just as the Catholic Church intended. The scale of the buildings and each room and floor dwarfs humans—and by this I mean today’s humans, who have far more height and width than the average medieval person. Arnaud has gorgeous, highly artistic, people-free images of some of the rooms, yet my poorer images with tourists in the frame give you a better feel for the sheer scale of the thing.

The building has a few walls still painted—or restored—yet most of it lies bare after years of neglect and use as a military barracks. To give you a better feel for what the building looked like in its papal prime, the museum has developed an augmented reality tour with tablet computers. You’ll run the risk of just looking at a screen and not looking at the building if you don’t take care to occasionally pause the virtual experience and have a real one.

The Pont d’Avignon (aka Pont Saint-Benezet) for Human Ingenuity (and Persistence)

If the Pont d’Avignon didn’t come as a package deal with the Palais des Papes, I think I’d have skipped it.

The Pont d’Avignon attempted to span the Rhône River, yet it likely never managed to do so (at least, not in its envisioned stone form) despite hundreds of years of construction and reconstruction. Today, the bridge has four remaining stone arches that reach from the city near the Palais des Papes across approximately one third of the width of the Rhône in that spot.

Perhaps showing the limitations of my imagination, I looked at the Pont d’Avignon and thought: I can see the entire bridge and the Rhône from the riverbank. Why walk on a bridge that goes nowhere?

After my visit—which I made because I felt like it wouldn’t take too long, so I might as well—I highly recommend going. The audio tour has a lot of interesting facts and stories about the mysterious entrepreneurial guy who claimed divine inspiration to build it and the people who decided to turn him into a saint so they could continue the project after his death. Also, it talks about the experience of walking on the slippery, narrow bridge during its heyday; the characters you’d have met traversing it; and its popular history, including its appearance in letters, poems, and songs. The audio tour includes photos and graphics that pop up on the audio device’s screen. (Bring your headphones, if you’d rather not hold the device to your ear during the visit.)

Before you leave, head to the basement for the audiovisual exhibition, which shows archaeologists at work to better understand whether the bridge ever achieved its objectives, why it kept crumbling into the river despite years of attempts to build and rebuild, and a recreation of what walking over the full span of the bridge might have looked like.

The Musée du Petit Palais for Medieval Art

The archibishops’ residence during the 14th and 15th centuries—located between the Palais des Papes and the Pont Saint-Benezet—now houses a collection of art from ancient times through the late 15th century, with an especial focus on Italian religious painting.

Though medieval religious art doesn’t captivate huge swaths of people (unlike the post-impressionist art in nearby Bouches-du-Rhône and the Luberon), strolling through the rooms of the Musée du Petit Palais will rapidly show you the evolution of artistic ability, techniques, and materials during this time. I especially enjoyed a room featuring works from the atelier of Botticelli; I appreciated the museum’s presentation of how Botticelli’s studio used similar forms and arrangements across paintings of different subjects—and I surprised myself in enjoying a rondo from Botticelli’s atelier more than a painting by the artist himself.

In all, the museum doesn’t take long to see. If you’re in Avignon and immersing yourself in the middle ages, you should take a stroll out of the heat and into its cool rooms. (Also: Each room has laminated cards printed in English—a big bonus in a region of France that doesn’t seem to translate much.)

The Pont du Gard Aqueduct for Roman History

Though the map shows the Pont du Gard just over the border of the Luberon—and Provence—in another region of France called Languedoc-Roussillon, we made it part of our Provence trip and our visit to Avignon because driving there from central Avignon takes only about thirty minutes. If you go to Avignon, you must go to the Pont du Gard.

Built by the Romans to supply water to Nimes, this incredible feat of engineering spans the Gard River in three massive layers reaching over 160 feet in height. I can mathematically describe the height, I can show you pictures of the bridge with people on it and below it, and I still cannot give you a true feel for the intelligence, power, and sheer capability of the Roman Empire. You must see it in person.

When you arrive, you’ll receive a map of the park around the Pont du Gard that guides you through several historic sites. If you have limited time, focus on walking across the Pont du Gard and on visiting the museum, which shows how the Romans built the aqueduct.

Surprisingly—at least to me—people have turned the Pont du Gard area into a camping and swimming mecca. We saw more families using the site as a summer playground than we did history fans curious about the Romans. You’ll find a huge campsite right along the bridge and lots of opportunities to swim, canoe, kayak, and play along the Gard River. Also, towns adjacent to the park have tons of family-friendly pizza restaurants, ice-cream parlors, and convenience shops.

The Power of Avignon and the Pont du Gard

Though we did Avignon and the Pont du Gard in a single day, we could easily have spent a long weekend—and perhaps should have spent at least a long weekend, as Avignon deserved more time than we had to give it.

Though people who come from afar may not consider Avignon and its environs—including the Pont du Gard (and Orange, which we have yet to see)—as a destination of choice, I can’t bear not to recommend it as one.

If you find the late middle ages and the early Renaissance fascinating and if you love to see vestiges of the Roman Empire—and if you want to viscerally experience both cultures and time periods in a way that no textbook or movie could ever show you—these sites give you a deep understanding and appreciation of both civilizations at their magnificent best: architecture and engineering, power and politics, war and peace, business and culture.

And if you visit the area and love art and history, check out my write-up of the best museums we visited in Provence.