The history of the world’s largest Gothic palace
We all have heard of its splendour and immensity, but few of us know its history. Located in the south of France, precisely in Avignon in the Vaucluse department (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region), the Popes’ Palace is built against the Doms Rock, overlooking the north of the city by its phenomenal size. Being the largest ever built Gothic palace, this monumental papal palace made of Avignon not only the capital of Christianity in the West, but also the most visited city in the world.
It took about 20 years to build this gigantic palace, its construction having started in 1335. The Popes’ Palace is the interweaving of two buildings (the Old Palace and the New Palace), and consists of numerous architectural elements including the western facade with its turrets and arches used as the main entrance to the palace, several towers, large rooms, the Clement VI studium also called “La chambre du cerf”, the chapels and courtyards, including the famous Court d’Honneur where various events such as the famous Festival d’Avignon take place regularly.
The establishment of the Popes’ Palace in Avignon originated from Pope Clement V’s refusal to move to Rome due to political reasons. The palace has therefore become a papal residence in the fourteenth century. Starting with Pope Clement V, eight other popes took up residence there: John XXII, Benedict XII, Clement VI, Innocent VI, Urban V, Gregory XI, Clement VII and Benedict XIII who have succeeded each other in that order.
Outstanding among them are the builder popes, Benedict XII and Clement VI, who ordered the construction of the Old Palace and the New Palace with the collaboration of their respective architects, Pierre Peysson and Jean du Louvres, two talented French architects judging by their works. The chapels of the palace owe their beautiful ornamentation to the greatest fresco painters in the world, Simone Martini and Matteo Giovanetti, whose respective works are visible in the Notre-Dame des Doms cathedral and the Saint-Martial chapel.
Discovering a huge historical and cultural heritage
The Popes’ Palace opens its doors to all kinds of visitors, and thanks to the collaboration of Avignon Tourisme and different partners, many forms and types of tours are offered on the site, be it an individual visit (families, couples, solo) or a group tour (educational, tourist or even professional).
The Palace and its famous Saint-Bénezet Bridge, empirically known as the Pont d’Avignon, are open to visitors every day at 3PM. Apart from regular and free tours of the Palace, including the Notre-Dame des Doms cathedral, the Ramparts, the Petit Palais, the courtyards, etc., secret places inside the Palace are also to be discovered with the help of tour guides, including hidden stairs and corridors leading to unusual places such as the former papal apartments and the Palace’s terraces.
Themed tours are especially dedicated to groups of adults or students. Different themes are scheduled, including Markets and Corporate, Unusual Avignon, The Festival d’Avignon side windows, Avignon and the Pope’s Jews, Avignon and its Museums, etc. There is also a modern and interactive way to visit the site. Thanks to modern technology, visitors can now use advanced multimedia and scenic devices composed of a multilingual audio guide synchronized with several films representing the palace at various stages of its construction.
However, it should be noted that the Kitchen Tour is currently closed to visitors due to repairs and will be reopened within the next two or three months.
Different rates are applied depending on the desired tour types: guided tour, thematic tour, multimedia tour, etc. Indeed, there are rates for groups, students, adults and children. However, the visit is free for young people from Avignon and children under 8. An interesting offer is also available to visitors who wish to return on the site several times. It’s called the Key of the Palace (Clé du Palais) which will allow you to visit the palace and all that is found therein as many times as you like, to get a discount on events organized on the premises, and to profit from further advantages.
The Palace’s signature events
Apart from the visits of the Popes’ Palace and its bridge, both listed UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Palace also serves as a venue for various cultural and artistic events that are regularly organized therein, such as the Ateliers du Palais, the big show “Les Luminessences d’Avignon” or the famous Festival d’Avignon.
Medieval art workshops are organised throughout the year by the Altera Roma association, allowing art enthusiasts, beginners or enlightened, to enjoy traditional crafts training within the Palace. Training programs include illumination, calligraphy, creation of marbled paper, ceramics, traditional painting, fresco, glass paste and decorative painting, and the training is carried out by influential speakers. Be aware that breakfast, appetizers, and snacks are offered during a one-day training session that lasts 6 hours.
Attracts in the cours d’honneur of the Palace
Furthermore, a breath-taking show attracts every year thousands of visitors from around the world in the Palace’s famous Court d’Honneur. It is indeed “Les Luminessences d’Avignon” show. Once again this year, this phenomenal show composed of lights, music and monumental images will be edited for the fourth time in the same place every evening from August 10 to October 2. This is the perfect opportunity to relive the history of the Popes’ Palace and discover the site differently, in a magical atmosphere. The creator and director of this monumental video show with 360° projection, Bruno Sellier, felt a bit apprehensive about the vastness of the place, but eventually, his work was highly successful and continues to capture audiences year after year.
Another world famous event is also closely linked to the Popes’ Palace. Becoming today an important contemporary performing arts event, the Festival d’Avignon was established by Jean Vilar in 1947. Since its inception, the festival was held mainly in the Palace’s Cour d’Honneur. Theatre, dance, reading, exhibitions, plastic art, film and music and other art forms are on the agenda during the month of July. This year the famous festival will be held for the 70th time and will take place in different parts of the city of Avignon from 6th to 24th July.